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A Tale of Two River Street Men: Justus and Lyman Decatur Norris

A Tale of Two River Street Men: Justus and Lyman Decatur Norris image A Tale of Two River Street Men: Justus and Lyman Decatur Norris image A Tale of Two River Street Men: Justus and Lyman Decatur Norris image A Tale of Two River Street Men: Justus and Lyman Decatur Norris image A Tale of Two River Street Men: Justus and Lyman Decatur Norris image A Tale of Two River Street Men: Justus and Lyman Decatur Norris image A Tale of Two River Street Men: Justus and Lyman Decatur Norris image
Janice Anschuetz
Rights Held By
Ypsilanti Historical Society
OCR Text

February is Black History month and in this installment of The River Street Saga I am providing a perplexing and moving segment, a tale of two men related by blood but very different in their beliefs about slavery. In The River Street Saga articles previously published in The Gleanings, I have written about people who have lived on the few short blocks of River Street in Ypsilanti and who have left a legacy in Ypsilanti. One of the men in this segment left his mark not only within Ypsilanti, but with his oratory skills and genius in interpreting the law, may have left his mark on the history of the United States and caused a domino effect leading to the bloody Civil War. Even though we have no record of Justus Norris living on River Street, he was the manager of The Western Hotel which was located at River and Cross Streets. His nephew, Lyman Decatur Norris, grew up in a mansion on River Street and later built his own fine home at River and Forest. Justus Norris: Justus Norris was born in Deweysbury, Vermont on March 25, 1802. In October, 1829 he married 19 year old Mary Ann Kinne, from Waterford, Vermont. Justus earned his living as a teacher. After the death of his father in 1831, he traveled with his wife to join his brother, Mark Norris, in the frontier town of Ypsilanti. Their family increased in size with the birth of Helen Cassandra Norris who was born in 1831, Roccena Bellinda Norris, born in 1835 and Willard Kinne Norris, born in 1841. Justus was a man known for living his religion and attempting to do what he believed was right. He was so passionate in his beliefs that slavery was wrong that he left the Methodist Church, where he was a leader and board member, to join a Wesleyan group, which was formed in 1841 and was vocal in their opposition to slavery. In that same year, Washtenaw County held an antislavery county convention in Ann Arbor. Sister Maria Hayda, in her book The Urban Dimension and the Midwestern Frontier, A Study of Democracy at Ypsilanti, Michigan: 1825-1858, writes “Under Justus Norris, the convention adopted a resolution that 'Slavery is a political as well as moral evil,' and it was concluded that the logical resort was to political pressures and action. The convention elected Norris and S.W. Patchin as party leaders.” Justus’ occupation is listed in the family record as “merchant, hotel keeper, and farmer.” Indeed, when his brother Mark Norris built and opened The Western Hotel on River Street in 1839, he became the manager. The building was considered an elegant hotel with shops on the first floor and rooms above. Justus was well known in the community as being opposed to slavery and held the first meeting of the Liberty Party in Washtenaw County in the Western Hotel in 1842. Justus' political and moral positions regarding slavery were not popular in the growing village of Ypsilanti. Being against slavery was a controversial issue in the frontier town of Ypsilanti and even the abolitionist newspaper, Signal of Liberty, published in Ann Arbor, reflected that “some of our neighbors accuse us of being worse than horse thieves” because of their assistance and aid in helping escaped slaves and in their policies promoting changes in the law. The Liberty Party believed that the constitution of the United States actually encouraged slavery. At this first meeting, it was resolved that a Liberty Party should be organized and meet regularly. Justus Norris and five other men were elected to “organize a Liberty party, and let our influence be felt at the ballot box, in the full belief that our cause will be triumphant.” The men ran a slate of candidates in the next election in Washtenaw County and Justus put his name on the ballot for sheriff and received 14 votes. What were the beliefs of the rest of the Norris family regarding slavery? It has long been rumored that Mark and Roccena Norris were abolitionists and in some way part of the underground railroad. There is no question that their daughter Elviria's husband Benjamin and his father Nathan Follett, both founders of Depot Town and business partners with Mark Norris, were abolitionists, providing money and even direct aid to free blacks. Benjamin’s parents inherited slaves and a plantation and freed the slaves, sold the plantation, and moved to a free state bringing with them former slaves who wanted to travel with them and work as paid servants. Mark Norris’ views can be read in letters he wrote stating that he was deeply concerned that the issue of slavery would destroy the union. Alas, this outspoken abolitionist's life ended suddenly and tragically when on February 11, 1845 he was killed by the bursting of a cylinder in a threshing machine. He was remembered by his family in a book published in 1899 about the Norris family as being “a strong anti-slavery man, a firm advocate of temperance, a warm-hearted devoted Christian, a member of the Methodist Episcopal church.” His widow lived until 1888 after marrying a man by the name of Liberty P. Beach in 1856 and residing in both Medina and Ann Arbor. His daughter Helen married John S. Estabrook and named her oldest son Justus after her father. They lived in Lansing, Michigan where her husband was Assistant Secretary of the Agricultural College. Son Willard also named his oldest son Justus and owned a farm in Vermontville, Michigan. Justus’ daughter Roccena lived in Ypsilanti and was a talented artist. The Ypsilanti Historical Museum houses several of her pastel-colored water colors reflecting beautiful and peaceful vistas, perhaps inspired by her father's dreams that all men are equal and the world should live in harmony. Lyman Decatur Norris: Lyman Decatur Norris, whose family called him Decatur, was born in Covington, New York on May 4, 1823. He is the only son of Mark and Roccena Vail Norris. At the age of three he made the difficult and arduous journey with his parents and older sister Elviria to the wilderness which would later be named Ypsilanti. His parents soon became involved in creating a civilized and pleasant town and earning a small fortune in the process. A snippet about this adventurous young boy can be found in the book The History of Washtenaw County, published in 1881. This little narration gives us a picture of the community of Ypsilanti in the year it occurred, 1833. “In the summer of 1833, the son of one of the early settlers, Lyman Decatur Norris, wandered from his home (author’s note – the Norris family was then living in the first frame house on the east side of the river, some believe it is the home now next to and north of the train depot) in search of berries, and lost himself in the recesses of the land. Not returning at the time when hunger generally prompts a boy to seek his house, the parents were much troubled, yet waited a few minutes before consulting the neighbors. These were minutes of terrible anxiety. At length the villagers learned of the little fellow's loss: they speculated as to his whereabouts; indeed one old lady wondered whether it was a massasauga (rattlesnake) or bear which eloped with him. Many good citizens credited the mill dam with his reception; others stated definitely that the temperance lecturer from Detroit was a kidnapper. The wildest theories prevailed. Every one was bewildered - not every one - Mr. Campion, one of the early store-keepers of the village kept actually below zero (sic.) on the subject. His coolness and reticence were so complexing that many men returned from a fruitless search, asked him if he knew where the boy was. “What boy”? “A boy lost, and you come to ask Campion! Did you search for him?” “We did! We did!” replied a chorus of voices. “Where?” “Down by the mills, in the mill dam and along the river, round the town, down as far as the corner, and every place; but we cannot find him”. “Well, said Campion, “I guess you're the **** set of fools ever came in here. Remember this; and if you want to find the boy, go where no **** **** boy ever went before, where no **** **** boy ever thought of going, and there you'll find the little cuss.” That crowd of searchers went forth to find the cause of all this trouble, acted precisely on Compion's directions, and found the youth sleeping beneath the kettles in the old ashery, a few hundred feet north of Cross Street.” Decatur grew up as a wealthy and privileged child in a home at 213 North River Street. The nine bedrooms were often full of esteemed visitors. Both his mother and father were busy and involved in helping to form a civilization out of a wilderness. Roccena and Mark Norris helped to organize and build a school, church, bank, businesses, a library and social institutions to aid the poor. Decatur was taught in the school his mother ran in their home until he was ten years old. He was then sent to Marshall, Michigan where he attended a boarding school called The Marshall School, which was a Presbyterian preparatory school. He had a classical education stressing Latin, the humanities and science. He was a talented and hard working student and by September, 1841, at the age of 18, he enrolled at the University of Michigan at the new Ann Arbor campus. For the first three weeks he was the only student at the University of Michigan and had four professors all to himself. He continued with a classical education and added the study of the Greek language. His academic skills and diligence impressed his instructors and they encouraged him to transfer to Yale College where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1845. His many letters, now in the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan, tell us that Decatur had considered other careers, including a military one at West Point, journalism, or farming, but the final decision was to pursue a career in law. He studied at the Detroit law offices of Alexander F. Fraser, and was admitted to the Michigan Bar in 1847. Despite his father's objections that he would be living too far from the family, Decatur moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1848 to set up a law practice. Decatur and his father Mark Norris also disagreed on politics. In a letter dated August 20, 1848, he explained why he had joined the Democratic Party as opposed to his father's Whig loyalty. Among the reasons he cited was that the Democratic Party was a party “opposing faction, abolitionism and nativism.” His father wrote back in a letter of September 10, 1848 “I firmly believe that unless Whig principles prevail and triumph the men are now living who will see this Glorious Union dissolved and become a faction of contending elements, North against the South, South against the North.” Mark's words were a prophecy of events to follow, perhaps spurred on by his son's involvement in the Dred Scott case, discussed later in this article. Little did Mark know that his own Norris Block (now called the Thompson Block) at the corner of River Street and Cross would soon house those very northern soldiers fighting their southern brothers. To leave politics aside for a moment and continue with the life story of Lyman Decatur Norris, it seems that he was gaining a reputation as a thorough and diligent attorney in the new territory of Missouri. In 1851 he continued his law education by studying Civil Law in Heidelberg, Germany. He found this necessary because many of his law cases involved both French and Spanish land claims which were made prior to the Louisiana Purchase. When he returned to St. Louis, his life changed from that of a mere attorney. He became the political editor and then half owner of a newspaper, The St. Louis Daily. In the book Lineage and Biographies of the Norris Family in America 1640-1892, written by Leonard Allison Morrison, he explains that Decatur “while editor gave an able editorial on the public and congressional life, record and speeches of Franklin Pierce, then a candidate for the presidency and unknown in the west. More than 25,000 copies of this number were afterward printed, and the article was copied in all the democratic journals in the Mississippi valley, and had a strong influence in promoting the success of the Democratic Party.” Perhaps the most significant event of Decatur's life began when he returned to St. Louis and joined the law firm handling the Dred Scott case. We can learn more about this case in the words of Lyman Decatur Norris both in a brief narrative he wrote which was republished in the January, 2009 edition of The Gleanings and in a letter to his mother, which he wrote March 31, 1852. Decatur was assigned this case, which had been with his law firm for a number of years. The story begins with Dred Scott being born into slavery in Virginia. Dred was sold to a Dr. Emerson and traveled with him to the free state of Illinois. After Emerson's death, his daughter inherited Dred and when she moved to a plantation near St. Louis she allowed Dred to work for wages and she would take a portion of them. Dred soon became aware that he could sue his owner for his freedom based on fourteen other cases which had been won in Missouri courts by former slaves who had lived for a period of time in a free state. In fact, he had lived in Illinois when he had been owned by Dr. Emerson. Dred Scott won his freedom in a Missouri court but his owner appealed the case and hired Lyman Decatur Norris to take it to a higher court, which he did. At this time, Dred Scott worked for Decatur for wages, which were shared with his “owner” under supervision of the sheriff. The case finally went to the Supreme Court of the United States, argued by Decatur. Not only did he win the case and Dred was returned to slavery but the other 14 cases, where former slaves had been given their freedom were overturned as well. The Supreme Court decision was based on the premise that the Constitution did not recognize black slaves as men and therefore they could not sue. The statement “Am I Not a Man?” - heard even to this day, came from this ruling. Black and white men alike were shocked by this decision and the ranks of abolitionists grew in number and fervor. Those opposed to slavery became more and more vocal and those that supported it grew in confidence that the laws of the nation, indeed the constitution on which it was based, were on their side and they felt justified in owning slaves. Lyman Decatur Norris, a River Street boy from Ypsilanti, for a retainer fee of fifty cents helped change the course of history in 1852. How did he explain this to his family who were noted for their liberal beliefs? In his own words, this is the letter that he wrote to his mother Roccena, who lived on River Street in Ypsilanti. March 31 1852 from St. Louis: I must not forget to tell you of my “Slave Case.” The opinion in which I sent you some days since. For the last 15 years there had been growing up in our State (Missouri) Supreme Court a succession of decisions under the Ordinance of '84 Missouri Compromise Act of 1820 and in some cases even the Constitution of Illinois another neighboring free State in the highest degree favorable to freedom. The amount of which were that a permitted residence of a slave for two or three days even, upon free soil worked his freedom in Missouri. Under their decisions, some fourteen in number, “Dred Scott” who has been my servant for two years, in 1846 tried for his freedom having been taken by his master in '36 to Ft. Snelling in Rock Island. The case had lingered so long it became chronic. Dred's nose had been kept to the grindstone by his lawyers, who worked but little and made him pay well. The defense had passed through several lawyers hands and finally was turned over to me, as a hopeless case by the older lawyers. For 50 cents as a retained case of success $400.00. On full investigation argued it twice before the old Bench of Justice. I won it you can see from the Opinion – Previous to arguing it the last time, my faith in the correctness of the legal principals I maintained all the while increasing. I told Dred I should beat him and proposed to him that I would buy him and his family for $400 of his Master which I could easily have done, as he had no hopes of winning the case – and then Dred must make an agreement to pay me $100. a year, take care of my room etc. until it was paid (little over two years) and he would be free – but he was certain of winning and thought it would be a waste of money and he is now a slave for life – hard is it not? Notwithstanding I had tried to do my duty as a sworn attorney. I thought so too, but my sympathies were all thrown away. Before the decision Dred and his wife had to work day and night to live, he wore old clothes and always had a thin, anxious, worn look that belongs to a poor free negro. I hardly even knew him to laugh and have often times thought of recommending him to start for Canada and get out of a slave state and away from trouble. The moment the matter was settled and his Master took charge of him again, gave him a house, clothed him warmer and fed, he was another man, his face shines with fat and contentment – you can hear his loud guffaw a mile, and nothing does him more good than to sit on a Box in the sun and abuse “poor white folks”-Perhaps you say poor fellow he don't know any better. Yes, I admit he is in a poor state of existence but that is not his fault or his Masters – There he must remain, a happy and contented slave, than a poor squalid, disturbed free negro but I must stop somewhere. Goodbye, love to all, Dx The State Historical Society of Missouri explains this complicated case on their web site: “On March 6, 1857, Dred Scott finally received a decision about his suit for freedom. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that Scott, because of his race, was not a citizen of the United States. He had no right to bring suit in a federal court. He had never been free while living in “free states,” and the Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery. The entire Scott family was to remain enslaved.” Dred Scott was given his freedom in 1857 by his owner who had married a man opposed to slavery. His ownership and that of his family was transferred to Taylor Blow for the sum of $750. Dred worked as a porter at a hotel and his wife took in laundry to support themselves, yet Dred died in dire poverty of tuberculosis in 1858. The Missouri State Historical Society article concludes, “Though Dred Scott did not win his freedom via the courts, his valiant fight made possible by the assistance of friends and abolitionists, pushed America toward a bloody civil war that would eventually abolish the practice of slavery in this country.” In 1854, prior to this decision, and no longer on the case, Lyman Decatur Norris returned to Ypsilanti in order to be with his ill father, Mark, and help his brother in law, Benjamin Follett, handle the various business affairs of his parents. It was a life-changing year for him as he went into law practice with an office in Depot Town and the same year, on November 22, 1854, he married Lucy Alsop Whittelsey of Middletown, Connecticut. According to the late Ypsilanti historian Foster Fletcher, Mark and Lucy lived in a beautiful large home on River Street, which was located on the spot that the Hutchinson mansion now stands at the South East corner of River and Forest Streets – one of the highest points in the area. It was only a block from his sister, Elvira, and brother in law, Benjamin Follett's estate which covered the River Street block between Oak and Maple Streets. The Norris family was all together again on River Street. Decatur and Lucy Norris were blessed with three children: Maria Whittelsey, Mark, and Lucy (who died in infancy). Sister Maria Hayda in her book contends “The marriage was uncongenial and apparently not a happy one, for after the death of Mark Norris, (in 1862) his wife Lucy stayed with her widowed mother in New England, keeping with her the child Maria, and apparently seldom returning to Michigan.” She cites the source for this information were letters exchanged between Decatur and Lucy. However, through letters available at the Ypsilanti Historical Museum archives, we know that Maria spent a great deal of time with her grandmother Roccena Norris and frequently traveled with her to visit friends or new cities. Furthermore, Maria authored a detailed and extensive biography and tribute to her grandmother Roccena Norris, which she presented orally in 1878 and it can be found published in The State Pioneer Society book of 1878. After the death of his father in 1862, and perhaps when his wife moved out of state, Decatur went back to his childhood home at 213 River Street to live with his mother. Records show that Lyman Decatur and Lucy Norris sold their home, another home they owned at the corner of Forest and River Street, as well as lots on the site in 1866. Sister Maria Hayda tells us that “Decatur Norris between the years 1854 and 1871 again attempted, as he had after his graduation from Yale, to fit into the Ypsilanti field of opportunity either in law or in business. However, he was unsuited to the latter, and opportunity for advancement in the legal profession in the town was limited.” He did involve himself in politics and represented Washtenaw County in 1867 in the Michigan Constitutional Convention. In 1869 Decatur was given an honorary masters degree from The University of Michigan. In the same year he was elected chair of the state senate with a margin of over 200 votes. Morrison tells us of Decatur's interesting campaign style. Decatur “introduced the practice of joint discussions...The opponents traveled together and were each others guests in their respective towns.” This led to a warm and lifelong friendship between the two men. While in the senate he was on the judiciary and education committees and also chairman of the geological survey. According to his obituary in the newspaper, The Ypsilantian of January 11, 1894, “He was instrumental in getting an appropriation of $8,000 for surveying the Upper Peninsula, a project that led directly to the development of that rich portion of the state. The geological reports which he supervised proved to be of inestimable value.” Perhaps Decatur was encouraged by his niece Alice's talented husband, Edward Uhl to join with him as a partner in his growing law firm in Grand Rapids. The law firm was a notable one and Decatur was considered one of the leading lawyers of railroad law in the nation. In 1883 his son, Mark Norris, who had become a lawyer after graduating from the University of Michigan, joined the firm and his daughter Maria, who had become a doctor, graduating from college in Montreal and medical school in Boston, lived with her father in their elegant home at 21 Prospect Street, NE in Grand Rapids. Decatur's success in life continued when he was appointed a regent at The University of Michigan in 1883. Decatur died at his home in Grand Rapids on January 11, 1894 of “heart trouble.” In The Ypsilantian obituary he is “remembered by all not only as a successful lawyer and prominent politician but as a straight-forward, honest man with marked affection for his aged father...” Lyman Decatur Norris now resides in Highland Cemetery on River Street, along with the rest of his talented and ambitious family who have helped shape Ypsilanti. But it can be also said of this man that his ability as an attorney may have changed the direction of an entire nation and inspired the cry, heard still today “AM I NOT A MAN?". (Janice Anschuetz is a long time member of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions: Photo 1: Artist’s drawing of the Lyman Decatur Norris house on River Street from a 1857 map.

Photo 2: A photo of Lyman Decatur Norris produced by the Williams Brothers Studio in New York.

Photo 3: These original family portraits are permanently displayed in the formal parlor at the Ypsilanti Historical Museum.

Photo 4: The statement that resulted from the Dred Scott decision by the U. S. Supreme Court.

Photo 5: Dred Scott.

Photo 6: Harriet Scott.

Photo 7: The Lyman Decatur Norris home at 21 Prospect Street, NE in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Photo 8: The Lyman Decatur Norris Tombstone in Highland Cemetery.