Biography of Captain Z. C. Norton

CAPTAIN Z.C. NORTON. – Of the early pioneers to Oregon who were natives of the Pine Tree state, the subject of this sketch occupied a prominent place during his life. He was born in Farmington, Maine, December 29, 1808, and when fourteen years of age was sent to sea by his father for the purpose of learning navigation, and gaining possible promotion to the captaincy of a vessel. His patron was an old friend of his parents, and was the commander of the vessel in which our subject began his travels on the briny deep. By close attention to the duties of his calling, he rapidly rose in the estimation of shipowners, and on the arrival of his majority was given the command of a vessel.

In 1833 he was married to Miss Caroline Norton, and took his bride on board of his vessel; and for ten years its cabin was their home. during that time he was in the European and West India trade, and by his energetic management and business tact accumulated sums sufficient to purchase an interest at different times in various vessels. In 1847 he built the brig Sequin, and in her made several trips to the West Indies and to South American ports. While in the latter trade there occurred the circumstances which brought about his coming to the Pacific coast, and his subsequent settlement in Oregon.

In 1848 the Sequin was loaded at Bath with lumber, which the captain hoped to dispose of in Rio de Janeiro; but on arriving there the market was found so dull that he weighed anchor and left for Buenos Ayres, where the lumber was sold at a fair price, a cargo of hides taken on board, and preparations made for a return trip to New York. But prior to his departure word came of the wonderful discovery of gold in California; and he discharged his cargo of hides and took on a cargo and passengers for San Francisco. He was advised not to undertake the journey around Cape Horn, as he would arrive there during the stormy winter season. But the Captain had a mind of his own, and was determined not only to venture as intended, but also to ultimately go into the coasting trade between San Francisco and the North Pacific. This caused no little remark among the sea-faring people in the harbor; and many an ancient mariner warned the Captain not to attempt the determination expressed to cross the Columbia river bar, for fear that the bones of his brig and all the passengers and crew would bleach on the hostile sands that rumor had told them of.

At that time very few had visited the Pacific Northwest; but every sea and ocean was haunted with fearful tales of the dangers that attended the crossing of the Columbia bar, and in entering our great river. He sailed from Buenos Ayres on April 10, 1848, and entered the Golden Gate after an eventful voyage of one hundred and forty-two days. On his arrival in San Francisco the gold excitement was at fever heat. The harbor was full of ships of all nations that could not find crews; nor could they find traffic to engage in. The Sequin was just the craft for the coasting trade of that period; and very soon Captain Norton was able to carry out his intention of working into the Columbia river trade. On the 27th of November he sailed from San Francisco for Portland with a mixed cargo and twenty-two passengers.

Crossing the Columbia bar in those years was no child’s play. It was winter time; and the heavy winds made the surf beat furiously. Passengers gathered anxiously along the bulwarks watching the heaving of the lead, the frowning surf-beaten headlands, and the treacherous sand points that lay between. There was no pilot waiting outside, and no tug to offer friendly service for legitimate fees. Captain Norton on the second offing worked his way into the north channel, heaving the lead in a northeast snowstorm, and towards evening worked in and anchored at Baker’s Bay December 2d. The next day they reached Fort George; and their ocean voyage was ended. The passengers had paid from one hundred to two hundred dollars for their transportation, according to accommodations. Stephen Coffin, one of the Portland town proprietors, was among them; and C.A. Reed, his future son-in-law, was another.

The passage on the ocean was quick enough; but the journey up the great Columbia was a much longer affair. That was a year of freshets, and a severe winter. The brig pushed along up the river against high water and floating ice. The passengers were mostly booked for Portland; and nearly all stayed by the vessel, which was fifty-four days in the river before it arrived at its destination; and when at last the city was reached they found little more than a good-sized village in the woods.

The first mail that ever came to Oregon in United States postal sacks came on the first trip of the Sequin, being put on board at San Francisco. The ship left there in 1849, when there was no regular steamer service; and, mail for Oregon having accumulated at San Francisco, the postmaster improved the opportunity to send up the mail on hand.

Captain Norton made several voyages in his brig, and found the trade profitable. The first voyage down he loaded with flour at five dollars a barrel, and sold it all readily at twenty dollars a barrel.

In one voyage down from Portland the Sequin cleared its owners eighteen thousand dollars. Besides carrying passengers, he loaded the brig often to good advantage. The second trip he brought up coffee, stored it at Vancouver and Oregon City, and cleared three thousand dollars on it. The Captain was a shrewd hand at business, and could make money honorably and fast enough; but he was not so good a hand at saving it. Like many others, he did not show foresight in his disposals for the future. He abandoned sea-going, and remained for some years at Portland, attending to business, having built one of the first, if not actually the first, good frame store building erected in that city. This was the same wooden structure that was torn away to make room for the extension of the Oregonian block. He dealt in merchandise awhile, and then took up a land claim in Clackamas county, on the river of that name, twenty-two miles from Portland. He spent seven thousand dollars stocking this farm, and lived there until his death. at that time cows were worth one hundred dollars, and average lots in Portland the same price; but the cow and her increase were in the present, and Portland’s lots were in the future. There are many who made the same mistake; but Captain Norton enjoyed plenty while he lived, and left the farm for his beloved wife.

Those who were here in the early times will remember Captain Norton as one of the characters of early Portland. He was free hearted and liberal to all who were in need. Many a time he found immigrants, who had reached Portland destitute, after the long journey across the plains, and took them home to relieve their needs. Having no children, they provided for many children who had been left fatherless. One family, especially, they took charge of; and its members have lived and grown up to remember and cherish their memory.

Captain Norton died on February 13, 1879, full of years and honors, leaving behind, to mourn his loss, his beloved wife, children whom he had raised, and legions of sincere friends. In the brief space allotted to biographies it would be impossible to portray his many good qualities, – energy, integrity, affability and philanthropy, – nor yet given, exception in brief, the incidents of his career. In his death the state lost one of her most useful and capable citizens, his wife an affectionate and care-taking husband, and those to whom he dealt out his many acts of kindness more than a friend, – a father.

Mrs. Norton is now three score and ten, but still bears her age as if many years young. For some two years after the death of her husband she lived in their handsome and comfortable farm home, when she removed to Oregon City, residing in that place for several years, and finally removing to Portland, where she makes her home with Mrs. R. Williams, whom in a great measure she had raised.

Few people who have lived as long as this charming old lady can look back on life with such an unbroken record of good deeds as she; and fewer still are they whose faces wear more cheerful smiles or show less wrinkles. Hers is a character like Caesar’s wife, “above suspicion,” and a disposition akin to that which the angels are said to have.



History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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