When I first started working as a Graduate Assistant at the Ypsilanti Historical Society in 2008, I had the opportunity to transcribe a handwritten speech detailing the life of an early Ypsilanti pioneer – Mrs. Roccena Norris. The speech was given by her granddaughter, Maria Norris at the 1878 annual meeting of the State Pioneer Society, three years after Roccena’s death. Roccena’s story illuminates some of the interesting and very human experiences being a pioneer first in New York and then later, her travels to the territory of Michigan. Roccena was born in 1798, the eldest child of James Vaill and Helena Compton and grew up on the banks of the Delaware River in New York. According to her granddaughter’s speech, some of Roccena’s earliest memories are of her school across the river to which she traveled in a canoe. Although in the early 19th century a girl’s schooling consisted mainly of learning to sew and mark samplers, Roccena was taught to read by her favorite uncle. She recalled stealing away at times to read Don Quixote before she was even 10 years old. This emphasis on education in her early youth certainly had an impact on her later life as she was involved in education in all of her communities. Roccena’s father died when she was young in 1813. Her mother found it difficult to provide for all of her children as work for women was very scarce in this period, so her family moved down the river to live with her mother’s sister in a large cottage. Urged by her visiting sister-in-law – “Aunt Burt,” as she was called -- Roccena's mother decided to move west in hopes that she could better provide for her children there. In 1814, Roccena and her aunt took a trip west to “spy out” land for her family; Roccena was only 15 at the time. They stayed at the home of Roccena’s relatives in Allegheny County while they looked for land. Roccena recalls when she had free time she would visit the wigwams of the nearby Native Americans. By early 1815, Roccena’s mother and the rest of her family joined her in Pike, New York where they built a log house within two days of their arrival. Soon after, Roccena set up the first school in their part of town in a little plank schoolhouse. During the summers Roccena taught school in Pike and in the winters she taught in outlying districts. 1816 was a hard year for New York. There was severe frost and freezing even in the summer months and food was scarce. While teaching school, Roccena boarded with other families in the area and many times her students sent her peas and potatoes in return for her teach- ing services. Roccena’s family moved back east to Moscow, NY to be near old friends in 1818, Roccena only went as far as Covington, NY where she continued to teach and board with families. She had as many as 40 pupils ranging from age 6 to age 20. While in Covington Roccena renewed an acquaintance with Mark Norris. He would often accompany her to her mother’s house, seven miles away in Moscow. In January of 1820 Mark and Roccena were married. Their wedding took place at her mother’s house during a fierce snow storm that lasted a full two days. By the third day, Roccena and her new husband moved into their newly built home in Covington. After three months Roccena’s mother, grandmother and sister came to live with them at Roccena’s request. This movement also necessitated a two-room addition to their house. Mark and Roccena’s finances expanded as Mark became a successful businessman and by 1824 they lived in what was described as a “modest mansion.” In 1827 Mark traveled to Michigan to scout property for a home and business and upon finding some suitable property in Ypsilanti, he closed his business in New York. The move to Michigan was difficult as Roccena would be leaving all of her friends and family in New York – including her ill mother in the care of her brothers and sisters – not knowing if she would ever see them again. In June of 1828, Roccena, Mark and their two children set out for the Michigan Territory. They took a stage coach to Buffalo, NY where they booked pas- sage on a steamer to Detroit. The journey on Lake Erie lasted four days and three nights in cramped and uncomfortable quarters. The Norris family found Detroit as a scattered village, such as it was in the 1820s. The roads were so rough that they were nearly impass- able and they were forced to leave most of their belongings in storage in Detroit and send for them later when they could be shipped by boat up the Huron River. Roccena and her family left Detroit in a group of travelers with a two-wheeled gig and a wagon, that was made for better roads, that was owned by a merchant traveling to Ann Arbor. Several in the party were on foot, so after a slow ten miles they all lodged at the Johnson Tavern for the night. The accom- modations were so small that they slept three to a bed that night. The next morning they got an early start and traveled six more miles to the home of Mr. Starkweather, where they had a late breakfast and cleaned the mud from their shoes. When the party finally reached Ypsilanti a near-wilderness lay before them. Roccena related the scene in her own words: “…No house in sight, just a board shanty with a wreath of smoky vapor creeping out of a clump of hazel bushes on the banks of the Huron. Wearied soiled and warn, not a soul to greet me whose face I had ever seen before except my family, it was little wonder that I leaned my head forward on the stump and burst into tears.” She quickly recovered though, and urged her family forward to their new home so her children could be fed and rest. The Norris family sat down to their first meal in Ypsilanti at the home of a neighbor on June 16th 1828. Quickly after, Roccena insisted on seeing the house that had been engaged for them and begin setting up their new life. Since most of their belongings were stored in Detroit, her neighbor, Mrs. Perry, lent them bedding and kitchenware. It took nearly two weeks for their luggage to reach them by boat from Detroit. The Norris’ new house consisted of two rooms and a pantry on the first floor and two rooms above. Mr. Arden Ballard operated the front of the house as a store. It was not long before Roccena began operating a school out of one of the rooms in the home as well. As Mark’s business continued to expand, the family moved into a new frame house. In 1833 they moved into a brick house on River Street (now 213.) Roccena’s mother came to live with them – a joy as when Roccena left New York she feared she would not see her mother again. Roccena and Mark became active and respected community members in Ypsilanti. Roccena continued her involvement in and support of education. In a letter to her sister-in-law she commented that the state of the Ypsilanti schools was in “flourishing condition.” Roccena and Mark also encour- aged their children when it came to their education, enrolling their daughter Elvira in the Michigan State Normal School (now Eastern Michigan University) and their son at the University of Michigan. As a child and pioneer in New York, Roccena developed an industrious spirit and love of learning. These skills helped her to adapt and ultimately flourish as one of Ypsilanti’s earliest pioneers. (Veronica Robinson is in the graduate program in Historical Preservation at Eastern Michigan University and is working as an Intern in the YHS Museum.) Photo 1: A portrait of Roccena Norris that hangs in the formal parlor in the Ypsilanti Historical Museum.
Photo 2: The Norris House at 213 River Street in Ypsilanti.
Photo 3: The first page of the handwritten speech by Roccena's granddaughter, Maria.