The Emperor's Bridge Campaign



OPEN QUESTION No. 2: Did Joshua Norton Really Arrive in San Francisco With a $40,000 Inheritance That He Built Into a Quarter-Million-Dollar Fortune in 3 Years?

This is the second in our occasional series of Open Questions articles. These articles take "deep dives" into some of the most oft-repeated — but under-analyzed — historical claims about Joshua Norton / Emperor Norton. They offer source material for future exploration of questions that generally are presented as settled — but aren't.

Within the space of a year and half, Joshua Norton had lost both parents — his mother, Sarah, in December 1846; his father, John, in August 1848.

What happened next, according to the Emperor Norton Origin Myth: Joshua inherited $40,000 from his father's estate. At around the same time, news of the Gold Rush reached South Africa. Joshua sailed west to seek his fortune in San Francisco, where he arrived in November 1849 with the $40,000 — a nest egg that he parlayed into $250,000 within three years.

But is this how it really went down? Not likely, according to the available evidence.

For starters, it appears that Joshua's father, John, died bankrupt.

In 1844, both Joshua and his parents were living in Cape Town. Joshua was the family's second-eldest child. His older brother, Louis, was in Grahamstown — nearly 500 miles to the east.

In January and July of 1844, John sent to Louis two rambling, desperate letters outlining the dire state of the family's businesses. In the idiom, John was "totally freaking out" and was — among other things — racked with guilt about being in a state of such debt that he would not be able to leave his children (read: sons) proper inheritances.

Liz Graham, a genealogist in South Africa who researches the Norton tree, has secured from the Cape Town Archives — part of the National Archives of South Africa — copies of these letters. Another Norton researcher, Jenny Balson, has shared these with the Campaign. (The copies are very low-resolution — but you can view them here.)

In his first (January) letter, John writes [style in original]:

I am totally Ruined. Everything taking out of my Hand....

i am totally Ruined and lost. to morrow theirs a nother meeting to take place. I have not one penny in the World....

No one looks at me. I am dead with shame and anxiety....

we are all Ruined. A compleat Curse is on us all for this last few years. What in the name of God will Become of us all....

Broken hearted sell all the firm property directly....

 What to become of me in Old Age but i would Rather Lose all than Lead this life I have for the last 3 years....

yours in affliction
John Norton

In his second (July) letter, John continues [style in original]:

your brother [Joshua] has been the Ruin of all the Family, he has no compassion or Remorse. i am more like a dead man than anything else....

i have nor wear with all in the World to buy a pair of shoes....i have been for weeks that i could not raise the wind to pay postage....

Does this sound like a man who could be in a position, only four years later, in 1848, to leave his son, Joshua — the one who "has been the Ruin of all the Family" — $40,000?

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A search of the 75 documents in the Cape Town Archives pertaining to John Norton sheds more light. Not much, but a little.

Even if one is able to be in South Africa and research the Archives personally, it can be difficult and expensive to secure from the Archives copies of the documents themselves. But an online review of document titles and dates bears out the desperation of John Norton's letters. (From here, click "Cape Town Archives Repository"; search "John Norton" (no quotation marks); click "Result Details"; and click "Next" to see each succeeding result. Search results time out; otherwise, we could link them here.)  

We learn that:

  • John Norton had two business partners: his son, Louis, and his brother-in-law (his wife, Sarah's, brother), Joshua Davis Norden.  They traded in Cape Town as John Norton & Co. and in Grahamstown as J.D. Norden & Co. (Although Joshua Norton, the future Emperor, worked for his father in Cape Town starting in 1840, after the the failure of his own (Joshua's) business in Grahamstown, it appears that Joshua was not a partner in his father's business.)
  • By 1844 and continuing until his death...
    • John Norton was up to his eyeballs in lawsuits and creditor claims against him and his companies; and 
    • John Norton did not control his own financial affairs, the courts having placed his affairs under the management of three external, i.e., non-family, trustees. (Recall the line from his letter of January 1844: "Everything taking [sic] out of my Hand.")
  • After John Norton's death in 1848, documents between 1852 and 1857 identify the continuing financial fallout as an "illiquid case" pertaining to the "insolvent estate of John Norton" and confirm that that estate continued to be managed by outside  trustees.

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A variety of explanations have been offered for how, in light of all this, Joshua Norton could have arrived in San Francisco  with enough money to so quickly establish himself as a major property and business owner. 

Perhaps he liquidated his father's estate, paid all the creditors and still was left with a handsome amount.

Presumably, as the eldest-surviving son — Louis died in April 1846 — Joshua would, under ordinary circumstances, have been next in the "line of succession" to serve as the family's representative in settling the estate.

But given the low view of Joshua expressed by his father, it also seems likely that any such role would have been made unavailable to him.

Moreover: Given that the estate was listed as "insolvent," with claims still being made against it at least as late as 1857 — eight years after Joshua arrived in San Francisco — it's hard to imagine that, in 1848 or 1849, the trustees of the estate — still very much in place — would have signed off on any significant payout to Joshua.

 Which leaves one to imagine increasingly outlandish reasons for how Joshua could have left South Africa with a load of cash. Was he embezzling from his father? Did he cut some sort of deal with the trustees? Did he have a "side business" that nobody knew about?

There's no evidence for any of this.

Perhaps Joshua just was really good at saving his money.

Perhaps. But, having gone bankrupt himself in 1840, and with his father's businesses beginning to show signs of trouble shortly thereafter, where was the opportunity?  

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Another possibility is that Joshua Norton made a significant amount of money during a "layover" in South America — "between" Cape Town and San Francisco.

Apparently, Emperor Norton himself claimed in November 1879 to have arrived in San Francisco exactly 30 years earlier, on a vessel from Rio de Janeiro. 

Ship arrivals lists published in the Weekly / Daily Alta California newspapers toward the end of 1849 show two arrivals from Rio in November 1849 — each taking 101 days to make the journey.

Assuming that Joshua was on one of these ships, he would have left Rio sometime in August 1849.

We don't yet have information confirming when Joshua left Cape Town — and how he got from there to Rio. But, if he left Cape Town shortly after his father's death in August 1848, it wouldn't have taken a year to get to Rio.

Perhaps Joshua arrived in South America considerably earlier than August 1849 and engaged in business for several months — either in Rio or elsewhere — building up the majority of his "San Francisco nest egg" outside of South Africa.

It even has been suggested that South America was Joshua's original destination. That he heard news of the Gold Rush and made his decision to head for San Francisco while in South America — not in Cape Town.

We just don't know.

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And yet...

We still have the claim that Joshua Norton arrived in San Francisco with "$40,000."

Where did this number — this very specific number — come from? 

Joshua Abraham Norton in 1851,

Joshua Abraham Norton in 1851,

So far, the earliest appearance we've discovered is in the Emperor's obituary that ran in the 9 January 1880 edition of the Daily Alta California newspaper. The Alta reported, in the fourth paragraph, that Joshua arrived in San Francisco "bringing with him a capital of $40,000."

Forty-three years later, Robert Ernest Cowan (1862–1942) dropped this line, almost verbatim, into his October 1923 essay on Emperor Norton for the California Historical Society Quarterly, writing that Joshua "had brought with him to California, $40,000."

But this is the same Robert Ernest Cowan who — in the very same essay — brazenly doctored a newspaper item from 1865 to make it support his claim about the Emperor's birth date.

It's important to remember that — like a number of other writers who were busy forging the modern Norton Myth in the 1920s and '30s — Cowan was, in many respects, a folklorist and a codifier of oral tradition. He was a "writer about historical things" — but he was not a trained academic historian in the way that we understand that practice today.

Which means, as we see here, that he was not above lifting a nugget from a newspaper article and passing it off as his own research, apparently without checking to see if the information was actually true.

Probably to his credit, Cowan refrained from calling the "$40,000" an inheritance.

Norton's later biographers — Allen Stanley Lane in 1939 and William Drury in 1986 — did not mention "$40,000" at all. But Lane understood — as Drury seems to have missed — that John Norton died "in a bankrupt condition." 

Drury claims that Joshua received "a princely inheritance."

It begins to look like a number of previously independent fact-claims got mashed together over time to create the "$40,000 inheritance" idea.

But there appears to be no documentation for an inheritance — or for a "$40,000" nest egg, from whichever source(s).

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And, what of the claim that Joshua Norton parlayed this "$40,000" into a fortune worth $250,000?

Here, too, we're back to Robert Ernest Cowan, who finished his unsubstantiated  "$40,000" claim like this:

He had brought with him to California, $40,000, and towards the close of 1853 he had amassed a fortune of a quarter million of dollars.  

Is there documentation for this second claim i.e., that Joshua Norton peaked at a worth of $250K — some $8M in 2017 dollars?

Again, there is not.

What we do have is the following version of Joshua Norton's insolvency notice, published in the Sacramento Daily Union on 1 September 1856.

By this point, 3½ years after Joshua signed the ill-fated rice contract in December 1852, the banks had foreclosed on his properties and businesses at the three corners of Sansome and Jackson Streets — the rice mill; the cigar factor; the office building — his two water lots, at Rincon Point; and his storage ship, the Genessee.

The debts may have included the $20,000 he owed on the rice contract.

Notice in the Sacramento Daily Union, 1 September 1856.  Source:  California Digital Newspaper Collection .

Notice in the Sacramento Daily Union, 1 September 1856. Source: California Digital Newspaper Collection.

Based on these numbers, it appears that much of Joshua Norton's financial worth was tied up in his properties and businesses. 

Moreover: Even allowing for the fact that, between 1853 and 1856, Joshua spent down a lot of money on lawyers, he may never have been worth $250,000 — and probably never was liquid at anywhere close to that level.

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A quick digression.

Those who know Jane Austen's novel, Pride and Prejudice, will remember that Darcy's best friend, Charles Bingley, takes up residence with his two sisters, Caroline and Louisa, and brother-in-law, Hurst (Louisa's husband), at the Netherfield estate — three miles from Longbourn, where the story's protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, lives with her parents and sisters.

The Bingleys are landed aristocrats. But, unlike their happy, tolerant, generous-spirited brother, the sisters are sullen snobs.

On the following Monday, Mrs. Bennet had the pleasure of receiving her brother and wife, who came as usual to spend the Christmas at Longbourn.  Mr. Gardiner was a sensible, gentlemanlike man, greatly superior to his sister, as well by nature as education. The Netherfield ladies would have had difficulty in believing that a man who lived by trade, and within view of his own warehouses, could have been so well-bred and agreeable.  

"By trade": having to work for a living. The Bingleys were only one generation removed from that necessity — but, now that they had arrived, the sisters looked down their noses at anyone who had to make their own way.

This is an apt prelude to an observation that Emperor Norton's biographer, William Drury, made about how Joshua may have been regarded by those in San Francisco who had the money and status to be the gatekeepers of power and influence in his adopted city.

Drury writes that, by 1851...

...a society of sorts began to emerge; men who had "made their pile" sent home for their wives, who had their own ideas as to how the rich should live. The Jones Hotel was no longer socially acceptable, so Norton moved to the newer, more prestigious Rassette House. A good address was important these days, for he was walking with gods. That is to say, he knew the McAllisters. 

Hall McAllister, an urbane lawyer from Georgia who would reign over San Francisco's fashionable set for more than thirty years, lived in a cottage on Pike Street with a younger brother who was about to return East. A day would come when New York's aristocrats would gladly surrender an eyetooth for a nod of recognition from the arrogant Ward McAllister, who created the privileged order known as "The Four Hundred" by pruning Mrs. William B. Astor's guest lists of names he considered unworthy to associate with the créme de la créme. In the San Francisco of the 1850s, this social arbiter would have found it immensely trying to think of even forty names he would have dared recommend to an Astor. He had to be content with the company of merchants like Norton, who came to Pike Street to discuss business ventures with Hall over brandy and cigars. Dinner with the brothers was something to brag about....

::   ::   ::

In short: Joshua Norton was walking with gods — but he was not yet a god himself.

The picture that emerges is of someone who had made himself respectably well-off — but not truly wealthy.

Unquestionably, Joshua arrived in San Francisco with [X] dollars in November 1849 (or thereabouts) and had turned this into cash and assets worth [X + Y] dollars by November 1852 — the month before signing the rice contract that set him on a very different path.


  • Did [X] include a substantial inheritance from his father's estate? 
  • Was [X] $40,000?
  • Was [X + Y] $250,000? 

There doesn't appear to be any evidence to support these assumptions and assertions.

The notion that Joshua Norton received a $40,000 inheritance from his father, sailed to San Francisco and turned 40 into 250 over the next three years is a piece of the Norton Myth that has been repeated so many times that few bother to question it. 

But, taking care of the Emperor's legacy means looking under the hood of the most oft-repeated truth-claims to see if there's anything there.

In this particular case, the 40/250 claim appears to originate with a 94-year-old essay written by a person, Robert Ernest Cowan, with a track record of not checking facts or — as he did elsewhere in that very essay — just bending them to suit his own theories.

The Emperor deserves better.

It can be tempting to make the Emperor's biography more tidy than it really is — for the sake of telling a good story. But, when claims are not backed up by documentation, the better part of valor is simply to let the questions remain questions.

In the meantime, here's to informed speculation that leads to genuine discoveries about both the sizes and the sources of Joshua Norton's "portfolios" in 1849 and 1852.

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