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Inhabited by muskrats!

Inhabited by muskrats!

Judging by the 1790 census, roughly three-quarters of the male population was named John. The other quarter was named William. Fully all of the women were named Mary. I can only imagine that in such a world, Zebulon and Naomi Norton stood out. There are a handful of characters in Under a Bravery of Stars who are real people, but the Nortons are the most prominent. As they were the founders of Norton's Mills, it seemed to me that that they would have had their noses in the business of those who came to live in it.

But in reconstructing their personalities, there's little more to go on than their names. Naomi doesn't even have a birth date; she outlived her husband by 18 years, but I don't know how old she was when she died. I'm not even entirely sure whether all of his children were her children, too, or not.

As is typical for the time, more survives on the husband than the wife. There are two rumors about Zeb. First, that he purportedly fancied himself a medical man and would go up to Allens Creek for rattlesnake gall. The second I quote here, from Margaret MacNab's incredibly useful Northfield on the Genesee. Once, a settler named Jesse Perrin needed wheat, and stopped at the Nortons':

"The miller [Zeb] asked if he had money to pay for it, and if he owned the horse he rode. When [Jesse] answered in the affirmative, he was told, 'Well, then you must go farther, for I have so many neighbors who have neither, but must have wheat.'" This leads me to believe Zeb was his town's welfare system. Local historians being inexplicably averse to citing their sources, it is hard to trace either of these rumors to their original source, so I can't say whether either are true.

What is certainly true is that the Nortons left their familiar home and tried out a few different middles-of-nowhere before settling on the bank of the Honia River (now Honeoye Creek). By early 1795, land agents were luring settlers in by the hundreds with enraptured descriptions of the Genesee Valley. But in 1791, western New York was still a desolate and isolated place. A state legislator described it thus:

"It is a God-forsaken place! Inhabited by muskrats, visited only by straggling trappers, through which neither man nor beast could gallop without fear of starvation, or fever and ague!"

In spite of there existing very few facts about the Nortons, there is this: they moved voluntarily to a lonely, muscidoe-infested swamp and not only survived, but raised two mills. This implies that they had courage and means. It cost a lot of money to raise a mill, and it was a risky investment - especially when the customer base needing the services of a miller consisted of maybe five people. Zeb and Naomi took an enormous risk, and where many similar entrepreneurs failed, they succeeded.

The key to creating their characters, then, is to ask why the Nortons did so well. And here is why I'm inclined to believe the Jesse Perrin story: Zeb Norton had no choice but to be civic-minded if he wanted his town to succeed, and it was in his financial interests for the town to succeed. (Undoubtedly his religion came into it as well, but I strongly suspect nobody truly goes west for God except missionaries; everyone else goes for money.) When those settlers started pouring into the Genesee Valley in 1795, the Nortons got their customer base and then some.

During the leaner time from 1791 to 1794, when the series is set, it seems plausible that the Nortons were the neighborhood's safety net. It's tempting to think of early American settlers as having almost magical survival skills and being so independent they needed nothing but the land. But in fact, they relied on the help and goodwill of their neighbors, as we still often do today.


Quote from Margaret Schmidt MacNab's Northfield on the Genesee: The Story of a Frontier Town of Monroe County, NY. A publication of the Monroe County Historian's Office: Rochester, NY, 1981.

Of the vulgar little mouse

Of the vulgar little mouse

Fit the First

Fit the First