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First Marine Corps Leader All About Institution, Not Self

By Lt. Col. Stewart Upton | I Marine Expeditionary Force | November 6, 2014


For U.S. Marine recruits and officer candidates, no information is provided of Samuel Nicholas' life prior to becoming the first leader of Marines in November of 1775.

This year marks the 239th birthday of the United States Marines Corps.

With each anniversary, Marines celebrate and reflect upon their past.

They do so because they are part of a living legacy that is fueled by a rich history.

It is a history though, in which most Marines do not know very much about their first leader, Samuel Nicholas.

In fact, for Marine recruits and officer candidates, no information is provided of Nicholas’ life prior to becoming the first leader of Marines in November of 1775.

Nor is there much knowledge or record of what the Marines’ first leader did after he departed military service in 1783. 

But research over the years has been able help explain why Nicholas was the ideal man to be the first leader of our Corps.

We now know (even though we don’t know the exact date) that Samuel Nicholas was born in Philadelphia in 1744 to Andrew and Mary Shute Nicholas, a Quaker family.

His father was a blacksmith and a Freemason of a Masonic Lodge that held its meetings at a local bar called Tun Tavern.

At age 7, Samuel would go to on attend the Academy of Philadelphia, an institution that was one of the first of its kind in the new colonies.

It included a practical curriculum of learning skills that would serve students regardless of what line of work they took.

He completed his studies in 1759.

In 1760, Nichols was admitted to an organization – a social society, to which the families that built the pre-revolutionary Philadelphia belonged.

It was called, “The Colony of Schuylkill,” and is said to be one of the oldest surviving clubs in the United States, if not the world.

Six years later, in 1766, Samuel Nicholas would be one of the founding members of the Gloucester Fox hunting club.

Its membership was composed of Philadelphians and residents of Gloucester County (located in New Jersey).

During this time of the late 1760s and into the 1770s leading up to the War for our Independence …

Samuel Nicholas would spend time aboard super-cargo merchant ships traveling to and from China.

At the time of his nomination by (future U.S. President) John Adams to lead the Continental Marines in Nov. of 1775, he would have been well known in the community of Philadelphia for his maritime knowledge and experience.

So now, knowing what we know of Nicholas’ life prior to being named the first leader of Marines …

With the background of sailing to China on windjammers – along with being one of the best horsemen and marksmen of the colonies…

A skillset he refined and honed by chasing down elusive foxes across New Jersey.

It would have been rare indeed to find a young gentleman of 32 years of age better qualified during that time in in the colonies.

In the coming years …

Capt. Nicholas would be influential in defining the role Marines would serve for their country.

As captain of the 24-gun frigate Alfred in March 1776, Nicholas led almost 300 Marines in the Corps’ first amphibious landing:

A raid on Nassau in the Bahamas that resulted in the capture of two British forts, 88 cannons and a large quantity of ammunition and supplies.

A month later, the crew of the Alfred helped to capture two British ships and waged an attack on the British ship Glasgow.

Upon return and in partial recognition for his superior performance, Capt. Nicholas was promoted to the rank of Major and given the job of senior paymaster for all the Continental Marines.

And from correspondence attained by historians, he was none too pleased with the land based role his new rank brought him.

He in fact made many attempts to rejoin the fight and lead Marines.

In 1778, he would marry Mary Jenkins of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, and go on to have two sons: Samuel Jr. and Charles Jenkins.

After the revolutionary war was over …

Major Nicholas returned to the civilian sector in 1783 …

And dropped almost out of sight.

But one thing that was found of his activities after 1783 is being a charter member of the “Society of Cincinnati” of Pennsylvania.

This ‘society’ was founded for the purpose of granting relief to the distressed widows and orphans that resulted from the revolution (or other causes).

When the Historical Society of Pennsylvania found the original parchment scroll in 1891 that listed the names of its original ‘standing committee’…

The first name to head this historical document is that of Major Samuel Nicholas.

Unlike the exact date of his birth, we do know the exact date of death …

Major Nicholas would die in Philadelphia August 27th, 1790 – at approximately 54 years of age – in a yellow fever epidemic.

But it was not until June of last year that Philadelphia members of the Marine Corps League would install a modest headstone to honor him.

Major Nicholas, it appears, was buried in a friend’s unmarked graveyard according to the Quaker tradition of the time.

After years of negotiation with the Quaker proprietors of the site, the Chester County Marine Corps League detachment secured permission to put in a simple colonial-style gravestone with Major Nicholas’ name and the dates of his birth and death.

Each year on the anniversary of his death, the local Marine Reserve Officer Training Corps returns to the gravesite at sunrise for a ceremony that includes a historical reading and the laying of a wreath.

It has been said that the most important contribution the Marine Corps has made to our nation since 1775 is not that it has fought and won battles.

Rather, its most enduring contribution is that it makes Marines, imbues them with extraordinary mettle, and returns the great majority to civilian life with exceptional qualities of confidence, determination, leadership, and a winning spirit that gives strength to our national character.

Indeed, the Marine experience, for all those who have lived it, and for those who will live it, is special and to a higher standard in countless forms of measure.

If there is a single distinction that stands out, among the many, marking the experience in the lives of the men and women who are Marines, it is their extraordinary and selfless dedication to -- and identification with -- The Corps.

Although the Corps contains its share of visible heroes, like Samuel Nicholas, the Marine Corps triumphs are triumphs of the institution itself – and not the attainments of individual Marines.

For example …

In history it is noted that George Washington defeated the British at Trenton,

That Gen. Macarthur returned to defeat the Japanese in the Philippines…

And that Gen. Patton defeated his nemesis, German Field Marshall Rommel in Africa ...

But we know only that it was the Marines who won at Belleau Wood …

The Marines who won at Guadalcanal … and the Marines who led the way at Inchon.

So while Nicholas may not have self-promoted himself in order for the world to know the type of individual he was, Marines feel his influence still.

In a way, he set the tone for our future leaders; not just in our amphibious fighting style, but in putting ‘country’ before Corps … and Corps before self.

Happy Birthday Marines!

1. MAJOR FAGAN, 2D, LOUIS ESTELL U.S.M.C., Samuel Nicholas First Officer of American Marines, THE MARINE CORPS GAZETTE, Vol. XVIII, NOVEMBER, 1933, No. 3, http://destroyerhistory.org/fletcherclass/index.asp?r=44901&pid=44911
2. Hodge, Hope, Headstone to be installed for 1ST USMC commandant, the ‘Fightin’ Quaker’, Marine Corps Times, May 12, 2013.
3. Hodge, Hope, Gravestone installed for first leader of Marines, Samuel Nicholas, Marine Corps Times, Aug. 27, 2013. -- All images below courtesy of photographer Patrick J. Hughes. Visit his website to see more of his work at Patrickjhughes.org.
4. Simmon, Edwin Howard & Moskin, J. Rober. The Marines, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, 1998. http://store.marineheritage.org/the-marines-p/13288.htm
5. Struder, Robert E, Editor.  New Portrait of First Commandant Has Better Likeness, Correct Uniform, FORTITUDINE, Bulletin of the Marine Corps Historical Program, Winter 1989-1990, Volume XIX, Number 3.