A Death in Havana

Depiction of Havana in the 19th Century

Depiction of Havana in the 19th Century

Americans traveled far more in the 19th century than we globe trotters of the 21st think.  Death at sea was quite common, either from ship wreck, under mysterious circumstances, or illness.   Once such death happened to Joshua Norvell.

Joshua Norvell served in the 17th Infantry during the War of 1812 as a 2nd Lieutenant.  He, like several of his brothers,  was a Mason.  When the Missouri State Lodge was granted a charter by the Grand Lodge of Tennessee in 1815, the charter was issued to Joshua Norvell.  He had moved from Nashville to St. Louis to take charge of the Western Journal, which was established  in 1816.

When Arkansas Territory was created, Joshua Norvell, United States attorney for the Territory of Missouri, exercised the duties of that office for a few months. Then Acting Governor Crittenden appointed William Trimble. Joshua asked for an appointment as a judge in 1818.  He became partner in a law firm with Samuel Calhoun Roane in 1819 in Rome, Arkansas. The town of Rome had been laid out in 1819 and questions over titles brought the partners some money, but “not enough to give either of the partners a good suit of clothes.” The partnership did not last long. Norvell was a district attorney and had a salary, but did not make enough to live.

He was first married to Catherine Crist ( born Feb 16, 1792 – died Jan 27, 1814 ). She was the daughter of Kentucky General Henry Thomas Crist and Rachell Ann Cartmell Crist. They had one son William Lawrence Norvell, who was born shortly before his mother’s death.

He married second Maria Craig at Port of Arkansas in May 1818. This marriage did not last. She sued him for divorce in Superior Court, June Term 1821.

His Missouri friends prevailed upon President Monroe to find him a job. He was nominated as consul to St Bartholomew on Jan 22 1821 and confirmed by the Senate on Feb 5 1821.

Enroute to St. Barts he died at Havana Cuba under mysterious circumstances.

Newspaper clipping of Joshua's final days and death

Newspaper clipping of Joshua’s final days and death

There follows, excerpts of a letter from the American Commerical agent to  his brother John Norvell (my great great grandfather)

Havana, August 13, 1821

On Thursday, the 2nd, The Nancy, Capt A. Nelson, of and from New Orleans, bound to St. Barts, put into this port in distress having discovered the mast defective. On board was Mr. Joshua Norvell, a passenger for St. Barts where he was going to enter upon his official duties as American consul for that island. Mr. Norvell not expecting to stop here, was without a passport to land. His health being delicate, he was desirous of this privilege. He came ashore … and appeared extremely unwell, but said he had been afflicted with an affection of the liver for many months, and seemed to think he would be better in a day or two.  On the next day, he appeared cheerful, and to have got much better… but on Saturday morning, the symptoms of the complaint returned. He continued to get worse and more debilitating till the following Friday when a fever appeared. His mind soon became affected and he no longer was himself. This is the situation in which he lay , until he departed this life on the 11th. His remains were interred in the burying-ground for strangers and the last tributes of respect paid to them by a number of respectable Americans.

The exact cause of his death is unknown as is his burial site in Havana Cuba.


After his first wife’s death, he sent their infant son to live with his brother Lipscomb Norvell Jr.  The son William Lawrence Norvell would later be one of the few survivors of the Goliad Massacre during the Texas War of Independence.

See Escape at Goliad


About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in American History, Arkansas, Havana Cuba, Masons, Missouri History, Nashville History, St Barts US Consul, Tennessee History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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