John Neilson (c.1770 - 1827):
John Neilson was one of the "Master Joiners" who became best known for his work on Monticello, the residence of Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia, and Upper Bremo Plantation. He worked in close cooperation with James Dinsmore, another Ulsterman.
Neilson was born at Ballycarry, County Antrim. His father was a local man, while his mother (whose name is uncertain, variously recorded as Hefferman or Havern) was from Belfast. Neilson was apprenticed to a prominent Belfast architect, Hunter, and he and two of his brothers were involved in the 1798 rebellion as United Irishmen, when they were prominent in action round Donegore, County Antrim, where Henry Joy McCracken's army was encamped. His brother William, "The Ballycarry Martyr", was hanged (in front of their mother) for his rôle, and Samuel (not to be confused with Samuel Neilson of County Down, a very significant figure in the United Irishmen movement) was banished for life, dying on board an exile ship. John himself was banished for seven years, but escaped from the same ship and made his way to the United States.
In 1804 he was naturalised at Philadelphia, and the same year was engaged by Jefferson to work at Monticello, his residence near Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson was constantly making changes to the building, and Neilson lived and worked there until 1808, when he was hired by President James Madison to perform a similar function at his estate, Montpelier. However it was at Upper Bremo Plantation he executed his most significant work, which was described as the finest Jeffersonian building not actually designed by Jefferson. Along with John Hartwell Cocke, he worked on the estate between 1817 and 1820; at the same period, he also worked as master carpenter for the University of Virginia, especially Pavilions IX and X, and seven dormitories. He and James Dinsmore co-operated on the Rotunda and the Anatomical Theatre.
Neilson became ill with an aggravated cold around Christmas 1826 and died in June of the following year. He bequeathed his possessions, which included. Amongst classic of literature, several titles of Irish relevance, including Harrop's edition of Gordon's History of the Irish Rebellion to his widow Mary, then living at Loughmore, Carrickfergus, and to several other beneficiaries including a portion of his estate to Mary Ann McCracken "the friend of my family and sister of the late Henry Joy McCracken". In 1993, on 13 April, Founder's Day at the University of Virginia which was celebrating its bicenquinquagenary, a stone tablet was dedicated to James Dinsmore and John Neilson, and a stone monument was publicly dedicated to John Neilson in Maplewood Cemetery, Charlottesville, Virginia on 17 April 1999. The inscription includes the legend "United Irishman, Political Exile, Architect at Monticello and the University of Virginia."
K Edward Lay, "Jefferson's Master Builders", University of Virginia Alumni News, October 1991; Dictionary of Irish Biography; Founder's Day Address, University of Virginia, April 13 1993; Thomas Pakenham: The Year of Liberty; History Ireland vol 7/3; Biographical Archive, Mellon Centre for Migration Studies, County Tyrone
© 2019 Ulster History Circle