Joseph Milton Nance, historian, author, and educator, was born at Kyle, Hays County, Texas, on September 18, 1913. He was the son of Jeremiah Milton Nance and Mary Louise (Hutchison) Nance. He was known as Milton Nance to his friends and associates. The Nance family played an important part of the state’s early history. Ezekiel Nance, his great-grandfather, settled on the Blanco River in 1853 and had a successful career as a cattleman, farmer, and mill owner. His grandfather, Jeremiah Milton Nance, was a successful Texas rancher and trail driver. The eldest of eight children, Milton worked with his siblings on the family ranch-farm located on the Edwards Plateau outside of town on land sometimes referred to as “hardscrabble.” The experience shaped Nance’s outlook on life.
Nance made the most of his educational opportunities during the Great Depression. A hard worker, he earned twenty cents an hour working in a drugstore. He also excelled as a student and graduated as class valedictorian from high school in 1931. Awarded a Regents Tuition Scholarship and elected Phi Beta Kappa as an undergraduate, in 1935 Nance earned his B.A., with highest honors, his first of three history degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. After completing his M.A. (1936), Nance started work toward his doctorate. Although he was a recipient of a Colonial Dames Scholarship, financial circumstances slowed his progress. Like other cash-strapped Texans, Nance found opportunity with one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies providing relief in the state. He accepted employment with the Work Projects Administration (WPA) and their records survey known as the Texas Historical Records Survey. As part of the project, Nance supervised the American imprints, manuscripts, and newspaper inventories in Texas in 1938 and 1939. He published his WPA work as Texas Newspapers, 1813–1939 (1941). Returning to his graduate studies in 1940, he finished his dissertation, “The Attitude of New England on Westward Expansion, 1803–1850,” and was awarded his Ph.D. in 1941.
Milton Nance accepted a position as an instructor in history and government at Texas A&M University in September 1941. He remained in College Station for the rest of his career. His academic activities, however, were put on hold by World War II. From 1943 through 1946, he served on active duty in the U. S. Navy as an officer on Admiral Chester Nimitz’s staff at Pearl Harbor. Nance’s training had included a stint at the U. S. Naval Communications School at Harvard. On March 19, 1944, Milton Nance married Eleanor Glenn Hanover. They had three sons—Jeremiah Milton III, Joseph Hanover, and James Clifton. With the end of the conflict, Nance returned to Texas A&M to resume his career.
At College Station, Milton Nance earned a reputation as a hard-working scholar, administrator, and teacher. During his career, he authored or edited nine books. He devoted most of his focus on the subject of the Republic of Texas and its tense relationship with Mexico. In two massive well-researched studies, he wrote After San Jacinto: The Texas-Mexican Frontier, 1836–1841 (1963), and Attack and Counterattack: The Texas-Mexican Frontier, 1842 (1964). For his efforts, he was elected into the Texas Institute of Letters in 1964, and the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) selected Nance a fellow in 1965. In addition to his teaching load and writings, he served as the chairman of the history department from 1958 to 1973. He was also a member and past president of the Sons of the Republic of Texas. In 1978 he edited Joseph D. McCutchan’s Mier Expedition Diary: A Texan Prisoner’s Account. Nance retired as professor emeritus in 1979.
After his retirement, Milton Nance remained quite active. He continued to own and visit the family ranch in Kyle and was an avid deer hunter. For several years, he maintained his office at College Station. He also participated in writing and editing entries for the TSHA’s New Handbook of Texas (1996). Fifty-seven years after his first publication was printed in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Nance’s final article “Abel Morgan and His Account of the Battle of Goliad,” appeared in the October 1996 issue. Before his death in 1997, Nance completed the manuscript for Dare-Devils All: The Texan Mier Expedition of 1842–1844 (1998) which was edited in its final form by historian Archie McDonald.
At the age of eighty-three, Joseph Milton Nance died on January 17, 1997, in Bryan, Texas. His funeral service was held at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, where he was an active member. He was survived by his wife, three sons, and six grandchildren. Nance was buried in the Wheelock Cemetery, Bryan, Texas.