Origin of the Nickens Family and Name
by Jan Nickens Valdez
November 2016

 

The Nickens family in the United States originated in early Lancaster County, Virginia. The name Nickens itself also originated there.  Based on research in Lancaster County records, Nickens  appears to be a shortened version of the name Yoconohawcon/Yoconohanacon/Yoconhawkon (spelling varies in Lancaster County records).  The shortened name was first Nicken, and then later Nickens.  The first occurrence found to date of the name Nicken/Nickens in the US  is in 1709 Lancaster County, Virginia when Elizabeth Nicken apprenticed her son Richard Nicken.  In 1713 in the same county an Edward Nicken applied to be administrator of the estate of his father, Richard Nicken. Evidence suggests that this Richard Nicken was a former slave who was freed in Lancaster County, along with his wife Chriss and three of their daughters, by John Carter in 1690.  In the second  paragraph of Carter's will of 4 June 1690 he stated:

 

First. I doe give Black Dick and Chriss his Wife after the finishing of the Crop that is now on the Grounde their Freedom, and I doe give each of them a Cow and Calfe and three barrells of Corn a peece, and I doe likewise give them so much ground upon the Land I bought of Nicholas Wren and old Clapham, for their lives so they may tend with houses convenient for them and timber for casques. And Likewise Chrisses youngest Daughter, I set free along with her, and likewise, I doe give Diana and Little Chriss their Freedom when they come to the age of Eighteen yeres, and that they in the meantime remaine with my Wife, And I doe give each of them a yearling heifer with their encrease until they come to halfe a dozen to run along with my Wifes stock of cattle, and all the rest of theire encrease I give unto my Wife (Lancaster County Will Book 8:5).

 

Why is it believed that Richard Nicken was the Dick named in John Carter's will?  Lancaster County tax records show a man with various names such as free Dick, Black Dick, and free Richard for the next few years  He was taxed in Christ Church Parish, the same parish where John Carter had lived and where his heir Robert Carter continued to live. Then, in 1704  Richard Yoconohawcon was on the tax list, listed near the same individuals as Dick was in previous years.  In 1706 the names free Dick and Richard Yoconohawcon are found in the same court record. Richard died later that year, and his wife Criss Yoconohawcon was granted administration of his estate.  In 1709 Edward Yoconohacon was on the Christ Church Parish tax list. There is then a gap until 1712 when Edward Nicken is sued.   In 1713 Edward Nicken was identified as son of Richard Nicken.  Putting these and other pieces of information together, it is apparent that Richard Yoconohawcon, Richard Nicken and Black Dick/free Richard were the same person.

The only other individual who was identified in the Lancaster records with the surname Yoconohawcon was Martha Yoconohawcon, daughter of Criss.   Chriss appeared in Lancaster records several times, and two of her probable children were later named as Nicken.  Therefore, Elizabeth, Chriss and Edward were probably children of Richard and Chriss who were freed by the will of John Carter. .

 

Who were Dick and Chriss? An obvious assumption since they were given their freedom in a will is that they were slaves of African descent. However, they took a name that is apparently Native American, Yoconohawcon, which suggests one, or both of them may have been Native American or part Native American.  This  would not be unusual as many natives were enslaved in the colonies' early years.  But we also might surmise that they, or one of them, or their children may have also been part European. This family was shown clear favoritism by being given their freedom.  Carter owned 100 slaves when he died, and he only freed these five.  His father, also John Carter, first settled in Lancaster County in the 1650s and also owned slaves.  Thus by the time John Carter, Jr. freed Dick and Chriss, the Carter family had been slave owners in the county for 40 years, so Dick or Chriss could have even been second generation members of their families to be slaves of the Carters.  Dick and Chriss were well provided for, being given land to use during their lives and cattle.  Also notice the relative wealth bestowed on the two girls who were probably daughters of Chriss, although they are not specifically named as such.  On the other hand, for the next few years Edward, Criss and Elizabeth were referred to several times in Lancaster County records as free negroes, or negroes. Therefore we can assume they were also part African.  By the 1750s some descendants were being identified as mulatto, an indication of their mixed heritage.  Of course we can only speculate about the actual ancestry of Dick and Chriss--there are no records which identify their race/ethnicity-- but their descendants were clearly of mixed ancestry.

 

For the next 160 years descendants were identified as free people of color.  From Lancaster County descendants moved throughout Virginia, to North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana and several  other states. The various family lines diverged and incorporated many other family lines, but everywhere they went, with a few exceptions, they were usually identified as mulatto or free people of color, until that term became obsolete after the Civil War.

 

So what are the Nickens? Well obviously our particular ancestry depends on what other families our ancestors married into. Through the many generations each of our family lines intermarried with many other families.  Some married others with more African ancestry and became part of the African American population. Others married spouses with more European ancestry and became part of the white population.  Others identify today as Native Americans. A few consider themselves a distinct people, recognizing a mixed heritage, but not claiming a particular "racial" identity.  Clearly there is no single answer as to who or what they were and are.  Their identities were shaped by their own circumstances,  the attitudes of people around them, and historical processes.  The bottom line is that they are a very interesting family and, as a group, are a reflection of changes in how we have perceived race and ethnicity through time and illustrate that race is a fluid, and socially defined idea.

 

Some Published Sources on Nickens:

Research into the history of the Nickens has been aided by other researchers who pointed the way to Lancaster County as the origin of the Nickens. The earliest work with information on the Nickens was written by Luther Porter who published a book entitled Virginia Negro Soldiers and Seamen in the Revolutionary War.  A 1972 dissertation at Brown University by Robert Wheeler, Lancaster County, Virginia, 1650-1750: The Evolution of a Southern Tidewater Community also discussed some of the Lancaster County records relating to this family.  Karen Sutton presented a paper to the Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference in 1994 entitled The Nickens Family, Non-Slave African American Patriots. She has since completed a thesis on Nickens in the Revolution, and is continuing to research Lancaster County Nickens and related families.  Also in 1994 a book was published by Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia which identifies many records relating to the pre-Civil War free population.  This is a useful source for finding the counties where early Nickens and related families were residing in Virginia and North Carolina.  In 1996 early Lancaster County Nickens were discussed in a book by Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches and Anxious Patriarchs. In 1998 the Nickens were used as a case study in an article, The Pot that Called the Kettle White: Changing Racial Identities and U.S. Social Construction of Race by Norberto and Janice Valdez.


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