Monday, September 17, 2007

The First and Last Emperor of the United States

Photograph courtesy of San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library

Did you know the United States once had an emperor who lived in San Francisco? In fact, he was a rather eccentric character, and the locals allowed him to proclaim himself Emperor Norton I of the US and Protector of Mexico. To read more about this short-lived monarch, check out the History Resource Center: US database.

1. Go to the SFPL Home Page and select Articles & Databases. You will need a San Francisco Public Library card to get into the databases from outside the Library.

2. Under the Categories side bar on the left, select “History & Genealogy,” then select “History Resource Center: US.”

3. Select the “Advanced” search box and enter the terms “emperor,” “norton,” and “San Francisco” into the boxes.

4. Select the citation link that appears in the summary results:

Norton, Joshua (1818-1880). Encyclopedia of the American West. 4 vols. Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.

Here’s an excerpt from the biographical article:

Self-proclaimed Norton I, emperor of the United States and protector of Mexico, Joshua Norton (1818 or 1819-1880) cut quite a figure on the mid-nineteenth-century streets of San Francisco. Bedecked in a ratty coat of military design, scuffy boots, a rusty sword on his belt, and a top hat decorated with rooster feathers . . .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Followed the instructions and found the Encyclopedia of the American West article on Norton.

The article was brief, but its mention of how Norton "basked in the indulgent affections of his fellow San Franciscans" was not hyperbole. Joshua Abraham Norton was an eccentric, but a well-loved one. He printed his own money which was accepted as legal tender by local merchants. Upscale restaurants served him free of charge as his patronage was effective advertising. The opera always reserved a seat for him and well as for his two dogs.

Thanks for mentioning Norton, as his legacy is still with us today a century after his time. He represents the City's attitude of tolerance, if not support, for diversity and support for innovation. He thought of ideas that became reality much later after his death, among them building a tunnel or bridge between San Francisco and Oakland and forming a League of Nations.

If nothing else, he started a trend that was later championed by another San Franciscan icon, Herb Caen, although Caen put it more succinctly: "Don't call it Frisco."