PA State Archives Hours, Directions, & Fees Research Topics Online Catalog Land Records




Manuscript Group 96
1765-1852 (bulk 1778-1800)
30 cubic feet

Personal, business, and legal papers from the estate of John Nicholson (d. 1800), financier, businessman, comptroller general of Pennsylvania, anti-Federalist pamphleteer, land speculator, and publisher. Nicholson was born in Wales, emigrated to Philadelphia prior to the American Revolution, and engaged in a variety of business enterprises, including button, iron, and glass manufacturing and real estate developments. In 1778 he became clerk to the Board of Treasury of the Continental Congress. Congress accepted his resignation on March 12, 1781, when he entered the service of Commonwealth as one of the auditors for settling the accounts of the Pennsylvania Line. A year later, on April 13, 1782, the legislature appointed him to the newly-created Office of Comptroller General, which had broad powers to manage the financial affairs of the state. These powers were further increased as other duties and offices were conferred upon him; in 1785 he was authorized to collect and receive taxes, and in 1787 he was also made escheator general, to liquidate the estates of those attainted of treason.

Under the reopened Federal Loan of 1792, Nicholson exchanged some $60,000 in "New Loan" certificates for federal securities. Not only had the comptroller general picked up these certificates for next to nothing, but they were not regarded as state debt to be redeemed. It was this state of affairs that caused the State House of Representatives to resolve on April 5, 1793, to impeach John Nicholson, to institute a suit against him for the recovery of funds which he had allegedly diverted, and to appoint a committee to examine his accounts and make a report. The committee, which was made up of Benjamin R. Morgan, Albert Gallatin, and Cadwallader Evans, reported him a public defaulter to a large amount. The trial in the State Senate was protracted and confusing. The House prosecutors were unable to muster a two-thirds vote against him on any of seven counts. In fact, a majority voted in his favor on all but two charges. Nicholson was acquitted but in 1794 resigned all his public offices.

He then became the partner of Robert Morris in land speculation and development. With Morris he promoted the development of Washington, D.C., and formed the Asylum Company involving hundreds of thousands of acres on the Susquehanna as a haven for French refugees. With James Greenleaf and Morris, he created in 1795 the North American Land Company, which claimed to have as its capital six million acres of land in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina , South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky. Nicholson was also involved in the formation of the Pennsylvania Population Land Company, the Pennsylvania Land Company, the Territorial Land Company, the North Carolina Land Company, the South Carolina Land Company, the "Kentucky" Land Company, and the Georgia Land Company.

Early in the winter of 1799-1800, Nicholson was imprisoned for debt. He died on December 5, 1800, leaving a wife, eight children, and more than four million dollars in debts. The attempt to settle his estate resulted in the creation of a series of special state commissions, the sequestering of his private and business papers, and the creation in 1843 of a special Nicholson Court of Pleas. Custody of the sequestered Nicholson papers was transferred to the Division of Public Records by the Bureau of Land Records of the Department of Internal Affairs in August, 1957; the Bureau of Land Records retains custody of all public records dealing with Nicholson's lands. Because of the continued use of these papers in involved legal proceedings for almost a half century, their original order has been destroyed. To facilitate their use in research they have been arranged into six series as follows:

See: Guide to the Microfilm of the John Nicholson Papers (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1967).

PA State Archives Hours, Directions, & Fees Research Topics Online Catalog Land Records