The Real “Postmaster” of Detroit

When John Norvell was elected one of the first U.S. Senators from Michigan, he was faced with a serious problem. Although he was a lawyer, his income came mainly from his position as postmaster of Detroit in the early 1830s.   JNorvell

After the War of 1812, he returned to Philadelphia.  By then he had built his political base and was viewed as a loyal party man.  So it was not surprising to see him receive a political post from Andrew Jackson. Through the efforts of “Old Hickory” he moved to the Michigan Territory and became the Postmaster of Detroit.

On April 11, 1833, John Norvell assumed the duties of postmaster. On his arrival, Judge James Abbott, the outgoing postmaster, was not pleased to see him. Being postmaster was a very important job in early America and involved a great deal of patronage and power in these communities.

After becoming Postmaster, Norvell moved the office to a small brick building that had belonged to Mr. Hunt, the former Mayor of Detroit. The Norvells occupied Hunt’s cottage on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Wayne Street, which adjoined the little brick post office. This soon proved to be too small and the post office moved into the family home. There the operations came frequently under the supervision of Isabella Freeman Norvell and son Joe.  For those few years, “when the . . . post office was moved into its new quarters, Mrs. Norvell and Joe were the captains. It is needless to say that the public were admirably served by this charming lady and the son Joe.”

Interestingly Isabella and her sons would continue to run the Post Office while her husband was in Washington.  This was due to the difficulties of the new state of Michigan in gaining admission to the Union due to territorial land claims with Ohio over the Toledo strip.  It took more than two years for all these issues to be settled and during this time Isabella was the real “postmaster” of Detroit as John Norvell had not yet resigned his position.

Isabella Freeman Norvell portrait attributed first to artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872), a leading portrait artist of the time. Later,to the artist Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842).

Isabella Freeman Norvell portrait attributed first to artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872), a leading portrait artist of the time. Later,to the artist Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842).

Norvell was often criticized for not resigning by his political foes.   The issue was not black and white.  The post office, while providing a great deal of political influence, was the only source of income for his very large family at a time when the economy of Michigan was very limited.  Detroit in 1833 was only a small village of about 1,800 residents with only 30,000 in the entire territory of Michigan,  So he held onto the job, which was done by Isabella and her sons, until Michigan was admitted to the Union and he could finally take his seat as a senator.  Being a senator was perhaps not what he expected it to be, but that is a story for another day.

It would seem that husband and wife political teams are then nothing new under the sun.



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, Detroit, Detroit History, Michigan History, Michigan History, Norvell Family History, US Senator and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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