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).

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.

15 thoughts on “Remembering Denise Nickerson

  1. I too am a descendant of Stephen Hopkins (as well as Alden, Brewster, Cooke, Doty, Mullins, Warren and White). Sarah Dery has been assisting me in completing certification of these ancestors. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more than the four you’ve found in this instance.

  2. Isn’t it fascinating when someone has a surname that instantly connects them to particular location hundreds of years ago?

  3. Great research…the kid who played Charlie ended up as a NY dairy farmer. Much credit for movie also should go to great Jack Albertson later of TV classic Chico and the Man

  4. I’m sorry to learn of Denise’s passing.

    “Willy Wonka” was a pretty big deal growing up in my house too. (My sister even received the auspicious nic-name of “Wonka”) – It’s somehow cathartic to find these connections with folks in the news, and to learn about what comon walls there are between us. It’s cool to see that indeed we share a chain of ancestry with many of them, and despite the spotlight, we are all not so very different. – Nice work Mr. Chris!

  5. What an interesting back story to a young actor in a movie so many of us have loved. So sorry she died so young. But your excellent research adds to her story.

  6. Fascinating research as usual. I remember Denise Nickerson even before “Willy Wonka,” as she played the part of Amy Jennings on the daytime spook-opera “Dark Shadows” in the late 1960s (one of my favorite TV shows). Very sorry when I learned of her passing, especially as we are near the same age.

  7. And it is just sweet of you to do this, too. Perhaps (?) you could send a copy of this to her son Josh Nickerson as an inclusion in a memorial card? He and wife Jasmine are expecting their 1st child later this year per Variety, 10 July 2019 online.

    Also from Variety: Before that [Wonka], she appeared on the “Sesame Street” companion series “The Electric Company” as Alison. On “Dark Shadows,” she played Amy Jennings and Nora Collins from 1968-70. After appearing in soap opera “Search for Tomorrow” and several small roles in films including “Smile” before retiring from acting at age 21. She continued to make her living as a nurse.

  8. Technical Question: Hopkin’s 1st wife is Mary ____ in Anderson’s Pilgrim Migration. Please point me to the article in which she is established as “Mary KENT alias Back” as I haven’t heard of that before. TIA.

        1. No one has joined GSMD under these lines, the line is written in the Silver Books up to the sixth generation. The sources I mention in this post (vital records, etc.), document the line to the present day.

  9. So exciting to read this! I served as a genealogist at the July 15th Eastham Historical Society “FindYour Mayflower Ancestor Day” at the Eastham, MA Public Library. We had an hour with each client to find their ancestor. I was able to discover this line for my “client” who gave me the names Agnes Nickerson m. William Chetwynde – 5 generations down from Reuben Cahoon and Hepsibah Crowell and client’s great grandparents. What we didn’t find in the short hour allotted was the relation to William Brewster. I have passed this information on to her.

  10. A great Article indeed. I am descended from Reuben Cohoon’s 2nd marriage to Clarissa Doane after Hepsabeth’s death. I was wondering if this lineage to Stephen Hopkins has been proven or is it just a rudimentary tree. I would think that someone with Christopher’s credentials wouldn’t likely put something out there if he wasn’t sure.

    Would love to hear your thoughts.


    1. The sources I used for this line are discussed within the post (the Indiana marriage and death certificates of Denise’s sister, vital records of Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, the Nickerson Genealogy, Mayflower Families Through Five Generations, New Englanders in Nova Scotia, and the article in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly). The only issue, which I point out above, concerns Sarah Kenney, which would provide a third Stephen Hopkins line if the alleged parents are correct. The other two Hopkins and two Brewster lines are documented within the sources mentioned.

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