John Nickson (fl. 1687)

John Nickson was a white indentured servant on the plantation owned by Ralph Wormeley II, in Middlesex County. Nothing is known of Nickson's birth, his early life, or the circumstances that encouraged him to enter into indentured servitude to Wormeley. He first enters the historical record in 1687, as the defendant in a Middlesex County Court case in which he is accused of being the prime mover in a conspiracy of servants and slaves who attempted to free themselves from Wormeley's servitude by force of arms. The Middlesex conspiracy is one of the last recorded instances of interracial revolt in colonial Virginia. MORE...

 

The court accused Nickson of acting as the leader of a group of "diverse other ill disposed Servants and others," including slaves, who apparently planned to acquire guns, powder, and shot for use in their in their escape. Middlesex County authorities discovered the plot before it could be carried out, however. Nickson was confined to the county jail and held over to the next court session. Because the General Court records from this period were destroyed, the result of the case and Nickson's fate remain unknown. No evidence exists relating to his later life or the date and circumstances of his death.

According to several historians, John Nickson's co-conspirators almost certainly included the slaves Lawrence and Mingoe, as well as a white servant named Richard Wilkins. In 1689 these men, perhaps inspired by Nickson's earlier plans, escaped from Wormeley's plantation and, having acquired some followers from the neighborhood, spent the next two years raiding the estates of Rappahannock County and stealing livestock from the local planters. In 1691 the depredations of these three men were the source of far greater concern, as they stole several firearms, encouraging local officials to increase their efforts to capture these outlaws. All three were tried in the courts of Middlesex County: Mingoe was sentenced to thirty-nine lashes, while Wilkins's term of indenture was extended by five years. Because Lawrence was captured while in possession of a gun, he was charged as a felon and held in the county jail until he could receive his sentence from Virginia's General Court; the outcome of his case is not known, but, according to the historian Anthony S. Parent Jr., it is probable that, as a slave found with a gun, he was hanged.

Because Nickson and his followers' plans were uncovered before they could be set in motion, it could be argued that the conspiracy was of little historical importance; however, it is instructive to place Nickson's plot within the wider picture of the racial politics of late seventeenth-century Virginia. Throughout the previous fifty years, cooperation was common between white servants and black slaves, as legal definitions of slavery and servitude were vague and inconsistent, and in many instances the two groups were moved to make common cause against the colony's elite, particularly their own masters. Following Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677), though, colonial legal codes were adjusted in order to draw obvious distinctions between laborers of European descent and those of African heritage, thus to a large extent encouraging poor whites to identify themselves more with planters than with nonwhites of their own class. Although servants and slaves continued to work together as plantation laborers until well into the eighteenth century, racial identity soon came to outrank class solidarity, and instances of interracial labor resistance became less and less common. John Nickson's conspiracy may well have been the last true interracial conspiracy in the history of colonial Virginia.

Time Line

  • 1687 - John Nickson is arrested by Middlesex County authorities and charged with leading a conspiracy of servants and slaves on Ralph Wormeley II's plantation. The court decision is recorded in the Middlesex County Order Book, but his fate remains unknown.
  • 1689 - Two slaves, Mingoe and Lawrence, and a servant, Richard Wilkins, escape from Ralph Wormeley II's estate in Middlesex County. They gather followers and for two years raid plantations in Rappahannock County, stealing livestock and other goods.
  • 1691 - Two slaves, Mingoe and Lawrence, and a servant, Richard Wilkins, are captured and tried in the Middlesex County court for the theft of firearms.

References

Further Reading
Allen, Theodore W. The Invention of the White Race. Vol. 1, Racial Oppression and Social Control. New York: Verso, 1994.
Billings, Warren M., ed. The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Documentary History of Virginia, 1606–1689. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
Heinemann, Ronald L., John G. Kolp, Anthony S. Parent Jr., and William G. Shade. Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607–2007. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976.
Parent, Anthony S., Jr. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660–1740. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Zacek, N. John Nickson (fl. 1687). (2014, February 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Nickson_John_fl_1687.

  • MLA Citation:

    Zacek, Natalie. "John Nickson (fl. 1687)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 19 Feb. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: January 18, 2012 | Last modified: February 19, 2014


Contributed by Natalie Zacek, a lecturer in history and American studies at the University of Manchester.