Nicholson, John, 1757-1800

Alternative names
Birth 1757
Death 1800-12-05

Biographical notes:

Land speculator.

From the description of John Nicholson papers, 1795 16 Feb.-10 Mar. (Historical Society of Washington, Dc). WorldCat record id: 70953089

Financier and land speculator.

From the description of John Nicholson family papers, 1786-1868. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 70981679

Pennsylvania state official and land promoter.

From the description of ALS : to Thomas Mifflin, 1791 Nov. 8. (Rosenbach Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 86138981

Pennsylvania state official, business partner of Robert Morris.

From the description of ALS : to John Ely, 1799 June 25. (Rosenbach Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 86156179

From the description of ALS : to the trustees of the Aggregate Fund, 1797 July 22. (Rosenbach Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 122365133

Nicholson was a financier and land speculator who was elected Comptroller General of Pennsylvania from 1782 to 1794. He was impeached for mismanaging state funds for his own gain in 1793 but was found not guilty.

From the description of Papers, [1778?]-1800. (Winterthur Library). WorldCat record id: 122516460

John Nicholson, comptroller general of Pennsylvania and land company promoter, was born in Wales and emigrated to Philadelphia with his brother Samuel prior to the American Revolution.

Nicholson was chosen one of three commissioners of accounts of Pennsylvania in 1781, and in the following year the legislature abolished the commission and appointed Nicholson comptroller general of the state with very broad powers. For the next twelve years Nicholson was the virtual fiscal dictator of Pennsylvania, and under his management the state was the first to be restored to financial stability after the turmoil of the Revolution. Nicholson was a radical in politics and was opposed to the formation of a strong federal government. As the radicals' strength waned after their defeat over the Constitution, Nicholson's high-handed methods increasingly came under attack. He was impeached on a charge of diverting state funds in 1793. He was acquitted by the Senate in 1794 but resigned all his offices.

The charges against Nicholson grew out of his intermingling of private and official business. Nicholson was increasingly involved in land speculation on a truly grand scale, often in partnership with Revolutionary financier Robert Morris. In 1792 they formed the Pennsylvania Population Company with the likes of Aaron Burr and James Wilson. In the same year, Morris and Nicholson sold 200,000 acres on the upper Susquehanna River to a group of refugees from the French Revolution. When they proved unable to meet the terms of their contract, the Asylum Company was formed to manage the property.

The firm of Morris & Nicholson acquired 7,000 lots in the new federal city of Washington and built one-third of the structures that were standing there when it became the national capital. Nicholson, Morris, and James Greenleaf formed the North American Land Company in 1795 with 6 million acres in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky. On his own account, Nicholson organized the Territorial Land Company in 1796 and the Pennsylvania Land Company in 1797.

Less well known are Nicholson's efforts at promoting economic development through both transportation improvements and industrial innovation. He was the driving spirit behind Pennsylvania's extensive program of roads and canals, including the three private canal companies and the Philadelphia & Lancaster Turnpike, which together formed the centerpiece of the system. The Society for Promoting the Improvement of Roads and Inland Navigation was also responsible for arranging the emigration from England of William Weston, the first professional civil engineer in America.

Nicholson was also joined with Robert Morris in attempting to develop a manufacturing complex at the Falls of Schuylkill near Philadelphia and helped form the Lehigh Coal Mine Company, one of the first ventures to mine anthracite coal.

He sponsored and supported many important American inventors and mechanics, including the steamboat inventor John Fitch, and encouraged the emigration of skilled technicians from England. While most of these ventures foundered for lack of capital, some laid the foundation for future developments.

When the inflationary bubble burst in late 1796, Nicholson was greatly overextended, and his paper empire soon collapsed. Robert Morris went to debtor's prison in 1798 and Nicholson followed in the winter of 1799-1800. Although he tried to salvage his affairs from prison, his optimism eventually failed. He suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown and died in prison on December 5, 1800, leaving debts of over $4 million.

From the description of Papers, 1772-1819 [microform]. (Hagley Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 86123628


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Ark ID:


  • Land tenure
  • Land companies
  • Land settlement
  • Button industry--18th century
  • Roads
  • Real estate investment
  • Turnpike roads
  • Finance, Personal
  • Real property
  • Toll roads
  • Canals
  • Land speculation
  • Bankruptcy
  • Glass manufacture--18th century
  • Retail Trade
  • Real estate development
  • Speculation


  • Politicians
  • Financiers
  • Land speculators


  • Pennsylvania (as recorded)
  • Maryland--Prince George's County (as recorded)
  • Washington (D.C.) (as recorded)
  • Northwest, Old (as recorded)
  • North Carolina (as recorded)
  • Washington (D.C.) (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania (as recorded)
  • Kentucky (as recorded)
  • West Virginia (as recorded)
  • Georgia (as recorded)
  • Washington (D.C.) (as recorded)
  • South Carolina (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania (as recorded)