For so many years after we found the grave of Curtis Porter’s father Robert in the very old cemetery in Bethlehem, Connecticut, we could find no clue about his parents or any further ancestors. Not long before I discovered the Internet as a genealogy source, Evelyn Pulaski did a thorough search of all written records in the Connecticut historical society, but nothing turned up about Robert’s parents.
However, in 2011 I found Robert’s parents on Ancestry—plus four generations of grandparents and much more. It appears that the Porters in the Middle Ages were some of the nobility, both in France and in England. That gives a reason for our having such good records on them.
Though I was able to trace Porter ancestors from our Connecticut Robert Porter (1764-1843; oft referred to in this document as “our” Robert) all the way back into the 900s A.D., I am only going to expand on the generations before Robert who died in America. Five couples, from the birth of the first to the death of last, spanned 249 years of early American history. Six of the ten were born in one century and died in another. Among them they had 47 children (the first couple had 14 and the last had just 5 that we have record of). A chart of their dates provides an overview before getting into the details.
Overview of the Five couples
John and Roseanna (1594 – 1648 and 1600 – 1647)
Robert and Mary (1624 – 1698 and 1623 – 1728)
Thomas and Abigail (1650 – 1718 and 1664 – 1718)
Nathaniel and Joanna (1692 – 1758 and 1692 – 1744)
John and Deborah (1728 – 1793 and 1732 – 1774)
and Roseanna White Porter
Time wise, John of the first couple reaches clear back into the end of the 16th century. Roseanna was a “millennium baby,” born on July 13, half way through the year 1600 (at least one descendant, Nathan Hoppe, has that birth date, too) . John and Roseanna lived in Essex, England, northeast of London near the sea. Roseanna (often called Anna) was also born in Essex but in a different town, and they married in yet another town.
We have a marriage date for them—October 18, 1620, and it enriches their story. Just three weeks and four days after their marriage, a wide ocean away from Essex, a ship named Mayflower dropped anchor in the northern reaches of what would soon be called the “New World.” Jamestown in Virginia had been settled thirteen years before, and the Dutch were already exploring the New York area. Had John and Roseanna, when they married, heard about any of that? Had the thought of crossing the vast sea themselves entered their minds? Whether or not it had, they couldn’t have known that they and generations of their descendants would end up living out their lives less than two hundred miles beyond where the Mayflower landed, in an area that would soon be called Connecticut.
Our next information is confusing. Some sources on Ancestry list John as arriving in Massachusetts in 1630, in Hingham MA [just outside Boston] in 1637, and in Connecticut in 1638. That would seem to make sense except that some Ancestry sources also report children born to the family in England in 1630, 1632, 1633, 1635, 1637, 1638. The family had 13 children in the space of 21 years, with a fourteenth born four years later, but at this point we can’t be sure how many were born before they crossed the ocean.
Eleven ships full of Puritans came over with the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 under the leadership of John Winthrop. If the 1630 date is correct for John and Roseanna, then they would have been part of that group. Can you imagine the courage of mother Roseanna in taking seven children under nine to be cooped up on a ship with two hundred other people for two months? (If they came later, those children would have been older, but there would have been more of them.) I found the name Porter in one of the passenger lists—possibly them, or maybe not; we’ve no way to be sure.
I had gotten this far in my write up when I went looking for a date for the founding of Windsor, Connecticut, since I knew John and Roseanna died there. I already knew Windsor was the first English settlement in Connecticut. I found more than I was looking for! I found several websites about a ship (Mary and John) that came over in 1630 and whose passengers founded the town of Windsor. I learned that these Porter ancestors of ours were a documented part of the founding of Windsor because I have seen John’s name on two Internet lists of founders!
Roseanna Porter died in Windsor on May 11, 1647. She was just 47, and her youngest child, Joseph, was three. Eleven months later, little Joseph died on April 20. Two days later John died. It sounds like a common illness, but we have no way of knowing. The youngest living child was 8, the oldest 17, and no other family members died at that time. Several of John and Anna’s children lived out their lives in Windsor and died there. One died in Woodbury, just south of Bethlehem, and two—including our ancestor Robert—died in Farmington.
Following are websites that are fun to explore for background information that provides us a realistic peek, not only into the experiences of this ancestor in coming to America, but the experiences of our other ancestors (Stauffers, Hawkins, Mahnenschmidts, Comptons) when they came over.
and Mary Scott Porter
We currently (2011) have eight Robert Porters in our ancestry files. Only one in our list (b. 1399) is further back in history than this one; the rest are later, right down to Robert Ford Porter of Indianapolis (1927- ).
We don’t know a lot about this Robert and his wife, Mary Scott, but we can decipher a few things. For sure he was born in England before his family came to America and would have been just six if the family came over in 1630, either on the Mary and John or one of the other Winthrop ships. Can’t you just picture the little guy and his eight-year-old brother in awe of the big sailing ship? But I can also imagine how bored they got with it before the two-month voyage was over!
Robert may have been a twin. While we don’t have any date for his birth except 1624, sister Sarah was born March 15, 1624. After the family’s arrival in Windsor, Robert would have spent the rest of his growing-up years there.
Though the records suggest his wife Mary was born in Farmington, if she was born in 1623 she must only have been from Farmington because Farmington wasn’t settled as a community until 1640. Perhaps her parents were among the early founders there. Her father, Thomas Scott, was born in England and died in Hartford, Connecticut, which is even closer to Farmington than Windsor is.
From the Farmington Historical Society we learn: “In 1640, a group of about a dozen English settlers from Hartford, Windsor and Wethersfield, seeking more land -- or ‘some enlargement of accommodation’—bought territory from Sequasin, chief of the Tunxis Indians.” (http://www.farmingtonhistoricalsociety-ct.org/fh_farmhist_pg1.html). The Historical Society site includes an additional side comment of interest. “In June 1640, the settlers— originally Puritans from Essex, England— renamed the territory….”
Robert was already an adult, married (November 7,
1644), and living in Farmington when his parents died in Windsor. Robert
and Mary had twelve children born in Farmington. Our predecessor Thomas
was the third one, as his father Robert had been.
Robert seems to have lived his whole life in Farmington and to have died there. The records on Mary are more scarce, and they are confusing. Some say she died in a town called Wenham, MA. Wenham is northeast of Boston, a hundred and fifty miles from Farmington. Whatever she might have been doing there is hard to imagine (none of her children ended up there). A couple records even claim she lived until 1728, which would make her over 100 years old (unheard of in those days), yet several say she died in 1675 eleven years before Robert did. My guess is that she lived out her life in Farmington and died there.
and Abigail Cowels Porter
I thought the most interesting thing about these two was going to be that they died the same year—maybe even the same day, but further looking at the dates brings out something bigger. Abigail was only fourteen when they married! She became a mother two and a half weeks after her sixteenth birthday. They gave the baby girl her mother’s name, and as far as we know, little Abigail was approaching her third birthday before she had a sibling. (Unless Thomas and Abigail had every other baby die in infancy, their babies were not born as close together as some previous generations—as for instance Thomas’s grandmother Roseanne, who died three years before he was born.)
Along the way, they experienced their share of sorrow and tragedy. In the spring of 1689, when little brothers William and John were six and a half and three and mother Abigail was seven months pregnant with her fourth baby, their firstborn died. She was nine and a half. Though we can’t be sure, the cause was undoubtedly illness. In July, a new baby sister joined the family, and they named her Mary. She would live to be 18, but she and brother John (he at 23) would die years later within eighteen months of each other.
The next baby in the family was a boy, our ancestor Nathaniel, and in the summer of 1694, another baby girl was born. As was common in those days, five years after they lost their firstborn Abigail, the parents honored her by giving her name to the new baby. That Abigail, who would live to nearly 70, was followed in the family by three more siblings—including a brother and a sister who would outlive the American Revolution late in the next century.
Thomas and Abigail were both third generation Americans. All four of their grandparents were born in England but died in America. They were a Farmington family through and through. Not only were they both born there and died there, but all their children were born there and only Nathaniel didn’t die there.
It’s interesting that Thomas and Abigail both died the same year, even though Abigail was fourteen years younger. He was 68 in 1718, but she was only 54. In fact, several records claim they died the same day (December 19). That raises a whole new set of questions about how that might have happened. Without automobile or airplane accidents in the picture, the possibilities for their dying together are narrowed considerably. A carriage accident? A fire? Disease might be the most likely, but the same day? We have no way of knowing. Thomas and his child bride had been married forty years.
and Joanna Smith Porter
Yes, our ancestor Nathaniel Porter was married four times, but that doesn’t make him a Casanova. He was married twenty-nine years to the mother of all but one of his children. It’s just that all but one of his wives died before he did.
Joanna Smith, his second wife, was the mother of all but his firstborn. She and Nathaniel were both born in Farmington, married there, and he died there.
Both Nathaniel and Joanna were twenty-three when they married, but Nathaniel had already been married once. He lost his first wife, Ruth, just eleven months after their wedding, presumably in childbirth. (The child survived, raised seven children of her own, and lived to 82.) I believe we can assume that Joanna raised the baby girl along with the seven children born to her and Nathaniel. (Baby Mehitable was nineteen months old when Nathaniel and Joanna married.)
Whether Joanna actually died in Bethlehem, as some records claim, is not confirmable (see below discussion of deaths in Bethlehem at end of John and Deborah Porter). When she died, her youngest child was fourteen. A year later Nathaniel did something that turned out fairly unusual in the annals of family history—he married a widow lady who would one day be the mother-in-law of one of his sons—but of course no one knew that at the time.
Let’s put it a different way. The lady he married, Deborah Bishop Hand, had been a widow for six years, raising four children. (A four-year-old son John had died eleven years earlier, and a second son named John, her youngest, was now seven.) Her three daughters were 17, 13, and 10. The middle one had her mother’s name—Deborah. Nathaniel’s children were ages 15-32, including next-to-the-youngest, John, age 17.
Since Nathaniel’s family lived in Farmington and Deborah with her mother and siblings lived in Guilford on the southern shore of Connecticut along the Long Island Sound, it is doubtful that young John Porter and 13-year-old Deborah Hand knew each other before their widowed parents married. How Nathaniel found Deborah we have no clue. Six years after their parents married, John and Deborah married. They would become the parents of Robert Porter, the father of our Curtis, who ended up in Michigan.
After five years of marriage, Nathaniel was left a widower again. He was sixty years old. He must have been a very nice man because just sixteen months later, he found another lady willing to marry him, this time from a town called Fairfield. Her name was Elizabeth Gray. She had been married to a Nathaniel Gray for fourteen years and had four children that we know of—Elizabeth (her name), Abigail (her mother’s name), Ebenezer, and Obediah (her father’s name). They were 23, 21, 17, and 12. So sixty-one-year-old Grandpa Nathaniel Porter brought a twelve year old into his home with his fourth wife.
Nathan and Elizabeth were married just six years and a half years before Nathaniel himself died at age sixty-six. Though Elizabeth was only six years younger than Nathaniel, she would live another 35 years, to age 93. During her later years, the American Revolution happened, and George Washington was President when she died. Though none of her blood ran in our Robert Porter’s veins, Elizabeth would have been one of only two grandparents he knew (the other was his step-mother Deborah’s mother who was alive until he was six).
– Farmington, CT
d. Before 1793 – Bethlehem
We have something for John and Deborah Porter that we don’t have for any other ancestors born that long ago. We know how they met. When I first discovered that Nathaniel Porter married Deborah (Bishop) Hand, I thought, Oh my word! Robert’s grandfather married his other grandmother! and I wondered how that felt in the family….
But not so fast! When I got into the dates more closely, I realized Nathaniel’s marriage took place nineteen years before our Robert Porter was born and while his parents were still teenagers. It did not involve anyone’s grandparents.
John Porter was 16 when his mother (Nathaniel’s second wife, Joanna) died, and Deborah Hand was only seven when her father, John Hand, died. We haven’t any hints on how Deborah’s widowed mother supported her young family for the six years between the time her husband died and the time she married Nathaniel Porter. When she did remarry, her daughter Elizabeth was 17, daughter Deborah was 13, sister Submit was 10, and little brother John was 7 (see Nathaniel for more about him).
The Porter family was a little larger and older. John had four sisters in their twenties, a brother Nathaniel, 21, and a sister Esther, 19. The only one younger than John was 15-year-old Thomas. (In case you’ve haven’t noticed, certain names tended to be popular among the Porters J.)
How that step-family “blended” together we can only guess, and we have no way of knowing how soon John and Deborah began to fall in love. What we do know is that four months before their wedding on January 14, 1751, Deborah’s mother died. Was the wedding already being planned? John was then 22, Deborah just short of 18, and John’s father widowed for the third time.
The records I’ve found at this point say John and Deborah were married in Woodbury but all six of their children were born in Bethlehem. We do not have death dates on two of the first three children, so we can’t tell if they died in infancy or childhood. There were four boys and two girls, with our ancestor Robert the youngest. The French and Indian War transpired during their childhoods, and the colonies were beginning to get restless with life governed by a far away mother country.
We have a problem in bringing John and Deborah’s story to a satisfactory conclusion because so far we don’t have exact death dates on either of them. It turns out John married a second time, to a Rebecca Joslin. All we know is that Deborah died before he married Rebecca in 1774 (June 23) and he himself died before Rebecca did in 1793.
When I first saw that Robert’s parents died in Bethlehem, I was excited and assumed we could search for them in the Old Cemetery with Robert and his wives. But Bethlehem has put together websites with the names of all those buried in their three cemeteries. I have searched them, and I don’t find any other Porters besides Robert and his two wives (Betsey and Lucy) in the Old Cemetery and Robert and Lucy’s son Alfred with his wife and daughter in the New Cemetery. That is puzzling and frustrating.
One possibility is intriguing. John married Rebecca just as things were heating up for the American Revolution. He was 46. Could he have joined the Connecticut militia and died in battle, and that’s why there is no grave in Bethlehem? That is purely conjecture, and if offers no explanation for where Deborah is buried, never mind Rebecca, who is also said to have died in Bethlehem.
[After writing the above paragraph, I found in the Evelyn Pulaski papers that a John Porter fought in the Revolution. That doesn’t prove he was killed and it doesn’t explain anything about Deborah or Rebecca, but there’s a good chance the conjecture may not have been a conjecture after all.]
This family-history journey has brought us from John Porter who left England for the colonies to another John Porter who fathered the ancestor we’ve known about for a few decades now, Robert Porter of Bethlehem, Connecticut. His son Curtis emigrated from Connecticut to central New York state and eventually to the Grand Rapids area of Michigan. Curtis’s descendants have lost touch with each other and are undoubtedly spread far and wide. However, in at least our own branch of extended family, family history is thriving, and two sets of fifth great-grandchildren have stood around Curtis’s grave as they learned about that history.
Long before the Internet came along, two ladies named Mary played an essential part in our being able to rebuild the history I have sketched out here. One of them, Mary Ellis Vanderlaan Schoenborn, had Porter blood in her veins but never carried the name. The other, Mary Ann Batson Porter, carried the name (married into it) but had no Porter blood. Both were crucial links in our being able to track our Porter ancestors.
It happened like this. In 1923 the Porter clans in west central Michigan, all descendants of Curtis, decided to gather together in reunion. They commissioned one of the matriarchs of the clan, Mary Ann Porter, widow of Curtis’s son George, to write what was known of their predecessors. Curtis had died eleven years before Mary Ann married into the family, and George had already been gone fifteen years before the reunion, so how much Mary Ann knew about the family is impressive.
The piece she wrote and presented to the reunion the following summer, presumably based on what she had learned from her husband, told first about Curtis’s sister, one of four Betseys in the family. Then she told about Curtis and his parents, including how his mother died giving birth to his baby sister when he was sixteen months old. Finally, she told about George and how he built that beautiful farm home that some of us have had the incredible privilege of visiting.
When Mary Ellis and I began sharing Porter information in the 1980s, she hand copied Mary Porter’s document and sent it to me. Without that, we never would have known about Robert and Betsey, could never have tracked down their graves in that old cemetery, and certainly would not have had a place to start looking for those who preceded him.
Thank you, Mary Ellis and Mary Ann!
At the close of her history, Mary Ann wrote a beautiful tribute to the Porters. I like to think that her perception of the Porters she knew would also have been true of John, Nathaniel, Thomas, Robert, and John. It bears repeating here.
all the statistics obtainable regarding the Porter family down through
the generations, we find them to be an industrious and prosperous
people, honorable in deal, faithful in friendship, true in principle.
us who remain to stand by the trust that is left to us, that when the
final family roll shall be called, not one shall be missing. And in the
Eternal Home we shall have a grand Reunion where no separations come and
no good-bys ever spoken, and we shall go out no more forever.
bow with tears to the inevitable for our lost ones and welcome the new
ones to our family circle with open arms.
I can’t say it any better than that.
I just wish those two Marys were around to read this Porter saga. Or, a much better thought, perhaps they’ve already met the principals in that Eternal Home of which Mary Ann spoke, so that they have no need of my feeble attempt to recreate them J.
P.S. If anyone wonders how I recreate this much history about those gone by, my tools are pretty simple, in order of importance and amount of use. Of course it all starts with my family history database with names and dates of people and their children. Beyond that:
Neither of Robert’s marriages is listed in
the record of Bethlehem marriages between 1740-1798 L, but his parents’ marriage is.
Josiah Whittlesy & Elizabeth Jackson,
June 5, 1748