Remembering Denise Nickerson

Some of the WILLY WONKA cast; Denise Nickerson is on Gene Wilder's right. Courtesy of David Allen Lambert

As a child, I read every book by Roald Dahl; Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was one of my favorite movies. I can still say most of the dialogue by heart and occasionally listen to the film’s soundtrack. I was saddened to hear last week of the death of child actress Denise Nickerson, who portrayed Violet Beauregarde. As I often do when someone in the news passes away, I decided to see if I could find anything of interest on her family history, recognizing her surname often has connections to colonial Cape Cod.

While Denise was born in New York City in 1957, from her sister Carol’s marriage and death certificates (both in Indiana, available on Ancestry), I learned that Carol was born in Massachusetts. Searching twentieth-century Massachusetts Vital Records, I found that Denise’s parents, Frederick Hilton Nickerson and Florence Dorothy Bickford, married at Brookline, Massachusetts on 29 June 1941. Denise’s father Frederick, was born in Everett, Massachusetts on 15 October 1914, son of Crowell Henry and Katherine A. (Foster) Nickerson. Katherine was born in Ballynacarrick, Drumhome, County Donegal, Ireland (per her 1979 death certificate), while Crowell was born in Barrington, Nova Scotia.

Using vital records of Massachusetts[1] and Nova Scotia, along with the five-part Nickerson genealogy, I was able to trace Denise’s patrilineal ancestry back to William Nickerson (1604–1689), a native of Norwich, Norfolk, England, who arrived in 1637 on the John & Dorothy or Rose, first settling in Yarmouth, Massachusetts; he is credited as the first English settler of Chatham, Massachusetts.[2] I actually found five unique descents from William Nickerson, through several families that intermarried with one another in Nova Scotia.

William Nickerson ... is credited as the first English settler of Chatham, Massachusetts.

Barrington, Nova Scotia was settled by many New Englanders in 1759, after an effort by the British government in 1755 and 1756 to consolidate their hold on Nova Scotia, while also depriving French Acadians of their lands. Many of these New Englanders were from Chatham, Massachusetts. An article in National Genealogical Society Quarterly discusses this settlement.[3] While this area remained under the British government during the American Revolution, many of the inhabitants of Barrington signed a petition in 1776 expressing sympathy and “permission to land a shipment of fish and liver oil bound for Salem or Beverly [Massachusetts] in exchange for winter provisions for their destitute families.”

Among those who signed were Denise’s ancestors Reuben Cahoon and Thomas Crowell. The article notes that many of these Chatham settlers of Barrington (who largely did not return to Massachusetts after the war), were particularly rich in Mayflower heritage. Using this article, the Nickerson genealogy, New Englanders in the Nova Scotia, and Mayflower  Families Through Five Generations, I was able to identify four descents (and a possible fifth) from Mayflower passengers Stephen Hopkins (through his daughter Constance, also a passenger) and William and Mary Brewster, summarized on the chart below.[4] I’m sure there are probably more.

Click on image to expand it.


[1] My thanks to Alessandro Ferzoco and Hallie Borstel for several twentieth-century Massachusetts vital record transcriptions.

[2] Denise12 Nickerson (Frederick Hilton11, Crowell Henry10, Stephen Crowell9, Joseph8, David7, Joshua6, Gideon5, William4-1).

[3] Elizabeth Pearson White, “Nova Scotia Settlers from Chatham, Massachusetts, 1759–1760,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 62 [1974]: 96–117.

[4] The Stephen Hopkins Silver Book lists Nathan and Mercy (Smith) Kenney as the possible parents of Sarah (Kenney) Crowell, as alleged by the Kenney genealogy (and also stated in New Englanders in Nova Scotia).

Christopher C. Child

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.View all posts by Christopher C. Child