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In search of James Sullivan Norris:

new light shed and adopted son discovered

“I, James S. Norris of the Town of Cottage Grove in the County of Washington, and State of Minnesota, being of sound mind and memory, and in view of the uncertainty of life, do hereby make and declare this my last will and testament.”

Thus begins the approved will of Cottage Grove’s founding father. Written according to the prescribed legal fashion in cursive— (commercial typewriters were still young)—the will made an unconditional bequeath of property real and personal to his wife Sophia— maiden name Haskell, or in the case she was not living at his death (she was), to their adopted son George Herbert Norris, born either at Missouri or else Minnesota, according to conflicting census records from the time.

One “Herbert Norris” as well as Sophia are in fact buried in with Mr. Norris in Old Cottage Grove Cemetery, Sophia dying in February of 1888 accordion to Find A Grave records, Herbert (or George Herbert) surviving with his middle name two years more, to the approximate age of 35, with unknown natural parents.

Returning to the last will and testament of Mr. James Norris, it was made and sealed August 21, 1873, later being proved April 25, 1874, attested to by Robert Watson of Cottage Grove and Gotham F. Davies of Afton, being of a simple fashion. E. G. Butts was the probate judge, a notice in the March 28, 1874 Stillwater Messenger giving notice of the requisite details for proving said will. In earthly goods at death Mr. Norris had some $6,000 in real estate and $1,402 in personal estate, per the most recent federal census (1870) at the time of death.

This had increased from $4,000 in real estate as of 1860, plus a $1,000 personal estate. Official numbers aren’t available prior to the founding of the U.S. federal reserve in 1913, but adjusted for inflation Mr. Norris’ total estate of $7,402 could be worth $193,498.67 in today’s dollars after multiplying by 26.14 to make up for inflation, per unofficial inflation calculator at in2013dollars. com. “Unofficial” is key, as the backing of a central bank and deposit guarantees from the federal government are of relatively recent origin, not existing as at present back in Norris’ day.

We might say then that as Minnesota grew and became a state Mr. Norris grew with his adopted homeland, first as a member of the “St. Croix precinct,” then with a post office at “Marine Mills,” and surrounded from early on by familiar names in old Cottage Grove—the Furbers, for instance—and J. A. Davis.

All this then, gives us an idea of Mr. Norris’ earthly goods and relations, which approaches an understanding of who he was, firmly established as to the historical record.

Just as important as the record, though, is context, and the context of Mr. Norris changed quite a bit in his lifetime.

Born two years before the War of 1812 near the border with Canada, both Maine and Minnesota had enlarged themselves at his death, the border shifting further north. In terms of Maine it was by treaty; so too was it in Minnesota.

Moving into what is now Wisconsin in 1839 or 1840 and heading south by degrees, Norris came to Cottage Grove after Grey Cloud Island, making a claim in the present northeast part of the city. Wisconsin as a state would come to existence some five years later in 1848, Minnesota following 10 years after this in 1858.

More of that in another installment though perhaps. For now, let it be known: the present is not the past, nor will the future, be like the present, in strict details. History doesn’t work that way, or else not exactly.

Landmarks can and do change at times—but the land, well—that remains!

November 23, 2022