The Scots-Irish in Middle Tennessee: The Background of the Porter Family
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.