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Norton, Nathaniel

Written by Paul Olin
Long Island Forum, April 1962


drawing
Photo courtesy of Davis Erhardt Collection


NATHANIEL NORTON was born in the Town of Brook-haven, near Coram, in 1742. Not much is known of his early life except that he worked the land on his father Nathaniel's farm. He apparently was a restless sort for he enlisted as a private in the Provincial Army at the age of 14 in 1756. He served throughout the French and Indian War in the forces under Major General Bradstreet and participated in the Ticonderoga and Crown Point campaigns in 1759.

In 1760, he was mustered out at Fort Oswego and returned to Coram. He married and settled down on the farm and by 1776 had a substantial family of four sons and two, daughters. His domestic life was interrupted by the trouble with England. He quickly signed the Association in June of 1775 and before the end of the month had accepted a Congressional commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the 3rd New York Regiment (June 28, 1775). In the meantime, before he could assume his post, he was elected a Lieutenant in the Suffolk County, Militia (August 7, 1775).

After the disastrous Battle of Long Island, he packed up his family and belongings and fled to Connecticut where he made off to join his Regiment. In November of 1776, he was commissioned a 1st Lieutenant and transferred to the 4th New York Regiment under command of Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston. He participated in the Saratoga campaign but sickness prevented his being on the battle field at Bemis Heights. After the tortuous winter at Morristown, he was appointed a Captain on April 23, 1778 and assumed command of a detachment of artillery with which he distinguished himself at the battle of Monmouth Courthouse. After a long and weary campaign against the Indians with Generals Sullivan and Clinton in 1779, his Regiment was detached to the Hudson Highlands.

The orderly books of the 4th New York tell us that Captain Norton was considered an able officer. He was appointed president of numerous court martials and it is evident he was a stern taskmaster. At Warwick in November of 1779, it was his opinion as president of the court martial that a certain soldier with an unclean musket should be sentenced to 15 lashes. Said sentence was carried out. Another time in December of 1780 at Fort Schuyler, a Corporal John Howe was courtmartialed for "calling Captain Norton a Dam'd Rascall."

Near the beginning of 1780, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Weisenfels appointed Norton to enlist men within the western frontiers of New York State. On August 15th he wrote to Governor Clinton to say he had enlisted some men but was handicapped by a lack of funds. He added that he would like to go with his friend and fellow officer, Major John Davis of East Hampton, to Long Island for money to pay bounties to the newly enlisted men. It was his idea that they visit certain Whigs on the Island whom he considered "our staunch friends who have a considerable quantity of hard cash."

Governor Clinton agreed that this was a fine plan but was unable to enter into such a venture without the consent of the Legislature. Norton then resorted to his friend Ezra L'Hommedieu to intercede in his behalf for permission to accomplish this project. On January 1, 1781, he retired his commission and awaited his orders to go to Long Island. In the meantime, he had become a widower, and met and married his second wife by whom he had a son Samuel. He also became active in the Baptist Church and frequently journeyed to Baiting Hollow to lead religious meetings there. Through his efforts, the Congregational Church of Baiting Hollow was organized.

Finally on May 2, 1781, L'Hommedieu was able to persuade Clinton to commission Norton to cruise Long Island Sound in an armed boat with the possibility in mind of bringing off some of the loyal inhabitants and taking them to the interior of New York State. He did this for a few months until the end of 1781 when he was secretly commissioned by Governor Clinton to obtain the money on Long Island; and to conceal the object at hand, he was placed in command of an armed gunboat, the "Suffolk,"in which he cruised the length and width of Long Island Sound. In the meantime, his friend Major Davis was commissioned to purchase supplies for the State and was captured with Captain John Grinnel at Sag Harbor. Both were conveyed to the Provost in New York where they were imprisoned. Davis died as a result, so they say, of poisoned chocolates given to him.

At the close of the war, Norton returned to Long Island. In July of 1783, he was involved in a fight with Elisha Brown of North Hampton. Brown was killed and Norton escaped. The next we hear of him was that he was in Herkimer, New York, where he became first an Elder and then a minister in the Baptist Church. After joining the Society of the Cincinnati, he went to Connecticut where he assumed another pastorate. He retired this post in 1805 and went to live in New York City with his third wife. He did some preaching there and was influential in the Cincinnati.

He died at that city at the age of 95 on October 7, 1837, being the oldest living member of the Cincinnati Society. His funeral was attended by almost all of his surviving fellow officers and his body was conveyed to a plot near the Baptist Church in Coram where it was interred on October 10th. He had lived a life of adventure and action yet was a man of taste and refinement. A brave man and a respected clergyman, he ended his life far more modestly than he had lived it.

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