Nicholson As An African American Last Name

The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 11,566 black Americans with Nicholson as their last name. That represented 20% of the total of 58,151 entries.

This article compares census numbers before and after the Civil War. We also look at historic African American people named Nicholson in the last three centuries.

We end with a review of early records of black military service in the United States.

Nicholson Before The Civil War

The 1850 census was the first to record all free members of households together. Before this, people who were not white were not named in the federal census.

In 1850, there was a box to enter color on the census. There were three categories: white, black, and mulatto. The third term is the language of the time, and I will use mixed in this article.

If you are researching your black Nicholson ancestors in census archives, be sure to check the two non-white categories. Do not assume that the people recording the information were always correct.

1850 Federal Census

There were 74 people named Nicholson who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 24 were recorded as mixed.

Because they are in the main federal census, we know that they were free citizens.

There was a total of 4,345 free citizens named Nicholson that year. There would be one more census in 1860 before the Civil War.

After The Civil War

The 1870 census was the first survey after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. All African Americans were included.

Those who were omitted in 1850 and 1860 because they were enslaved were now recorded.

1,301 people named Nicholson were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 122 as mixed.

There was a total of 8,656 people with the name.

Nicholson In The 1900 And 1940 Census

The mixed category was dropped in 1900, so we just need to look at the black numbers this time.

The 1900 census recorded 2,145 people with the last name Nicholson as black within a total of 16,076 that year.

By the way, the mixed category returned in the 1910 and 1920 censuses. It was dropped again in 1930, but replaced with extra categories for colored and non-white in a way that seems confusing now.

This changed again in 1940 and we can simply focus on one black category.

The 1940 census recorded 3,587 people named Nicholson as black within a total of 30,616.

Historic Black Figures With The Nicholson Surname

Here are some notable African Americans in history with Nicholson as their last name.

Adam Nicholson

  • Born: 1830s
  • From: Hedgeville, Virginia

The Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses and travel routes organized by many church and community leaders, civil rights activists, and abolitionists. Thousands of enslaved people were helped to escape from the South.

William Still kept substantial notes on fugitives who were helped on their way through Philadelphia. He published the notes in a book in 1872.

Adam Nicholson appears in the book as one of three young men who walked from a place called Hedgeville in Virginia to Greeneville in Pennsylvania.

I think that Hedgeville is now known as Hedgesville and is in West Virginia. If so, that is a distance of about 237 miles.

The committee in Philadelphia helped the trio travel to Canada. You can read the full account in our excerpt on Adam Nicholson and The Underground Railroad.

William Nicholson

  • Born: Mid 1850s
  • From: Brooklyn

William Nicholson was the first black member of New York City’s Fire Department. He did well on the entrance exam and joined the Brooklyn division in 1889.

When the Brooklyn and Manhattan divisions merged, he faced new discrimination. Instead of working at the Brooklyn firehouse, he was posted to care for the brigade’s horses.

Nevertheless, he made history by securing the position of city fireman. This was a well-paid and desirable job. He retired in 1912 due to ill health.

Other firsts in protecting the public

Moses Smith was the first black police officer in Knoxville, Tennessee in the 1880s.

Nicholson In Black Military Records

Military records are a rich resource of for family history research.

Here are examples of the Nicholson surname from several different military services.

Buffalo Soldiers

Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

Their records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.

One of the earliest military entries for Nicholson was in August 1867. Thomas Nicholson was a Private in the Ninth Cavalry. He was stationed in August 1867 at Hot Springs, Wyoming.

One of the later entries was in April 1915. John Nicholson was a Private in the Ninth Cavalry.

If you are researching military ancestors, there is a free index of these records on and You have to create an account on either website, but you do not need to pay for the Buffalo Soldiers archive.

Black Civil War Sailors

The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.

The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.

You can search the database on the National Parks website.

Thomas Nicholson

One of the earliest entries for Nicholson was for Thomas Nicholson from New Castle County, Delaware. He enlisted in August 1864 at Philadelphia when he was aged 29.

The record shows that Thomas was assigned on June 1865 to the ship George Mangham.

His occupation before enlisting was as a Laborer. His naval rank was Landsman.

“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.

Edward Nicholson

One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted at Boston in January 1863.

Edward was aged 35 and was from Baltimore, Maryland. He was assigned to the ship Montauk on October 1863.

His naval rank was Seaman.

A seaman in the Navy is a sailor who is not an officer.