Thomas Ackley Nichols
The Early Years
There are moments when doing genealogy research that you strike gold by finding something you have long sought. Today was one of those days. For this Memorial Day Weekend, I wanted to write a tribute to my 3rd great-grandfather, Thomas Ackley Nichols, for his service to our country and for the sacrifices that he and his family made. Disappointed at not having a photo of him to accompany this article, I was searching for at least a picture of the regiment he served in, the 9th PA Volunteer Cavalry. (I asked for some saintly intervention in this search as well, and today my prayers were heard). Hallelujah! While perusing google, I looked at about 20 images, when the very next picture I clicked on, Thomas A. Nichols was staring right back at me! Thank you Dave Taylor’s Civil War Antiques website.
Thomas Nichols story begins long before he bravely volunteered in the 15th Pennsylvania Infantry and then later, the 9th PA Cavalry. His formative years are shrouded in a bit of mystery. He was born in Pennsylvania December 17, 1824 to Matthias and Sarah Nichols. They moved from Virginia prior to the birth of Thomas and settled in an unknown place in Pennsylvania. So far they have eluded my attempts to find them in the 1830 and 1840 census, which only list the head of household by name. In 1850, Matthias Nichols 54, his wife Sarah 52, and their sons Mahlon Ransloe 22, William 17, and Edward 15, lived in Berks county, Pennsylvania, where Matthias worked as a machinist. Thomas lived nearby in Blythe township. What led the Nichols to this area of Pennsylvania was probably the growing lumber and coal industries and the job opportunities.
There were two natural resources that helped shape Schuylkill county: the worlds richest deposits of anthracite coal and the river that helped deliver it to an expanding nation.There are a couple of explanations for the meaning of Schuylkill. The first is that it translates to “hidden river” and was named by the Dutch discoverer Arendt Corssen. Second, is that the name translates to “hideout creek”. The river became a conduit for trade and canals were built to facilitate the shipment of the burgeoning lumber business. When coal was discovered, the river sped the transportation. Vast amounts of coal fueled the Industrial Revolution demanded by a growing nation, and that in turn launched America’s railroad industry. Workers needed to extract the coal spurred the influx of European workers. Skilled laborers from Ireland, England and Wales led the way followed by Germans in the 1840s. Later there were major immigrations from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Italy. From the former Austrian-Hungarian empire came the Bohemians, Slovaks and Serbs. Today 20% of all Americans can trace their roots back to five counties, including Schuylkill county, in Southeastern Pennsylvania. It was during this time that America’s first labor unions were created due to the hazardous working conditions and low pay these workers experienced.
As a machinist Matthias Nichols would have readily found employment to support his family in many towns in Pennsylvania, and he seemed to change locations often. Either the urge to move on to greener pastures enticed Matthias to move, or perhaps it was a tragedy in the family, but no record of him is found in the 1860 census. The obituary for Mahlon states that his brother William settled in Philadelphia, while Edward chose a more adventurous route and headed west.
Mahlon and Thomas settled in Schuylkill county and obtained white-collar jobs. Mahlon lived in Pottsville where he clerked in a large store until he and a partner opened their own mercantile, Nichols & Beck. After the partnership dissolved, Mahlon ran his own store until he retired in 1894. During those years, he wed Mary Ann Bright in April 1854, and they had three daughters, Harriet Nichols, Sarah, “Sallie” Nichols, and Mame Nichols. As an active Pottsville citizen, Mahlon served on the town council, was Chief Burgess, and a member of the Humane Fire Company. He passed away in 1902, ten years after the death of his wife. His cause of death was heart trouble, but he also suffered the last years of his life from dropsy and was confined to his bed his last months.
As mentioned above, in the 1850 census, Thomas was 25 years old and lived in Blythe, Pennsylvania, which was 40 miles from his family in Berks county. The area had 1,000 miles of railroad that intersected the small towns, so family contact would not have been difficult. Blythe Township had a working colliery known as the Kaskawilliam Colliery where Thomas was a clerk. He shared the home of Elizabeth Kirkley 49, her son George 19, and her two daughters Elizabeth 26, and Jane 15. Perhaps, the Kirkleys were family friends, or Thomas boarded to save money.
As a semi-professional, Thomas escaped the dangerous and dirty occupation of working in a coal mine. It was an accident prone industry. Mine fires, cave-ins, explosions and poisonous gases were responsible for thousands of deaths through the years. As a clerk he was spared the drudgery of going down the dark shaft each day to dig for black coal. His job was to tally and record the productivity and salaries of the miners in a large ledger. Every bucket of coal a miner brought to the surface would be entered in the ledger and every expense a miner incurred would be deducted.
Miners were responsible for all their tools, powder, lamps and everything else they needed to work. Like the miners, Thomas would have lived in a company house and purchased his essentials at the company store, also known as a “pluck me”. It was an all-encompassing mercantile that supplied meat, vegetables, canned goods, clothing, boots, hardware, glassware, etc. Coal was also purchased here to heat the homes that typically had only one stove located in the kitchen. The stove would be used to heat his tea, cook his meals, and bake his bread, as well as warm his hearth. His rent and purchases would be deducted from his meager pay.
In the 1852 Blythe Township colliery ledgers, the daily salaries for a mine worker included the following: fireman $1.25, blacksmith $1.25, carpenter $1.25, helper $1.00, young boys $.20-.40. After all deductions were made, the miner might have ended up with no salary. It is certain that Thomas earned more than a miner, but it would not have been a substantial amount.
After Thomas established himself, he met and courted his future wife. Approximately 6 miles from Blythe was the township of St. Clair where young Miss Helena Knerr, age 18, lived with her father John Knerr, brother John , sisters Ann , and Mariam in 1850. Her mother is not listed in the census so she was probably deceased. St. Clair boasted 17 churches, which is a testimony to the strong religious convictions, and of the ethnic diversity of the community. Each ethnic group would establish their own church and center their social and religious events within their community. The young couple may have met attending the same services at one of these churches. Helena and Thomas were wedded at the First Methodist Episcopal Church on November 17, 1850 in St. Clair.
There was a long span of 7 years before their first child, John Matthews Nichols, was born on February 17, 1857 in St. Clair. By 1860, the Nichols moved to Banks, Carbon county where Thomas was again employed as a clerk at a mine.
Thomas and Helena would have been aware of the growing unrest in the country between the southern and northern states and the dissent over slavery, but they would certainly have hoped to avoid the dreadful war that ensued when Fort Sumter was fired upon on in the early morning of April 12, 1861 and the American Civil War officially began. In a matter of three days , Thomas Nichols had volunteered to serve and defend the Union. He joined his first unit, the 15th PA Infantry, on April 15, 1861. Like his fellow soldiers, Thomas surely felt trepidation, but also resolution to do his duty.
© 2014 copyright Kendra Hopp Schmidt. All rights reserved.
Name: Thomas Ackley Nichols
Parents: Matthias Nichols and Sarah Ackley?
Spouse: Helena Knerr and Lillian Watson Bull
Children: John, Bertha, Charles and Mary, Florence, Howard
Relationship to Kendra: 3rd great-grandfather
- Thomas Ackley Nichols
- John Mathews Nichols
- Mabel Elvina Nichols Hyde
- John Frederick Hyde Jr.
- Jean Hyde Hopp Eichorn
Next installment: The Civil War Years