Nichols, Joseph (ca. 1822-after 1880)
Joseph (Joe) Nichols (ca. 1822-after 1880) was a mulatto house carpenter in Hillsborough, who spent his early years as the highly valued slave of the noted local builder John Berry, then worked as a free man for Berry and for himself after emancipation. Like Berry, he worked mainly in Hillsborough and Orange County, but he probably also worked on Berry’s distant projects in Caswell, Wake, and other counties.
Joseph Nichols was born a slave in the household of Hillsborough merchant Richison Nichols and was later attached to the household of Richison’s daughter, Harriet Holden Nichols Strayhorn (wife of William F. Strayhorn), who lived at the house in Hillsborough called Twin Chimneys. Joseph Nichols married a fellow slave named Harriet who according to family tradition was called “Aunt Harriet-Joe” to distinguish her from her mistress, Harriet Nichols Strayhorn. Harriet Nichols was in charge of the running of the Strayhorn household, and she and her husband Joseph lived there for many years.
Evidently Joseph Nichols was sold at some point to John Berry, Hillsborough’s leading builder and a bricklayer by trade, often called “Captain John Berry.” In his will, written in 1859 but not proved until 1870, John Berry devised “Joseph my carpenter” to his 21-year-old son, John Berry, Jr. Although owned by Berry, Joseph evidently resided with his wife in the Strayhorn household, a common arrangement. It is believed that Joseph Nichols executed much of the fine woodwork that graces Berry’s many buildings. His work probably included the carpentry and joinery for both frame and brick buildings. No specific works are documented as Nichols’s, but it is likely that his workmanship appears in most if not all of Berry’s many buildings from about 1840 onward. Nichols, born about 1822, was 18 years old by 1840 and of an age to take a strong role in the work. In many cases, the woodwork in Berry’s buildings embodies design motifs taken from popular architectural pattern books, chiefly Owen Biddle’s Young Carpenter’s Assistant, especially the stair brackets, and Asher Benjamin’s Practical House Carpenter and others. Arthur Nichols of Hillsborough, a 20th century descendant of Joseph Nichols, recalled that Nichols was Captain Berry’s head carpenter and that he continued working for Berry until Berry’s death in 1870. So far as is known, Nichols did not work for anyone besides Berry.
In 1870 Joseph Nichols and his family were listed in the United States Census as a mulatto household in Hillsborough, residing among other artisans of color. Joseph, a house carpenter aged about 48, could not read or write, nor could his family members. Harriet, also about 48, was keeping house, and other household members included daughters Josephine (19), Lizzie (22), and sons Lea (7) and William (1). The 1880 census taker found Joseph, a carpenter, and Harriet still in Hillsborough with children Lea (17) and Ida (15). Joseph died sometime between 1880 and 1900, for in 1900 Harriet, aged 78, was head of a household that included only herself and Josephine, 49. The Nichols’s cottage, evidently dating from the post-Civil War years, still stood on East Corbin Street near the new Town Cemetery into the 1970s, but is now lost. The Nichols family cemetery at the rear of the lot contains unmarked fieldstones and depressions. Here were buried Joseph and Harriet Nichols and some of Joseph’s children and grandchildren, as recalled for the Orange County Cemetery Survey by Joseph’s descendant, Arthur Nichols, and by Margaret Berry Street, John Berry’s granddaughter.
For a list of Nichols’ buildings see John Berry. Much of the carpentry work in Berry’s buildings from about 1840 onward was probably by Joseph Nichols.
- Mary Elizabeth Strayhorn Berry (Mrs. John Berry, Jr.), “Reminiscences of the Old South Particularly Around Hillsboro,” undated typescript, Mary E. Strayhorn Berry Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
- Mary Claire Engstrom Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
- Orange County Cemetery Survey (1975), http://cemeterycensus.com/nc/orng/cem170.htm.
- John Berry, Will, Orange County Will Book H, Orange County Records, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- United States Census, 1860-1880; 1900.