Essie Nicholson

Essie Nicholson

Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Appears in 1758 Record

The Nicholsons were one family who tried to stay in Little Compton. In 1885 the Nicholson family acquired Lucy Collins’ house and her 30-acre farm on Meeting House Lane in exchange for caring for her in her old age.[1] Siblings Pardon, Elizabeth, Joseph Junior and Lysander Nicholson were Cape Verdean on their father Joseph’s side and possibly multi-racial on their mother Catherine Cook Nicholson’s side. The entire family was listed as “mulatto” in the 1870 Federal Census.[2] Their legal agreements with Lucy Collins and the deeds for the property are all carefully preserved in the Little Compton Town Clerk’s office.

Sometime in 1887 Pardon Nicholson moved his large family from Providence, where he worked as a hostler caring for guests’ horses at an inn, to Lucy’s house, where he became a farmer and a coachman for the Church-Burchard family. Lucy passed away in 1893. Pardon bought his two brothers’ shares in the property and settled down with his wife Essie to raise their family of nine children, seven of whom were girls.[3]

David Patten, a local historian and editor for the Providence Journal, wrote about the Nicholsons (He called them the Nickersons.) and the extreme poverty they faced in Little Compton in the early 1900s even though Pardon worked for one of the wealthiest families in town.[4]

Seven Children in S’cunnet Knew Sadness

We’d no sooner make the turn [on his grandfather Isaac Champlain Wilbour’s egg wagon driven by Clarence Wordell] than we’d see the Nickerson children running down the road….There were seven, all girls. All Negro girls, with hair blacker than even Mamie d’Azeveda’s. Bessie was the oldest. She must have been about 12…. They came down from slave days.

Primus [Collins] had a daughter, Lucy….She grew so old and feeble that the Nickersons came to live with her in the house off Meeting House Lane. She was buried in Slave’s Row in the old cemetery on the Commons.

The seven girls would come running down the rutted path to watch the egg wagon go by. The egg wagon never went up the path to the house because the Nickersons never had any eggs to spare. It was a bare, forlorn and very old house, standing alone in fields that have grown up with wild trash. I doubt if anyone goes up the over­grown path these days to see nothing but ruins.

Bessie’s father was coachman for Edith Church. Miss Church had a pair of chestnuts and several smart rigs.

Every night of the Fourth, she gave a ball for the summer folks in her stable. The big carriage room was strung with Japanese lanterns, and the floor was waxed and smooth for dancing.

The Nickerson house was off across the fields behind the stable. It was the house where Miss Church’s great, great grandfather, John Church, used to live, so I’m told.

As Mr. Nickerson grew old, he gave up working and his family had a hard time. Mrs. Mary Taylor was going to move from her home on a neighboring farm, and she hired Mrs. Nickerson to help close up the house on moving day. When it came lunch time, Mrs. Nickerson said it wasn’t any use for her to go home because there wasn’t a morsel of food there. She had been rummaging in Mrs. Taylor’s attic and found a piece of salted codfish hanging from a rafter. She asked if she might have it for lunch. Mrs. Taylor told her to help herself to anything she could find.

Mrs. Nickerson found a few potatoes in the potato bin down in the cellar. She cooked them with the codfish. She ate as though she were starved. She scraped up half a boilerful of coal out in the cookhouse and lugged it home. This shows what a terrible time Bessie and her sisters must have been having.

They would be standing there in a row by the roadside seven little girls as we came down Meeting House Lane in the egg wagon….They just stood there in a row, bare footed, their dresses little but rags, staring up at us with the big sad whites of their eyes. I wish someone would tell me whatever became of Bessie Nickerson – drop me a postcard or just let me know somehow.[5]

While Pardon was alive he farmed, worked for Edith Church and her husband Roswell Burchard, and tried to earn extra income by raising horses. In 1897 the Newport Mercury reported that he lost a very valuable horse to colic.[6] When Pardon passed away in 1900 at the age of forty-three, things became too difficult for his wife Essie to manage in Little Compton. She moved repeatedly within the next few years, first to Connecticut, her home state, with several of the children, then to Worcester in 1917 to be near her son Frederick, a chef, and then to Providence in the 1920s where she lived with her daughters, Alice a dental assistant and Harriet a waitress. In 1900 Bessie was working in Little Compton as a maid in David Patten’s grandparents’ house.

Although the Nicholsons left the property, they did not relinquish their ownership. Edith and Roswell were interested in acquiring it, which they managed to do in a series of purchases. Pardon’s sister Elizabeth Nicholson sold her quarter share of the farm to James Pierce for $1 in 1905. James was holding the property in trust for the Burchards and officially sold it to Roswell in 1921, again for $1.[7] One wonders if Elizabeth knew who the real purchaser was when she sold her share. Roswell passed away in 1931 and so did not live long enough to acquire the other three-quarters of the property. By 1941 Pardon’s wife Essie had passed away, and Edith bought the remaining three-quarters of the farm from Pardon’s living heirs. Pardon’s son Frederick was in charge of the sale. Bessie Nicholson, the girl David Patten wondered about, was not among them.[8]

Susan Church Burchard Shethar Whitin, born in 1903, remembers her parents’ purchase of the Nicholson’s farm in a very different way, and was angry with David Patten for writing about them in the way he did. Susan’s version of the story appears in Jonnycakes and Cream:

In back of Oldacre, way down in the woods opposite the Beach and Bass shop is where my great-grandfather lived when he was a child in a house that stood down there in those woods. Only it wasn’t all woods, it was cut meadows around the house in those days. And I can remember the house.

My family had slaves. The Richmonds had slaves. And, in David Patton’s book Three Sides to the Sea, he speaks of our slaves and he paints a very wrong and miserable picture of how my family treated their slaves which wasn’t true at all, the way he made it out.

I can remember, when I was a very little child, hearing about Lucy Collins. She evidently was the last one of the black people to live in the house. They moved to Boston. And, also, the other darkies had moved away. The Richmonds didn’t have any more of the black people around. And they just wanted to get to the city where they could find others and work there. When my great-grandfather built the big house, the slaves lived in the little house and Lucy Collins was there for as long as she lived, and, apparently, my family had given her the house. There was never any deed, so there is a lien or what they call a blemish on the title to the ownership of it.

And later in life I do remember a black man named Fred Nicholson who was working in Boston and he turned up at the house there and I guess he wanted to claim some ownership to the house in the woods. I can remember that Father bought it from him, paid him cash for it. In those days of course things weren’t at the prices they are now and that little house was pretty ramshackle and not much but a shell and nobody lived in it.

And I can remember the Fourth of July, the house went up in flames and Sigvard [a family servant] took me out and I was sitting on his shoulders watching that house burning….So there’s always been a little break in the ownership because there was nothing registered in the Nicholson name…I think he was a nephew or some relative. Oh, and Father got him a job right then and there for the summer as the chef at the Golf Club. Thiswas many years ago, and it didn’t work out well at all because it turned out that Fred drank more than the meals at the Golf Club could stand and he wasn’t allowed to stay. That was too bad and I think Father was disappointed really, that it turned out that way because he wanted to give him a start.[9]

In the same oral history Susan had this to say about her role as Little Compton’s first and, for many years, only real estate agent:

I was pretty high-handed, I know I was. But I feel I started Compton in the right direction. Well, I think this is one reason why my business went well. I think I have the courage to tell people when they might not be happy. We did try to fit people into the right niches where they would be happy.[10]

Susan was a product of her time, and her clouded understanding of local slavery and free people of color is very representative of those times. During her interview she admits that her family owned slaves, but every person she mentioned as a slave was a free person. Susan also draws her audience’s attention immediately to the Richmond family. For generations local residents have painted the Richmonds to be the town’s most prominent, if not only, slave-holding family. The records, as presented in this book, show that this is simply not the case, but it must have been a comfort to the descendants of Little Compton’s other slave-owning families to be removed from the spotlight.

Whatever Susan was taught about her family’s slaves blurred with everything she knew about her free neighbors, the Collinses and the Nicholsons. Susan was never taught that Primus Collins was a free man who purchased his house and his 30 acres with money earned through his own labors, or that Lucy inherited the house and farm from him, and that she legally passed it on to the Nicholsons. The story she was told, or at least what she remembered, is that her ancestors kindly gave their slaves a house, and that her father benevolently gave the slaves’ distant relatives some money when they appeared years later on the doorstep making false claims to the property. The family story fit better with Susan’s early twentieth-century understanding of race than the truth ever would.

Susan also remembers her father getting Fred Nicholson a job at the Sakonnet Golf Club that he could not keep because of his drinking. The Burchards valued Fred’s skills as a chef. In January of 1925 Edith’s cook quit the day before she was to host a luncheon for her daughter Susan. Edith called Fred in to substitute and wrote in her diary that the “Yellow” themed luncheon was a great success. She raved about the dishes he created: yellow soup; chops, peas; stuffed potatoes; mushroom sauce; pear salad stuffed with nuts, olives and cream cheese bar-le-duc on nests of lettuce and French dressing with mustard; snappy cheese; orange baskets filled with orange mousse and finally orange and chocolate frosted cakes.[11] Drinking problem or not, Fred was a talented cook, and Edith welcomed him in her kitchen.

Fred earned his living as a chef in and around Grafton, Massa­chusetts for over twenty years. He and his wife Minnie, a white woman from Nova Scotia, raised six children there. They named their youngest son Pardon after Fred’s father.[12] Fred and his siblings owned three-quarters of Lucy Collins’ farm until 1941. Even as land­owners, they chose not to live in Little Compton.

Marjory Gomez O’Toole, Executive Director, LCHS

First published in “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold: Stories of Enslavement, Indenture and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island,” by the Little Compton Historical Society, 2016.

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[1] Collins and Nicholson agreement, Little Compton Land Evidence Records, Book 16, p. 220.

[2] Joseph Nicholson’s Death Record, February 9, 1874, Dartmouth, Massachusetts, accessed via Ancestry.com. 1870 Federal Census, Dartmouth, Massachusetts, accessed via Ancestry.com. As a point of interest, every Portuguese person listed in Little Compton’s 1870 census was listed as “Mulatto”. That was not the case in any other census in Little Compton.

[3] See censuses and city directories for the period. Accessed via Ancestry.com. Pardon purchases brother’s shares, Little Compton Land Evidence Records, Book 17, p. 436 & Book 18, p. 31.

[4] David Patten, Adventures in a Remembered World, (Providence: Providence Journal, c. 1950), p. 37.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Little Compton”, Newport Mercury, September 4, 1897. Accessed via America’s Historic Newspapers.

[7] Nicholson to Pierce to Burchard, Little Compton Land Evidence Records, Book 23, pp. 90-91.

[8] Nicholson Heirs to Burchard, Ibid, Book 29, p. 112.

[9] Lucy A. O’Connor, Compiler & Editor, Jonnycakes and Cream, Oral Histories of Little Compton, R.I., (Newport: America House Design & Communications, 1993), p. 129.

[10] Ibid, p. 132.

[11] Edith Burchard’s Diary, Wed. Jan. 21, 1925, Little Compton Historical Society Archives.

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[12] Census Records and City Directories accessed via Ancestry.com.