On my supposed isolationist “hillbilly” roots: the Nicholson family in Madison County, Va., part 1

Posted on November 5, 2011 by


Last weekend,  I brought out one of the family bibles in my collection, so that my two youngest could see some of the “artifacts” that have been maintained, safely inside, for more than a century. In particular, I wanted to show them these items…

… a death poem, a “cypher”/multiplication table, and a lock of hair.

The death poem was written about my great grand aunt, Sudie Victoria Nicholson, probably soon after she died, on November 10, 1897. There’s nothing to say, anywhere, that the lock of hair and the multiplication table belonged to Sudie, but, I have a hunch that they did… and that the lock of hair is actually a death lock, so commonly kept among Victorian-era families.

Interesting, but… there is, I think, a bigger story behind these items… and so begins the build-up to that story

The Nicholson family was one of a few families who made their homes in the hollows of Madison County, Virginia… having “rooted” there, as far back as the late 1790s, when John Nicholson (a veteran of the 3rd Virginia Continental Line), began considering land on the Hughes River, near the “mouth” of what became known as “Nicholson Hollow”.

Map showing the path of the Nicholson Hollow Trail... currently, an 8-mile hike along the Hughes River, to a site known as "Corbin Cabin".

In June 1799, John purchased 170 acres, from Mark and Eve Finks, for 5,000 pounds of tobacco.

Less than six years later, between March 7 and March 16, 1805, John and his wife, Anne, began dividing 80 acres among their sons; 20 acres to Benjamin for $50; 20 acres to Aaron for $50; and 40 acres to Shadrack for $100.

With the division of these tracts, it’s probably a good point for me to introduce the story of this family’s isolationism, especially when considering the fact that… all three of these sons are my direct ancestors.

From the three sons (there were more than just three) mentioned… one of Shadrack’s sons, Peter, married one of Aaron’s daughters, Elizabeth… first cousins (and my fourth great grandparents). One generation later, one of Peter and Elizabeth’s sons, Garnett, married a granddaughter (Martha “Patsey”) of the aforementioned Benjamin… making this couple(my third great grandparents), second cousins (incidentally, it may be that this couple married each other twice, because of legal complications, perhaps… or had children out of wedlock, at least seven years before the official date of marriage, in 1852). Even so, apart from these two instances, in which Nicholson married Nicholson, other marriages in this line were to members of the neighboring Sandy, Dodson, and Ramsbottom families, demonstrating that the Nicholson family situation wasn’t entirely isolationist.

One of the cards from Joseph Nicholson's military service file, showing that he was a conscript.

Marital isolation being downplayed, it may be that, by the time of the Civil War, we actually begin to see what isolationism truly meant to this family… especially considering the general “leave-alone’r” attitude when it came to military service. In fact, the family did well to avoid Confederate conscription, until the latter part of the war.

In the early part of the war, though called into service with his militia unit, in July, 1861, following the disbanding of that unit, a month later, my third great-grandfather, Garnett, remains absent from Confederate service records for the balance of the war, despite his age-eligibility (born ca. 1826)

In the story of Garnett’s brother-in-law, Chrisley Nicholson, we begin to see even greater intolerance for government intervention, and a desire for isolationism. After what appears to be his desertion following conscription (since last writing about Chrisley, I’ve found what I believe to be evidence that he was initially assigned, after conscription, to Co. G, 12th Virginia Cavalry… deserting on June 2, 1862. Two years later, one of Chrisley’s younger brothers, Vancouver, was enrolled in the same company), he became so annoyed as to temporarily move his family, as refugees, to New Jersey (!).

Other evidence of this resentment of authority, wielded by the Confederacy (and/or the Commonwealth of Virginia), appears in the actions of Chrisley’s brothers… though not (that I know of) to the extreme shown in Chrisley’s situation. Joseph was enrolled, along with his cousin, James K. Polk Nicholson (who happened to be a brother to the above-mentioned Martha “Patsy” Nicholson), on April 29, 1864, assigned to Co. H, 38th Virginia Infantry on May 5, and… deserted together, by May 20. Both later reappear in the rolls (having been brought back?), and Joseph was later captured at Five Forks. Despite their involuntary service, it appears they didn’t mind cashing-in on the Confederate veteran pension deal offered by the state in later years… and, to be honest… why not? All of the Nicholson men who applied, ended service on honorable terms, therefore qualifying for the pensions, despite what appears to be disinterest in the idea of serving in the first place.

Another factor to consider is whether or not the decision to remain distanced from the war centered on knowing that close kin, who had relocated to Doddridge County, Virginia (West Virginia) prior to the war, were serving in the Union Army.*

Though Chrisley lost his life, and some of the men had been involuntarily wrangled into service, it appears the family and life in general was little impacted.

In either the late 1860s or early 1870s, a few family members began to move out of Nicholson Hollow. Some spread out, into the county, as well as neighboring Rappahannock County, while others moved west across the Blue Ridge. Among Garnett and Patsey’s children, Slaughter Bradford Nicholson and James Jordan Nicholson took the latter route; Slaughter, settling in Doddridge County, West Virginia (where a considerable number of the Nicholson family had relocated before the Civil War… and where many enlisted in the Union army), and James, in the Ida Valley, in Page County. Considering the terrain of both locations, it would appear that there was still a preference for surroundings similar to those of home, in Nicholson Hollow.

The family of James Jordan Nicholson moved across what is now Skyline Drive, and descended into the eastern entrance of the Ida Valley, just under the shadow of Hawksbill Mountain.

While life in Nicholson Hollow appears to have remained otherwise unchanged, the self-imposition of one person, in 1886, may have been a significant catalyst for change. In October of that year, 16 year-old George Freeman Pollock…a native of Massachusetts… headed for Madison County…

Pollock, about a decade after his first journey into Madison County.

More to follow in part 2

*A list of all Nicholson kin, and their relation to this particular part of the family (the line of Garnett and Patsy) will be added here in a bit…