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Leo and Mary Jane Norris
San Ramon’s First American Settlers

The Norrises have the distinction of being the first American family to settle in the San Ramon Valley. Norris moved to San Ramon in December of 1850 just after California officially became a state, buying a square league of San Ramon Rancho land (4,450 acres) from Jose Maria Amador in 1850-51.

Mary Jane Kizzie and Leo Norris were married in 1829 in Kentucky. They also lived in Illinois and Missouri before loading up their family and joining a wagon train to California in 1846. The family was part of the first groundswell of American immigrants who arrived from back east. At first they travelled with the Donner party but split from them, wisely following the lead of a mountain man Caleb Greenwood, who led them to Fort Hall and over Emigrant Gap. They arrived at Sutter’s Fort as the early winter rains began and the Sierra snows famously trapped the Donners.

The Norris family and their five children lived at Mission Santa Clara, then moved to Mission San Jose in June, 1847. Their children were: William H., Mary, Ann, James and Emily. Amador was an administrator at Mission San Jose who moved back and forth from his San Ramon Rancho, so they would have been acquainted.

Leo (pictured above), his son William and carpenter William Lynch came to San Ramon in 1850 and built the first wood frame house in the valley at the mouth of today’s Norris Canyon. “It was constructed from lumber hauled from the San Antonio redwoods by the long and tedious route through Mission San Jose, Sunol Valley, and Amador’s (now Dublin),” according to historian Mildred Hoover. Ready for occupancy before the winter, the rest of the family probably moved in that December.

Map of Norris League
Map of Norris League

At first, life on their ranch was similar to Mexican rancho life with a reliance on cattle grazing; later they grew grain crops, hay and tomatoes. All travel and work was done on horseback. There were still herds of elk and antelope as well as numerous grizzly bears. William Norris was known for his horsemanship and proficiency with a riata (leather rope).

The Norrises were the wealthiest family in San Ramon during the 19th century. They sold land to Joel and Minerva Harlan in the mid-fifties and David and Eliza Glass in 1858. They diverted San Catanyo Creek north to San Ramon Creek which dried up marshy land near their house, providing a better area for crops.

A divorce settlement between William and Margaret Norris brought 950 Norris acres to attorney Thomas B. Bishop by 1895. This parcel initially extended from the mouth of Norris Canyon on the west to the San Ramon Branch Railroad line on the east. After 1906 it was known as the Bishop Brothers Ranch and prospered with good management and a ready water supply.

The family lived in San Ramon well into the 20th century, with bachelors Leo and Noel Norris as the final local descendants. When the original Norris house burned down in 1951, it was mourned as a beloved century-old landmark.

Written by Beverly Lane, November 2023

Sources: Mildred Hoover in Historic Spots in California; James Smith Recollections; Warren Beck, Historical Atlas of California; History of Contra Costa County, 1882; Archives of Museum of the San Ramon Valley and the Contra Costa County Historical Society