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Mystery Man E.O. Norton and the Oregon Vidette

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Ad from the 1884-85 Oregon, Washington, and Idaho Gazeteer and Business Directory

The worlds of collection and research collided this past month at the Willamette Heritage Center when volunteer Susan Tribotti cataloged an old newspaper titled the Oregon Vidette, the same week that we received a research request from Bonnie Beedie of Chicago regarding the McAfee family.

We were a bit stumped at first while examining the newspaper, it was not one that we were familiar with.  The issue was dated Thursday, January 26, 1888 and listed the publisher as E.O. Norton & Co.  With some help from google and a journal article on Labor-Reform papers in Oregon published by the Pacific Northwest Quarterly, we discovered that it was a short-lived paper whose motto was “we agitate to educate.” During its brief years of publication it was one of five papers in Salem competing for readers, including the Oregon Statesman and Willamette Farmer.

After it was purchased by E.O. Norton in 1886 it went from a weekly paper delivered on Saturdays to a daily evening paper, particularly when the legislature was in session.  Billed as a new democratic paper, its owner boasted it would be larger and more successful than its predecessor, the old Oregon Vidette.  The Statesman Journal wished the new enterprise well, but cautioned its readers that the new paper would be “the organ of the new administration, and that it is barely possible that a democratic daily may follow as an adjunct and twin sister to the weekly.  Anyone wanting an office under the new administration would better bring along a letter of introduction to Emperor Norton.”

The new administration referred to Governor Sylvester Pennoyer, a Democrat succeeding the Republican Governor Zenas F. Moody.  The Democratic party was no stranger to Oregon history, being organized back in 1851, but it had experienced a decline in the 1880s because of the large influx of immigrants from Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and foreign countries who were predominantly Republican in their political leanings.  With the change in governors, the Democrats were looking to change their minority party status and gain a stronger hold on the state.  E. O. Norton and his Vidette hoped to support that effort.

Now, back to the research request phone call from Chicago.  Bonnie Beedie, was on the hunt for her ancestress Mary Ellen McAfee, daughter of the infamous Dr. John W. McAfee, one of the original founders of the medical department of Willamette.  In 1868, the good doctor was accused of his wife’s mysterious death. He would later be acquitted despite evidence given to the contrary by his own son and brother-in-law.

Mary Ellen lived in Salem from approximately 1867 thru the turn of the century with brief periods spent in Portland and California.  She married three times and gave birth to four children.  Her first husband was Dr. Marion Lingo also associated with the beginning of Willamette’s medical department.  Tragically, her husband passed away after only two years of marriage, the victim of typhoid.  Their only child, Marian Nell would follow four years later from brain fever.

Mary Ellen’s second husband was Johnny Rice a printer for the local Statesman newspaper, by all accounts a generous, large-hearted young man.  She bore him two children: James and Josephine.  Sadly, Mary Ellen also buried Johnny at a young age, after 9 years of marriage, the victim of a lingering illness.  Mary Ellen’s third husband was E.O. Norton.  Our caller did not have much information about him, just a few facts: he’d come from New York, had a daughter named Leeta and had published a newspaper called the Vidette.

Here was our mysterious E.O. Norton again.  Initial searches of Ancestry, Family Search, census records, city directories, and online newspapers did not reveal much beyond his association with the Oregon Vidette. We had so many questions.  What did E.O. stand for?  What was his history prior to arriving in Oregon? And many more. It took some real google sleuthing to crack the case.  We came across a catalog entry for the Bancroft library at U.C. Berkeley that listed his name among others in their Oregon Dictations collection, a series of interviews done by prominent American historian Hubert H. Bancroft. While the oral history collection was not accessible online, we wondered if perhaps Mr. Norton was prominent enough to have been picked for an entry in another publication of Mr. Bancroft, a prolific author whose publication list included state and regional histories.  This was just the break we needed and thanks to google books, the out-of-print text was available. The biographical entry was short but contained three genealogical clues that could be investigated. First, his full name was Edward Ogden Norton and he was born in Yates County, New York. Second, he came to Washington Territory in 1868 and then to Oregon two years after. And finally, information for an additional family, wife Sophia S. Cole whom he married in 1854, and two children Letta and Frederick, all of whom were deceased. With these clues, we were able to bring his story to a conclusion.

After two years of publication under his name, the Vidette was sold to J. B. Fithian and A. A. Miller while Norton pursued political office under the Pennoyer administration.  After he lost his bid for a Democratic seat on the state legislature his life seemed to take a downward spiral.  His wife divorced him and was given custody of their child.  He was in ill health and living with an adopted family in Portland according to his obituary until his death in 1899. A sad end to a once powerful newspaper man within the Democratic party.

This article was written by Kaylyn Mabey for the Statesman Journal newspaper where it appeared on Sunday September 17, 2017.  It is reproduced here with sources for reference purposes.

 

Sources

  1. Statesman Journal (Salem, OR) – Saturday, May 26, 1888, p. 3
  2. “New Democratic Paper” Statesman Journal (Salem, OR) – Tuesday, October 12, 1886, p. 3
  3. Statesman Journal (Salem, OR) – Wednesday, October 27, 1886, p. 3
  4. “Another Daily” Statesman Journal (Salem, OR) – Saturday, November 7, 1885, p. 3
  5. History of Portland, Oregon: With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers, edited by Harvey Whitefield Scott, D. Mason & Company, 1890 (Portland, OR)
  6. Geo. P. Rowell and Co.’s American Newspaper Directory, edited by George Presbury Rowell, Printers’ Ind Publishing Company, 1882
  7. “Labor-Reform Papers in Oregon, 1871-1976: A Checklist”, Carlos A. Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 74, No. 4 (Oct. 1983) p. 154-166, published by the University of Washington

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