Introduction: Norris

Larry Pearce

4/12/04 rev. 12/22/04, 2/12/07, &  4/18/09

Modern village ofCastle Dawson, Northern Ireland

Modern village of Castle Dawson, NI, origin of our Norris family


My mother’s grandmother was Annie Sims Norris (1850-1922), and Annie’s great-grandfather was Robert Norris, Sr., born in Northern Ireland around 1760. Although the details of his origins are thin at this time, a recent report on a 25-year study by Daniel E. Norris entitled “Norris Families Residing in Maghera Parish, Derry County, Northern Ireland (1740-1859)” offers some new information and theories of our ancestors back to the late 1600’s, including James (c. 1715) and his father, an unnamed, wealthy ship captain. Dan Norris, originally from Gibsonia, PA, lives in Alexandria, VA To date, our other best sources have been my late Aunt Edna Gray, the family genealogist, Mary Etta Dawson Monnier of West Deer Township, Allegheny County, PA, and several e-mail contacts. Other general sources have included The University of Pittsburgh’s digital library, RootsWeb’s WorldConnect Project, and Norris Families in America. The purpose of this piece is to lay out some of the research we’ve compiled so that Norris descendants can revise and add to the collection. A secondary goal has always been to have a presentation ready for the Annual Robert Patterson Gray-Annie Sims Norris Family Reunion held in West Deer Township, PA, at the end of each July. Let’s look briefly at the origins of the Norris surname and some noteable namesakes before outlining our lineage.

The Old English and French spellings of our Norris name include: Norrensis, de Norreis, and le Norreys. The name literally means “The North,” probably a reference to early Norse conquerors of the Noyers area in Normandy, northwestern France. My ancestors, the de Percys also hailed from that area also [see the E-Gen: Pearce article “Upon this Rock, Part I: The Origin of the Pearce Name.”] Like all good families from the British Isles, including the Pearces and Grays, the Norris family reportedly has a connection to William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings (1066). William de Noers was awarded no less than 33 manors in England, mostly in the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk, for his support of the new Crown. This loyalty lasted for over 500 years and included Hugh le Norreys’ excursion with King John in the Crusades, for which he was given an estate in Lancashire, but according to Steven D. Norris, “Nearly half of the “le Norreys” family succumbed to the great ‘Black Death’ plague of 1348-1350.” The bad news didn’t end there, however. In the 1530s, Sir Henry Norreys, along with four other of King Henry VIII’s closest friends, was beheaded for supposedly having slept with the king’s romantic interest, Anne Bolyn. Additional historical information on Norrises from Normandy and England is available at Steven D. Norris’s Norris Families in America. Now let’s have a look at some prominent Norrises in America.

The following are American Norrises, both famous and infamous:

*Edward Norris II (1579-1659) – Having been educated in England’s finest schools, being promoted to vicar of Tetbury, and authoring several books, he suffered persecution under the Church of England and fled to Holland with the Puritans. In 1639 he joined a branch of the Plymouth Colony and was appointed the 4th pastor of the Salem, Mass, Church. He was there during the famous “witch trials.”
*John Norris (1618-1665) – The son of Edward II had a falling out with his father, probably over the attraction of business opportunities in the New World. John left Mass. with other parishioners who disagreed with church policy on infant baptism and settled eastern Long Island, running a fleet of ships between Boston and England, including stops at Jamestown and Barbados. His family settled parts of Maine, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and the West.
*Robert Norris (1652-1729) – Edward’s son, though originally apprenticed as a cooper, eventually also became a man of the sea, operating a great whaling vessel complete with a crew that included Native Americans. He built a land empire on Long Island only to lose it when the British occupied that part of New York during the Revolutionary War.
*Isaac Norris (1671- ) – This family namesake, though no apparent relative, founded Norristown, just north of Philadelphia, before the American Revolution. According to West Deer Township sources, one of our Robert Jr’s half brothers settled there Was there a family connection or is this just coincidence? Originally the property of William Penn and his son, Norriton, or Norritingham as the 7,482 acres was sometimes called, was purchased by Norris and William Trent for only 850 pounds in 1704. Issac was a member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and Governor’s Council and was Chief Justice of the Commonwealth Court. Norris’ first industry in town was a gristmill known as “Egypt Mill.” Another innovation for this burg includes the first canal built in the United States, connecting Philadelphia to the central highlands. In the 1830s this became part of the historic Pennsylvania Canal and Portage Railroad to Pittsburgh. The town is home to one of the nation’s oldest newspapers, The Gazette, now The Times Herald. Montgomery County was separated from Philadelphia in 1784 with Norriton as its seat. The Borough of Norristown was created in 1812. (McDonough, The History of the Norristown Area, 1980)
*Isaac Norris II (c. 1700- ) – This son of the founder of Norristown also served in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and is credited with the wording on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.” (
*Chuck Norris (b. 1940 ) – One of Hollywood’s most famous action adventure heroes known for his physical combat maneuvers against bad guys.

Now, let’s take a look at our own family and consider the great difficulties they overcame in settling the Western Pennsylvania wilderness in the early 19th Century. We know that Robert, Sr. originated in Northern Ireland, but according to Dan Norris, there were four or five Norris families listed in the village of Swatragh, near Castle Dawson, Derry County, during the 1831 British Census. [See the painting by Augustus Earle (1793-1838) and imagine life in old Northern Ireland.] There is probably some family connection to these Norrises. We believe that they were all Scottish transplants to King James’ “Plantation” in Ulster, and may have originated centuries earlier from the English estates awarded to the loyalists listed above. [For information on the history and relation of Ulster to Scotland and the Royal Crown see the E-Gen: Campbell article “Background on the Scotch-Irish.”] The source Central Pennsylvania History says: “Robert Norris [Sr.] was a wealthy citizen of Ireland who took great delight in hunting and spent much time following the hound. He was six feet, six inches tall and weighed 250 pounds.” He was married twice, having a son [Robert, Jr.] to his first wife, Catherine Dowling, and seven sons and two daughters to his second wife. This source has 25 years between sons Robert Jr. (1785-1867) and James (1810-1870), the only ones listed as sailing with their parents to America. Perhaps some of the other children had been born but stayed behind for later passage. They sailed from the port of Derry in December 1810 on the ship Mary Wallington. Robert Jr. by that time would have been 25-years old and had at least four brothers who also eventually came to America: Daniel, James, John, and Henry. Our consultant Dan Norris has reason to believe that their parents stayed behind in Ireland, but Mary Monnier believes that Robert, Sr., remarried before 1798 and that Robert, Jr.’s four brothers were products of the Robert, Sr. and his second wife, whose name was Martha. Dan’s study reveals that Robert Sr’s 1791 wedding took place in the Ulster village of Ardboe. Monnier believes that Robert, Sr. and new wife not only came to America but that James and Henry and at least three additional children were born here. Several sources say that our Robert, Jr. had nine step-siblings. From my Aunt Edna’s research on James H. Norris, we can confirm that he had an older brother Adam and that they were half brothers to our Robert, Jr. James and Adam married twin sisters named Epha “Effie” and Susannah Ferguson, daughters of Revolutionary War veteran David Ferguson and Susannah Pollard, who first husband, a Captain Lacey, had been killed in the same war. One Internet source claims that a newspaper article and letter from about 1895 promotes step-brother John as one of the oldest Freemasons in America, becoming a Master in 1820.

Central Pennsylvania History implies that perhaps three generations of Norrises lived in West Deer Township, and when Mother, Catherine Dowling, became ill, she returned to Ireland where she died two years later. It’s certainly possible that if Robert, Jr. was 25 when they came to America, he already had a wife and children.

Elaine Walsh, a distant Norris relative, was kind enough to send a reference from the 1908 book by John Newton Bouche, A Century and a Half of Pittsburgh and Her People, available online through the Pitt Digital Library. One section under the in-law glassmaker David Kerr Bryce says that his wife, Mary Norris, was the daughter of Dowling, Robert and Mary Mackrell Norris’s tenth child who married Elizabeth Browne. I devote a separate article to the Bryce in-laws. See also the Browne Family. Bouche says that Robert Sr.’s second wife, Catherine, bore no children, so we question his sources. A death certificate, a very reliable source, of Robert and Mary’s eighth child, Susanna Norris Montgomery, identifies her mother as Mary.

Getting back to our Norris line, records suggest Robert Jr. and Mary arrived in Philadelphia in 1811 and, eventually, Allegheny County in June of that year. If other family narratives are accurate, it was unusual to sail in the winter because of the dangers of seasonal storms. The trip could have taken as long as two months anyway, so they possibly arrived in America sometime in January or early February. They may have stayed with relatives in New Jersey or Pennsylvania and then waited until the weather improved and connections could be made with family and friends in the West before heading to Pittsburgh in the early summer. [For an idea of what my Pearce ancestors faced on the high seas and the rough road west, see “Commentary of the Family Narrative: Part II” and “Pittsburgh in 1820 and Beyond.”] Bouche believes that Robert, Sr. not only came to America, but lived a short time in New Jersey before moving to the farm in Western Pennsylvania. Deer Township was named after Chief Deer, one of the Iroquois leaders of the 18th Century. Present day West Deer Township wasn’t formed until 1836. According to his Bull Creek Cemetery headstone, my Great-great grandfather Dauling was born in 1829, although Bouche says it was “Dowling” and the date was 1823. The place of birth is listed as Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh’s North Side. A Scottish custom of the day for the second born was to give the child the mother’s surname. Was “Dowling” Robert, Sr.’s wife’s maiden name, and thus Dowling’s grandmother? This is a question yet to be answered. Robert, Jr. would have been 44 at the time of his son’s arrival and Mary’s death.

The plat book for West Deer Township in the Beers School Atlas of 1876 shows one of the highest concentrations of my family surnames, mostly Scotch-Irish including Norris, anywhere in the world. Again, we wonder how many of these families knew each other back in Ulster. The green, hilly terrain of Western Pennsylvania must have reminded Robert and Catherine of the stone-walled pastures of Northern Ireland. The biggest difference was the abundance of trees that had to be cut before planting and pasturing could begin. The other difference was the distance between neighbors. And, of course, the government was practically absent from their day-to-day decisions. Robert and Catherine worked hard, and surely all the children helped. When Robert and Catherine passed away their property went to their children and they were buried in West Deer Cemetery.

Transportation was difficult in those days, to say the least, so we wonder how Dowling met his future wife, Elizabeth K. Browne, who was five years older than he and born in Philadelphia. They were married in 1848. He was only 19. Ironically, her sister, Annie K. Browne (1829-1890), became the wife of George Hoffman, one of the few Germans in my family and the father of my great-grandmother Rachel Elizabeth Hoffman Campbell (1866-1946) on my mother’s maternal side. I believe that Annie and Elizabeth’s mother, Annie Sims, whom sources list as being born in Scotland but immigrating to Philadelphia, must have moved the family to Pittsburgh at some point. Nothing is known about her husband, James. Again, I stress that there was much intermarrying among the Scotch-Irish in frontier Western Pennsylvania, and no doubt many of the families had known each other for generations. One e-mail contact from North Carolina mentions a Norris-Sims marriage in the 19th century.

Bouche describes Dowling as “quiet and unassuming, a kind and loving father. Dowling worked the land as his father before him, but apparently he suffered some type of “lung trouble,” according to family sources. Bouche says that he was preparing to build a home on the 100 acres his father had left him when he died in 1858 at age 29, almost a decade before his father and 58 years before wife Elizabeth. The couple had five very young children before his untimely death: Robert James, Annie Sims (who married my great-grandfather Robert Patterson Gray), David Brown, William Henry, and Mary Pillow. Great-great grandmother Elizabeth finished the house that Dowling had planned and raised the children. She moved in with daughter Mary Bryce in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh eventually and lived to be 92, passing away in 1916. She was laid to rest beside her beloved husband in the family plot at Bull Creek Presbyterian Cemetery, West Deer Township.

Consider some of the additional tragedies that struck that Norris family:

*The eldest son, Robert James (1849-1865), enlisted with the Grand Army of the Republic on September 3, 1864, when he was only 15 years old. By Scottish tradition he would have been considered the head of the household after his father died. He fought with Company D of the 6th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers. Stationed near Washington D.C., his comrades guarded the nation’s capital with heavy artillery. [For more information on this regiment in that campaign in which my Great-grandfather Robert and Uncle Samuel Gray also fought see “Samuel Alexander Gray: Part I.”] It’s unclear just when young Robert became sick, but he was mustered out with his company as the war was winding down in June of the following year. He died in December of that year at the age of only 16, just four months after his honorable discharge. Heartbroken over his death, and a widow with four other children to take care of, his mother wrote several letters applying to the U.S. Military for Robert’s pension. They are still on file in the National Archives, according to Dan Norris. Claiming that the cause of his illness could not be determined or connected to his service in the GAR, the War Department denied her claim. He is buried in the Bull Creek Presbyterian Church Cemetery with so many others of my kin.
*David Brown Norris (1853-1886), the third child in the family, died at age 33 of causes that we don’t know.
*William Henry Norris (1855-1876), the fourth child in the family and a pre-law student, died at age 21 of drowning while trying to save another swimmer in Narragansett Bay, Mass (although Bouche says Cape May). No other details have been discovered at this time except that his body was never recovered.

Of further interest concerning our Norris family is the fact that three of Dowling and Elizabeth’s five children were each born just 14 months after their younger siblings. Perhaps that hurried procreation was a desperate grasp at life, a premonition of Dowling’s early demise, even though he died before he could have known of any of the Norris family tragedies.

Daughter Annie Sims Norris (1850-1922) married Scottish descendant and fellow West Deer Township native Robert Patterson Gray (1844-1928) and they raised their four children, including my Grandfather Paul Barton (1892-1977), on the family farm near Bairdford, West Deer Township. After living relatively long, productive, and healthy lives, they are all buried in the Bull Creek Cemetery. [see the E-Gen: Gray article “The Descendants of Robert P. and Annie S. Gray” and “Memories of My Mother Ruth: Part II.”] Grandfather Paul, a carpenter by trade, built his family’s first house about nine miles from the Gray and Norris homesteads in West Deer Township, but was forced to move his large and growing family to a farm in adjacent Butler County when the Great Depression hit. Ironically, I attended elementary school and church with many Norris in Cooperstown, and only recently have I learned that they are related, the Callihan branch. Vernon (d. 1987) and wife Elizabeth “Betty” (1915-2004) ran Norris Hatchery along Rt. 8 in Cooperstown. I remember as a child being wakened in the middle of the night when it burned. Fire damaged the hatchery several times, and after the last time, they never rebuilt. Vernon and Betty hosted many exchange students and were active in the Grange movement. In 1964 they traveled to India under the auspices of the Farmers and World Affairs organization to teach agriculture. Betty was President of the Pennsylvania Republican Women, lifetime member of Women’s Christian Temperance Council, and my Sunday School teacher. Son Calvin was my classmate and a good friend. He resides in Butler, PA, but their children and 15 grandchildren stretch from Connecticut to Louisiana to California.

Indeed the Scotch-Irish of West Deer Township are inhabiting America. As our research continues, especially with a trip to Ulster on the horizon, I look forward to sharing more about our family.

2 Responses to Introduction: Norris

  1. Melinda White says:

    My grandfather was Cambridge Dowling Norris, married to Bertha Sims Norris. They lived in New Castle (outside of Birmingham), Alabama. I believe he was born around 1890.

    • admin says:

      What are the odds of our Norris family names matching so closely? My GGgrandfather was Dowling Norris and his daughter was Annie Sims Norris. They lived north of Pittsburgh, PA, in West Deer Township, Allegheny County, much earlier than your family lived in Alabama. Do you have any other information? See Our Norris Family Tree. I have not researched either the Dowling or the Sims families but I believe all these families were from the Castle Dawson area in the southwest of Northern Ireland, as per most recent articles.Thanks for sharing,

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