Jonathan Norcross

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Jonathan Norcross in his 80s

Jonathan Norcross (April 18, 1808 – December 18, 1898),[1] was elected in 1850 as the fourth Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, serving the customary term at the time of one year. Dubbed the "Father of Atlanta" and "hard fighter of everything" by publisher Henry W. Grady, he followed three mayors elected from the Free and Rowdy Party.[2]

Early life, family and education[edit]

Born in 1808 in Orono, Maine, Jonathan Norcross was the second son of clergyman Jesse Norcross, a Baptist minister from Penobscot,[3] and his wife Nancy (née Gaubert) from Dresden, Maine.[4] He had six siblings, including older brother Nicholas Gaubert Norcross (see last section below). His younger siblings include: Livonia (b. Jan. 1810), brother Jesse (b. 3 Jun. 1812), Nancy Gaubert (b. 2 Mar. 1816), who married Moses M. Swan of Augusta, Maine;[5] Maria (b. Feb. 1818), and Louisa Norcross (b. Oct. 1823).

Their paternal immigrant ancestor was Jeremiah Norcross from England, who settled in Watertown, Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638.[6] The immigrant owned land in Cambridge before 1642, and was a freeman of that town in 1652. The branches of the family became established early in New England.[7]

Norcross attended common schools and was taught the trade of millwright. As a young man he went to Cuba, where he helped construct a mill for processing sugar. While attending lectures in mechanics at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Norcross principally studied arts and sciences.

1833 move to the South[edit]

Norcross left Pennsylvania in 1833 to teach school at an academy in North Carolina. (There were essentially no public schools in the South in the antebellum years.) He moved to Georgia in 1835, in the period of new development after Indian Removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the Southeast by United States military forces to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. Norcross lived first in Augusta, then settled in the area that developed as Atlanta.

In 1836, he took charge of lumber interests in southern Georgia for Northern capitalists. While in Putnam County, Georgia, he filed a patent, US 3210 for a Reciprocating Mill-Saw Guide in August 1843.[8][9] From these efforts, he developed a vertical saw with a circular wheel 40 feet in diameter. It could be adjusted in an almost horizontal position, with a capacity to saw approximately 1,000 feet of lumber per day.

In August 1844, Norcross settled in Marthasville, Georgia, then the terminus of the Georgia Railroad.[10] He became a sawmill operator and dry goods merchant. His sawmill mostly produced railroad ties and string timbers for construction of the railroad.

Norcross described the excitement attendant to the arrival of the first trains at the station in 1845:

"I recalled very well the first train of cars over the Georgia Railroad. It was on 15 September 1845. The train came in about dark. Judge King was on board and a great many others. There were a great many people out, and there was a good deal of excitement. There was a well in the square here, and such was the excitement, and it being dark, a man fell into the well and was drowned. Judge King came very near falling in there, also. It was dark, and he was just on the brink of stepping in when someone caught him and saved him. I suppose there were about twenty families here at the time."[11]:213

Poor workers and settlers used the leavings of the mill as timbers for shanties; this area became known as Slabtown. Dominated by railway workers and their tastes, it was considered a center of vice: brothels, saloons, and gambling. This area was cleared in 1902 by disguised paramilitary known as White Caps. The site was later redeveloped for Grady Memorial Hospital.

In 1845 the railroad terminus of Marthasville was renamed as Atlanta (it was chartered in December 1847). Norcross commented that many decisions were made in haste: "[t]he reason why the streets are so crooked is that every man built on his land just to suit himself."[12]

In 1849 Norcross co-founded the Daily Intelligencer newspaper.[13]

In 1851 Norcross was among two dozen founders of the Atlanta National Bank. These men believed a growing town needed its own bank.[11]:402–403, 420–421 But the first charter Bank of Atlanta was unsuccessful.[11]:422 Given regional economic instability, there had been a bank "run" in 1845; after another occurred in October 1855, the director closed this bank.[11]:423–424 On 6 March 1856, Norcross and others incorporated the Bank of Fulton; this second bank of Atlanta had greater success.

Norcross owned the 1894 landmark Norcross Building at Five Points in what became Downtown Atlanta. It was destroyed by fire in 1902.

Political and civic life[edit]

Norcross unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1848, in the town's first election, when fewer than 225 white men voted (women and free blacks did not have the franchise). Moses W. Formwalt of the Free and Rowdy Party won. The mayoral term was only one year, and two more Rowdy candidates were elected before Norcross ran again in 1850, representing the Moral Party against Leonard C. Simpson, an attorney and candidate for the Free and Rowdy Party. Norcross won as a "temperance man who hated civic disturbances"; he presented a choice between civilian law and order and the bellicose Rowdies. The 40 drinking establishments and thriving red light district of Slabtown offended the mores of evangelicals and they believed this contributed to problems for families in the railroad town.

As mayor, Norcross served also as both de jure Chief of Police and Superintendent of Atlanta's Streets. He intended to use public shaming to persuade the Rowdies to move a mile south-west to "Snake Nation".[14]

Norcross's political platform suggested that the Moral Party could be viewed as "American statesmen defend[-ing] their principles of 'classical republicanism', with arguments drawn from Aristotle, Publius, and Cicero".[15]

Faltering prewar railroad industry[edit]

As a businessman, Norcross supported railroad construction to link Atlanta to other cities and coastal ports. "[T]he key issue before inland cities like Atlanta was transportation, and the railroad was the key to commercial prosperity."[16]

On 3 April 1856, Norcross was among 16 founders of the Air Line Railway, for which he served as president.[11]:203–204 It was planned to run through the Carolinas and Virginia to carry freight between New York, Atlanta, and New Orleans. The Georgia General Assembly did not approve the project, largely because of intense lobbying from the competing Georgia Western Railroad and Central of Georgia Railway. After Norcross gained a bond commitment from the city of Atlanta, Lemuel Grant joined the list of adversaries supporting a different route (Georgia Western Railway). By 1860 both rail ventures were dead. New railroad construction did not take place until after the Civil War.

Secession and Civil War[edit]

Norcross opposed the state's vote for secession in 1861. In 1865, then aged in his late 50s, he was one of the Committee of Citizens (with William Markham) who surrendered the town to Union General Henry Slocum.[17]

Candidate for governor[edit]

In 1876, near the end of the Reconstruction era, Norcross ran as the Republican nominee for Governor of Georgia. He was defeated by Democrat Alfred H. Colquitt, at a time of intense efforts by Democrats to disrupt and suppress Republican voting, especially by freedmen, with a combination of fraud and violence. White conservative Democrats took back control of the state legislature and governorship.

Norcross made an impassioned speech, from which the New York Times printed an excerpt.[18][19]


In the late nineteenth century, beginning in 1865, Norcross began to publish some essays about politics:

Marriage and family[edit]

Norcross in April 1845 had married the widow [Mrs.] Harriet N. [Bogle] (from Montgomery, Alabama, born in Blount Co., Tennessee). She died in August 1876.[20] They had a son together, Virgil C. Norcross, who became a clergyman and pastor of the First Baptist Church (orig. James' Chapel).[21] He married Lydia F. Howe on 19 May 1875, in Bibb, Georgia.

On 4 Sept. 1877, the widower Jonathan Norcross married again, to Mary Ann Hill, in Fulton, Georgia.

Death and Legacy[edit]

The last surviving antebellum mayor of Atlanta, Norcross died in 1898 at age 90. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, in a marked grave, Section 10, Block 140, Lot 3 .[22] Norcross, Georgia, a city in the suburbs of Atlanta, is named in his honor.[23]

Nicholas Gaubert Norcross[edit]

Nicholas G. Norcross, the older brother of Norcross, was born 25 December 1805, also in Orono, Maine.[24] He married Sophronia Pratt and moved to Bangor, where he established a career in the lumber industry. He finally settled in Lowell, Massachusetts, also an area for lumber, as well as textile mills that became increasingly important to the economy. There Norcross was known as "The Lumber King" of Lowell. His daughter Caroline married Charles Wesley Saunders, who also became known in the local lumber industry and in politics.[7]


  1. ^ "Franklin Garrett Necrology Database - Atlanta History Center".
  2. ^ Kaemmerlen, Cathy J. The Historic Oakland Cemetery: Speaking Stones. The History Press, 1907, pp. 25 - 27.
  3. ^ Martin, Thomas H. Atlanta and Its Builders: A Comprehensive History of the Gate City of the South. Century Memorial Pub. Co., 1902, Vol. 2, p. 688.
  4. ^ Reed, Wallace Putnam, ed. History of Atlanta, Georgia: With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Most Prominent Men and Pioneers. Syracuse, New York: D. Mason & Co., 1889, pp. 106 - 110
  5. ^ Genealogical and Family History of the State of Maine. 1909, Vol. 3, p. 1380.
  6. ^ Crane, Ellen Bicknell. Historical Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs of Worchester, Co. Massachusetts. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1907, pp. 376, 391.
  7. ^ a b Cutter, William Richard. Historic Homes and Places and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. New York: Lewis Historical Pub. Co., 1908, Vol. 1, p. 345.
  8. ^ United States Patent Office. Specification of Letters Patent No. 3210, dated August 4, 1843. "Reciprocating Mill-Saw Guide. Jonathan Norcross, of Putnam Co., Georgia.
  9. ^ "Mill-saw guide".
  10. ^ Southern Historical Association. Memoirs of Georgia: Containing Historical Accounts of the State's Civil, Military, Industrial and Professional Interests, and Personal Sketches of Many of Its People. Pub. Southern Historical Association Press, 1975.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Pioneer Citizens' Society of Atlanta. Pioneer Citizens' History of Atlanta, 1833–1902. Atlanta: Bryd Printing Co., 1902.
  12. ^ Carter, Samuel. The Siege of Atlanta, 1864. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973, p.40.
  13. ^ "The Atlanta Daily-Intelligencer - New News for the New South". Daily Intelligencer.
  14. ^ The Historic Oakland Cemetery: Speaking Stones. The History Press, 1907, pp. 25 - 27.
  15. ^ Jack Lane, "The Yale Report of 1828," History of Education Quarterly 27 (1987): 325 - 38; Daniel howe, "Classical Education and Political Culture in Nineteenth Century America." Intellectual History Newsletter 5 (Spring 1983): 9 -14; Carl Richard, The Founders and the Classics (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), as cited in Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 - 1848. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 462.
  16. ^ Doyle, Dan Harrison. New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860 - 1910. University of North Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 144 - 145.
  17. ^ National Cyclopedia of American Biographies: Being the History of the United States as Illustrated in the Lives of the Founders, Builders, and Defenders of the Republic. New York: J. T. White , 1892, Vol. 2, 357 - 258.
  18. ^ "The Republicans of Georgia: Speech of Hon. Jonathan Norcross, the Candidate for Governor", New York Times. 28 Aug. 1876.
  20. ^ Reed, Wallace Putnam, ed. History of Atlanta, Georgia: With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Most Prominent Men and Pioneers. Syracuse, New York: D. Mason & Co., Pub., 1889,, p. 110
  21. ^ Atlanta Historical Society. Atlanta Historical Bulletin. Pub. Atlanta Historical Society, 1972, p. 80.
  22. ^ Kaemmerlen, Cathy J. The Historic Oakland Cemetery: Speaking Stones. The History Press, 1907, p. 27.
  23. ^ Krakow, Kenneth K. (1975). Georgia Place-Names: Their History and Origins (PDF). Macon, GA: Winship Press. p. 160. ISBN 0-915430-00-2.
  24. ^ The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for the Year. Gray and Bowen, 1861, p. 396.

External links[edit]

Media related to Jonathan Norcross at Wikimedia Commons

Preceded by
Willis Buell
Mayor of Atlanta
Succeeded by
Thomas F. Gibbs

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1902 book, Atlanta And Its Builders by Thomas H. Martin