A letter written on worn cotton rag paper from the early 19th century. A lone silver spoon with a cryptic monogram. A little autograph book from 1903 with an admirer’s scribbling. Many of us are lucky enough to have prized objects from our family’s past. Others have, instead, a lively verbal tradition within their family. They have tales of their family that have been passed along, and while the tales may have grown over the years, they are tales of adventure and ambition, tales of bravery and brio, tales as entrancing and evocative as a melody that keeps playing in the mind.
These are just a few ways in which we connect with our family history. In our Porter family, quite a few Porter descendants have read a copy of the letter that Elijah Roberts Porter, while a prisoner in Mexico, wrote to his father, John T. Porter, who awaited word back in Texas. But who were the Porters?
Porter Family Crest
Scots-Irish Ethnic Background
Ethnically, the Porters were probably an admixture of Scots-Irish and Welsh. Very likely, they emigrated from County Londonderry or County Antrim in Northern Ireland. In fact, Joseph Brown Porter gave the name Antrim to his family home, which still stands today in Maury County, Tennessee. No one is sure where the Welsh part came in, but several researchers have mentioned that particular ancestry. Our first lineal ancestor born in America had the first name Rees (Reese, Rees, Rice), which are all used interchangeably with Rhys, a solid Welsh name.
The Scots-Irish were a proud, independent, and stubborn warlike people who had very little tolerance for government intrusion into ordinary citizens’ lives. Among the first soldiers to enlist on the side of the Colonies during the Revolutionary War, the Scots-Irish have contributed greatly to U. S. military efforts throughout many generations in this country.
As Scots-Irish, the Porters were, as my father once described, “great big people.” Rees Porter was reputed to be 6’ 6” tall, and his great-great-great-great grandson, Sam Porter (my great grandfather), stood at that same height. As T. R. Fehrenbach, in his book, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans observed of Scots-Irish Americans, “They tended to be a tall, very Caucasoid race, more rawboned than wiry. They filled the ridges and valleys with fair-skinned people and blue-eyed children, and two centuries later huge enclaves of their stock would still remain.”
Here it is important to give a brief background of the Scots-Irish (also called Ulster Scots) in Northern Ireland. These people were in Ulster because of a crown-sponsored resettlement initiative begun by James VI of Scotland, who later succeeded to the English throne as James I. Eventually, the Ulster Scots, also called borderers, began to immigrate to America because of unfavorable economic and environmental conditions in Ireland. This wave of immigration began around 1715 and continued for most of the 18th Century.
How My Family Got Here
The likely route of the Porters was a landing at Delaware, a time of settlement in Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, a significant sojourn spent in North Carolina, and later, a contented planting of their families in middle and western Tennessee. It was no accident at all that they picked these localities – it was where one could find available farm land for rent or purchase. Many of these areas were considered the backcountry in North America.
All existing evidence points to the fact of the Porters being affluent landed gentry, both in Ireland and in America. Most backcountry settlers were too impoverished to buy large amounts of land; by contrast, the will of Joseph B. Porter reveals that he had more than 10,000 acres of land to bequeath to his children.
There is no getting around the fact that most backcountry settlers were what are described as hillbillies, rednecks, and crackers. That’s the stock from which most Scots-Irish Americans today descend. Although “redneck” has an unflattering association currently, it was not originally a pejorative term back in England, where it was in use for a long time.
The Porters, however, were most likely members of what was called the Ascendancy, or at least could conceivably have been placed one tier lower than the Ascendancy. The Porters were classmates and friends of future U. S. President James K. Polk in Columbia, Tennessee, and a couple of them even law clerked in the same firm as Polk.
Another Porter Family Crest
Social Position for Families in the Backcountry
But as David Hackett Fischer, the author of Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, points out, being a wealthy backcountry landowner did not equate to social advancement, snobby pretension, or much elevated culture at all. A backcountry landowner had a very basic education and distinguished himself by risky, bold, and decisive acts. A backcountry man met and mingled with less well-positioned men in society with the greatest of ease. In frontier towns in Trans-Appalachia, life pivoted around the tribe and the clan, whether you were Andrew Jackson or Aunt Genevy, the mountain granny.
I believe it was later on, once frontier settlements became more established and education and commerce thrived, that some of these people began to find their place in a desirable social hierarchy. The well-to-do became wealthier and more invested in the planter culture of the South. Slave owners increased their human capital and their land holdings, and in so doing, they created more leisure for themselves. Once they were able to think of something besides mere survival, they turned their attention to the outward trappings of wealth and status. For instance, the aforementioned home known as Antrim began as a simple two-story brick house south of Nashville. Later on, it was remodeled to look like an antebellum home, with Greek columns and a portico.
My Great Great Grandfather, William Jefferson Porter
Why My Family Came to Texas
It seems that nearly all of the sons of Joseph Brown Porter of Columbia, Tennessee were content to stay right where they were and help their father with his plantations and business investments. There’s always a malcontent in the bunch, though, and John Thomas Porter was the family exception. As a young married man, he moved his family to Jackson, Tennessee, and then westward into Texas just before the Battle of San Jacinto (1836).
Evidently, John T. Porter was the risk taker in the family, but he was also motivated by the fact that his bride, Persia Roberts Porter, was a cousin of the empresario Sterling Clack Robertson, who organized Robertson’s Colony in Texas, and who sold her on the idea of living on the Texas frontier. One of John T. Porter’s daughters, Emily Porter Hardy, narrated an account of her family’s life at Nashville-on-the-Brazos, among other places, and through her reminiscences, we get a strong sense of the difficulties and dangers inherent in that undertaking.
What Emily failed to say in her narrative was that she had lost three adult brothers -- one to an accident, one to murder by Mexican bandits, and one to an illness while he was imprisoned in Mexico during the ill-fated Mier Expedition. She had one surviving sister, Jane, but their other sister, Martha, is lost to me after the family’s move to Texas (she probably died of a childhood illness). Emily’s only surviving brother was William Jefferson Porter, who, through his marriage to Mary Pettus, sired twelve children to continue his family line in South Texas. Emily continued the line through her first husband, Captain Josiah Taylor, and also through her second marriage to D. N. Hardy. Emily Porter's sister Mary Jane Porter married George W. Humphreys and they lived near Bandera, Texas.
What it Took
T. R. Fehrenbach remarked on the incredible strength it took to settle early Texas: “This life was hard, dirty, terribly monotonous, lonely, and damagingly narrow during the brutal years. Few of the Americans who later eulogized it would care to relive it.” I suspect that it took the Porters at least 25 years to feel like settled Texans rather than deprived, isolated prairie dwellers.
If our Porters did not have their feet firmly planted in Tennessee, at least none of them were murderers, ne’er-do-wells, crooks, or con artists. At least, not that I have ever found! It could have easily gone that way, though, as settlers to Texas sometimes wished to disappear on the frontier to escape a dubious past. I feel pretty sure that many, if not all, of our family patriarchs were rather well-grounded in the Christian faith.
My Spiritual Heritage
As an example of this, we have the record of the Porter family’s strong service in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which was organized in Tennessee in 1810. The church evolved partly because of the insufficiency in numbers of educated clergy on the frontier, as well as the influence of the Second Great Awakening early in the 19th Century. Joseph B. Porter had a brother, James Brown Porter, who was a founder and early minister of that church. Indeed, in the middle of the 19th Century, his cousin Col. Joseph Brown wrote of the preacher, “He was certainly one of the most Powerfull Men in the Pulpit of his day he professed in the Revival of 1800 was a fine looking Man and had a fine Education and went into the work with all his powers of Eloquence had a fine harmonious voice and strong set of lungs and was a Mong the Veary first Preachers ordained by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and I have no doubt but many hundreds if not thousands will bless God threw Eternity that He sent Porter to declare his Will to them.”
The Porter family is blessed to have that kind of spiritual heritage, and I believe we owe a lot to our antecedents in many other, not so obvious, ways. I have often lifted a glass to our Porter forebears in my thoughts, if not in my actions, and I hope, through my research, that other Porter descendants will find a way of honoring our family’s legacy.
The heraldry pictured in these documents is not intended to suggest that any of our Porter family ever used these family crests. The crests are in this narrative to give you an idea of what the name Porter represents: that of the gatekeeper of a castle. The porters were responsible for guarding the passage of goods into and out of a castle. Thus, bells (for sounding the alarm) and/or fortified gates are prominently included in coats of arms to signify that a porter kept unauthorized persons from proceeding into the castle keep.
Gracenotes is a lineal descendant of Rees Porter, and has been researching the Porter family since 1984.
Rugeley, Helen. Brown, William and Margaret (Peggy Fleming), Descendants of. Self-published book, 3rd edition, 1983.
A labor of love. The best book in existence on the Porter and Brown families. Out of print for many years, but available in the reference section of some large public libraries that have good genealogy collections.
Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.
A historical examination of the five Anglo-Saxon groups who immigrated to America. Very organized, comprehensive, and thorough. The Scots-Irish are the last group covered in this work, although the author’s observations about this group may have been written to be controversial.
Fehrenbach, T. R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.
Fascinating, poetic and lyrical history of Texas. The first part of the book is the most interesting, as he tells about early Indian tribes in the state. Mr. Fehrenbach goes into great detail about the Scots-Irish and their ways, since so many of them were early settlers of Texas.
Dobie, J. Frank. Tales of Old-Time Texas.
Dobie, J. Frank. A Vaquero of the Brush Country.
Dobie, the famous man of letters, knew some of our Porter ancestors. References to family members are scattered through some of his books; however, an anecdote about W. J. Porter and his hound dogs appears in the first book, and a tale from the 19th Century featuring Sam Porter appears in the second book. Both books are easily attainable.
McLean, Malcolm. Papers Concerning Robertson’s Colony in Texas.
Volume 17 mentions the John T. Porter family, who settled in Nashville-on-the-Brazos
The Texas Reports: Cases Adjudged in the Supreme Court, Volume 7. (Google Books) Beginning on p. 234, the case of Porter and Wife v. Miller. John T. Porter and wife Persia appealed a case to the Texas Supreme Court, and this gives the arguments and the verdict.
James A Watkins from Chicago on March 14, 2019:
Thank you for this very interesting story. I see you mentioned Jackson, my father was born in Lexington,Tennessee and was reared there until he was ten. I know that area fairly well.
Jeff porter on March 12, 2019:
Has any one done a dna test on here?
John Dove on October 21, 2017:
Thanks, GraceNotes-- Just FYI, my Tennessee place of interest includes Nashville, Murfreesboro, Davidson County, and Limestone TN, birthplace of Davy Crockett, my (somewhat) distant cousin.
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on October 19, 2017:
It is always very interesting to see who will pick up on this. I found a long lost thread of my family just by writing this article on HubPages. In the past, I had difficulty following their family line, and now the guy who contacted me is one of my Facebook friends. Makes for a satisfying ending.
John Dove on October 18, 2017:
Hello GraceNotes --
I enjoyed reading your Hub. I, too, have ancestors who settled in Middle Tennessee in the 1700s and 1800s. But I haven't yet discovered any Porters. Someday I'll write a Hub about what I know of my Tennessee kin.
I, too, have read Albion's Seed by Fisher, and was fascinated by it. Great reference book! Based on his story, I'm surprised that your Porters, who were apparently people of means, settled in mid/west Tennessee instead of further down south.
I'll be following you from now on.
Hunter Porter on April 30, 2016:
I am searching for the father of a John Clark Porter. John is my 4th great grandpa and he lived in jefferson county Alabama. then later moved to AR. I believe his fathers name is Minor Porter from Tennessee. If you have any information on him please let me know.
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on November 05, 2012:
Joseph Brown Porter was born 7 Dec 1770 in Orange (later Guilford) Co., North Carolina according to my records. His father Reese Porter married Jane Brown. Reese had a sister, Mary Porter, who married Jane Brown's brother Joseph. I don't know of any other brothers and sisters that Reese Porter had. It's confusing enough when they obtained spouses from the same family, the Browns!
KarenPorter on November 04, 2012:
I am looking for info on Joseph Brown Porter before he arrived in Maury County TN. Where did he live & did he have any family in that area?
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on October 26, 2012:
Hello Shawn, thanks for your comments. There came a point in my research where I reached a dead end, so to speak. People descended from Reese Porter don't seem to agree who his parents were, and since they came over from Ireland, it's harder to be sure about anything. I developed my own theory, but it may not be worth much. Reese was either the son of Hugh Porter and Violet Mackey or he was the son of William Porter and Mary Price.
Shawn Porter on October 26, 2012:
It would seem we are distant relatives than. My grandmother, Dorthy Porter wife to Phillip Porter in Warshaw Indiana, keeps up with our family bible. They can help you fill this in more if you want.
Rochelle Ann De Zoysa from Moratuwa, Sri Lanka on April 28, 2012:
It's really cool and very interesting :) I love history and thanks for sharing . It's great to know :)God bless you all!
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on April 06, 2012:
Paula,thanks for your comments. Glad you enjoyed it.
Paula on April 06, 2012:
My Smith family married into your Porter family. Samuel S. Smith (b. 1802 VA, d. 1851 Gile, TN), son of Thomas & Rhoda Strange Smith, married Jane Brown Porter. So, naturally, I found your post intriguing. Hope you keep up the good work.
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on January 18, 2012:
Ceci, I have this information somewhere, and will find it for you. Probably by tomorrow. Check back -- it's too late tonight to attempt this.
ceci on January 17, 2012:
oops that would be the Rev James Brown Porter -- when his 2 brothers were dying. Does anyone know the names of these 2 brothers. I read where the 1 brother needed "saving" and by the time he did die, he was saved by the Rev. Thanks for any help on this.
ceci on January 17, 2012:
Does anyone know the names of the Rev Joseph Brown Porter brothers?
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on January 12, 2012:
Aymee, if you still are checking out my hub, I have finally looked at my index in that book. I'm not sure which James Porter you refer to. There are a few, and one of the more illustrious ones is referred to in my hub above (this was the preacher-- probably not the one you are looking for). I cannot find any mention of Eva Sabrina Porter in the index at all. More information about the James Porter in question would be helpful if you have it.
Aymee on January 04, 2012:
Thanks! The book "The Holcombes, Nation Builders..." says this Porter family "bought and equipped a plantation on the old Post Road between Columbia and Nashville, Tenn. , -in Maury Co., Tenn., and there had as neighbors families named Payne, Pillar, Post - The Polk families of Tenn. were their warm friends."
I have more on Eva Sabrina Porter in this book if you would like to see it. No other Porter is named, except for James, that I can see. Just a general explanation of this Porter family. Again, not sure if the information is acurate though.
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on January 02, 2012:
Aymee, Wow! Someone with a background of French nobility in your family?
When I can (hopefully within the next 24 hours), I will check one of my books and see if there is any mention of James Porter in Maury County (1840). I will come back to comment either way.
Aymee on January 01, 2012:
Loved your story! This is the first I've seen of HubPages.
I am researching a Porter family from Maury County, TN too. My GGG-grandmother was Eva Sabrina Porter who married William Alfred Holcomb in Maury County, TN in 1831. I've been given research from someone else in our family, but no proof for their findings. It says her parents were William W. Porter and Sebra or Sebrina Goodrum. William's parents were Hugh Porter and Mary Elizabeth Witherspoon, while Sebrina's parents were Thomas Goodrum and Agnes Gladden.
However, there's a book called "The Holcombes, Nation Builders" by Hannah Elizabeth Weir McPhereson, published in 1947. It says Eva Sabrina Porter was from a Porter family that was of french nobility who came to the US via New Orleans. It speculated that her father was James Porter in Maury County on the 1840 census. It also says Eva was engaged to James Knox Polk, who would eventually become president. Not sure this info is correct, but I see you have found the Porter and Polk families ran in the same circles too, and wonder if you've ever heard of this engagement?
Anyway, Willim Alfred Holcomb and Eva moved to Belton, Bell County, TX after 1850, and the family remained there for many years.
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on October 31, 2011:
This is very interesting! Thanks for sharing this. I will look at your link.
Brian P. Porter on October 30, 2011:
Loved the story on your Scots Irish in Maury County. I have done some family history but can't get farther than a James Porter born in 1802 Kentucky. Through research I have found that my YDNA comes from the Highlands of Scotland. There is a Porter DNA Project out on the web if any Porters are interested. http://www.worldfamilies.net/surnames/porter
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on October 29, 2011:
Thanks so much, James. Family histories are really fascinating. It's always nice to help a fellow researcher, and I already have, through this hub.
Maury County is beautiful. Obviously, your ancestors came from a great part of the country. I should try not to get carried away here!
James A Watkins from Chicago on October 27, 2011:
Congratulations on the 100 Author Score!
I enjoyed the fascinating story of this part of your family tree. I have been to Maury County. My Daddy was born in Lexington and I have relatives out that way scattered about.
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on September 02, 2011:
Thanks for the comments, Dr. Porter. It is so frustrating at times to do this work.
When I can, I will look through some of my old correspondence. I remember there was a trail one researcher was trying to follow, and if it has anything helpful, I will contact you through your HP profile.
fwplll on September 01, 2011:
Enjoyed your story of the Porter family in Tennessee. I am looking for the ancestors of James Porter who married Susannah Elizabeth [Keith] Porter in Grayson County, Virginia. James was born in 1781 and died in 1830 in Grayson County, Virginia. I have not found a single piece of evidence about the identity of his parents. I believe that James had the following siblings: William, Alexander, and Elizabeth. Please let me know if you have any information that might help me determine the identity of James' parents and his ancestors.
Dr. Frank W. Porter III
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on August 26, 2011:
Thanks for your comments. Labor of love is only my description and opinion (not the title) of Helen Rugeley's book, Brown, William and Margaret (Peggy Fleming), Descendants of. I realize that this is a strange title, but Ms. Rugeley wanted her book to be easily accessible as to its subject matter. It is out of print and may be difficult to find.
Nashville-on-the-Brazos was the name of the settlement that E. Robertson founded. I was referring to "Papers Concerning Robertson's Colony in Texas", which is a massive, multi-volume set of books published by Malcolm McLean.
Best of luck with your further research.
Pat on August 25, 2011:
I too am working on the Porter family and have been extending the families and children from Reese Porter.
Read your post and am wondering about two of the sources you cite.
A Labor of Love and Nashville on the Brazos. I am currently in Fort Wayne at their incredible library and have not found either book.
Do you have the author of A labor of Love, there are no citations for that book and the web has thousands of hits for that name.
Nashville on the Brazos appears to be part of the Robertson's colony papers. Is it a book in it's own right or is it part of those papers?
I appreciate any info you can give me.
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on August 13, 2011:
Moonlake, thanks for your comments. I will check out your genealogy hub!
moonlake from America on August 13, 2011:
Enjoyed reading your family history. I'm also doing genealogy and have a hub of my great-great-grandfather.
This genealogy stuff gets in the blood and it's hard to stop looking and searching. I voted up.
Allen Werner from West Allis on July 20, 2011:
Oh - No apology needed. I took some time off from writing and reading here on the hubs for the same reason. In fact, the first couple hubs I wrote when I started up again were about my mother. She is losing her health, and much of it is her mental health. It is never easy when it is a close family member, and in my case, my mother only has me and my family. There really no one else for her to depend on so the burden falls on me most of the time - but its not really a burden, but the timing of her needs can be inconvinent. My prayers are with you and your mother. Be strong, be well and be safe. Peace
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on July 20, 2011:
Allen, thanks for the comments. Yes, there is a lot of work in this hub. Glad you enjoyed it.
Sorry I haven't been around to visit your hubs lately. My mom's health took a turn for the worse (she has been in rehab following a stroke), and I will be going to her home very soon to help her get adjusted to being at home under new and difficult circumstances. I don't know what to expect, actually.
Allen Werner from West Allis on July 20, 2011:
Wow! You had to really put your head down and do some research to assemble this hub. I'm sure any of your family members that read it must really appreciate it. What a great legacy to hand down to later generations. Peace
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on July 15, 2011:
Thanks for the comments, RTalloni. This one took a lot of work.
RTalloni on July 15, 2011:
Interesting history--thanks for sharing! It was definitely a good move to post it after the family reunion! :)
gracenotes (author) from North Texas on July 15, 2011:
Thanks for the compliment, Tebo. I wrote this about a month ago for a family reunion, and I figured why not put it here on HubPages. Besides, I never know when I might be read by a distant relative.
tebo from New Zealand on July 15, 2011:
An engaging history of your family. You have certainly researched well and I think its great that you have been interested enough to do this.