William joined his father on the York County Court and entered actively into his father’s mercantile business, which included a store, a waterfront warehouse and wharf, several lots in Yorktown as well as great acreage in York County, mills on a nearby river and a ship called the Nelson.
William and his wife, Elizabeth Burwell Nelson, lived in their home in Yorktown, across the street from Williams’s father, Scotch Tom. Entertainment and social activities played an important part in the Nelson’s lives. Like most Virginia families of their standing, they were most hospitable. A contemporary commenting on this laudable characteristic, stated “all you had to do was to ride in where two chimneys showed there would be a spare bed, lodging and welcome.” The main meal was generally around 2:00 in the afternoon, and included 5 courses: usually pork and greens, chicken of oner tame fowl, beef, mutton, veal and lamb, pudding, and wild fowl or fish, all accompanied by Medeira wine, English beer, or cider. Virginia ham, fattened on chestnuts, chinquapins and corn was even then famous and exceeded any in England.
In 1742, William Nelson was elected to the House of Burgesses, beginning the his long career of service to the Colony under the Crown. He served on the Committees Trade and of Propositions and Grievances. The 7th of October 1745, Thomas Nelson Senior died, leaving to William a vast estate including his business, homes, land and cash. Eight days later William was sworn in as a member of the Council, joining eleven of the most distinguished men in the colony as an advisor to the governor, a member of the upper house of the General Assembly and a judge of the General Court. Nelson served many years as president of the Council, thus earning the title ‘’President Nelson.”
Oct 15, 1770 - Governor his Excellency the right Honorable Baron de Botetourt died. John Blair, the representative of the Bishop of London was 83 years old at the time and decided to give up his influential position in the colony. It was at this point that William Nelson stepped in to serve as Governor.
William died on Thursday, November 19, 1772.
The Nelsons of Yorktown
Scotch Tom Nelson. - 1677-1745
The first Thomas Nelson to arrive in the colony was born in Penrith, England on Feb 20, 1677, and immigrated to Virginia in the late 1600’s. Since Penrith is on the border near Scotland, he is often referred to as “Scotch Tom” Nelson. Scotch Tom’s forte was trade, and his mind focused on making money. As a former sea captain he had accumulated some capital, and an adequate purse opened many doors. The enterprising immigrant tried out his versatile talents and became a merchant, operator of a ferry and a mill, a farmer, gentleman jurist, and trustee of the port landing. In 1710, Scotch Tom married into the first family of York when Margaret Read, daughter of Elizabeth Martiau and George Reade became his bride. In about 1730, he built the impressive Nelson House on lot 52 where he raised his 3 children; William, Thomas, and Mary. Believing that his boys would benefit from studies offered in the schools overseas, Scotch Tom sent his sons to study in England. After receiving their educations, William and Thomas Nelson returned in 1732, and became active in the political and civic activities of the colony. Scotch Tom lived in the Nelson House until his death in 1745 at the age of 68.
William Nelson, President Nelson 1711-1772
Elizabeth Burwell Nelson
Thomas Nelson Jr.
William’s eldest son, General Nelson 1738-1789
The eldest of five sons, Nelson was born at Yorktown, Va., in 1738. At the age of 14, he sailed to England to supplement his initial tutorial education. In 1761, after graduating from Hackney School and Cambridge University, he returned to Virginia to help his father manage his Splantation and mercantile business. The next year, young Nelson married Lucy Grimes. He and his wife were to have 11 children. Thomas and his family moved into the house across the street from his father’s, the Nelson House built by his grandfather Scotch Tom.
When William died in 1772, Thomas Nelson Jr. was prepared to follow in the footsteps of his father and uncle. Early in 1773 at age 34, Thomas Nelson Jr. was chosen vestryman for the York Town Church. In May, the Court of directors of the Eastern State hospital elected Thomas president. Tom’s interest in the hospital along with his uncle, Secretary Nelson, never flagged and they were to serve as trustees all their lives. That year and the next, Nelson attended three of the Virginia provincial assemblies, where he worked closely with Patrick Henry. The last assembly elected Nelson to the Continental Congress. In Congress, Nelson was outspoken in his desire to sever the bonds with England. He spoke at St. John’s Church in Richmond in 1775, the same meeting in which Patrick Henry delivered his famous message. In July 1776, Nelson cast his affirmative vote on the issue of independence and to become included with the immortal fifty six signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson’s term as governor expired at the beginning of June 1781 and he did not intend to serve again. At such a crucial moment, he insisted, it was best for Virginia that he be replaced by someone with military qualifications. He suggested that militia leader Thomas Nelson be appointed governor. General Nelson succeeded Jefferson and served as both Civil Governor and Commander in chief of the Virginia Militia.
In September-October 1781, while taking part in the Yorktown siege, according to family tradition, he ordered troops to shell his own mansion when he learned it was a British headquarters. Nelson’s home was hit, but survived, unlike the nearby residence of his uncle.
Although bothered by bad health, Thomas Nelson kept the government intact and strengthened defenses. Soon after the victory at Yorktown, overwhelmed by the burdens of office and still in poor physical condition, he resigned the governorship. In financial distress from his wartime sacrifices, Nelson lacked money to renovate his Yorktown home where he had lived sine 1767. He died in 1789 at the age of 50.
The Nelson House
501 Main Street
The circa 1730 Nelson House was built by "Scotch Tom" Nelson in Yorktown, Virginia. The house is now designated as a National Historical Landmark and is maintained by the Colonial National Historical Park of the U.S. National Park Service.