05 October 2010

George Porter Part 4: The Surveyor(s)

... continuing a small series on less-than-exhaustive searches for two mysterious George Porters.
One George disappeared from Upper Canada about 1800; another George surfaced in 1814, outlined here. Family origins for both are unknown. Two previous “Persons of Interest”have already been introduced. The Rifleman was said to be from Pennsylvania; the Blacksmith apparently originated in New England.

Speaking of Porter families in New England, one branch produced some prominent figures in the Buffalo and Erie County area of New York ... which is where? ... across and upriver from our George Porter the Carpenter’s first appearance in Newark (long since renamed Niagara-on-the-Lake but often referred to as simply Niagara). The next Persons of Interest:

The Surveyor
Augustus Porter (1769-1849) was born in Connecticut, the son of Col. Joshua Porter (born 1730, son of Nathaniel) and Abigail Buell.[1] The six children of this couple, by various accounts, do not include a George. Augustus was a surveyor who arrived in western New York in 1789 and became well-acquainted with the region.[2] His brother Peter B. Porter (1773-1844) later joined him, both purchasing extensive lands along the Niagara River to become pioneer residents, developers, and wealthy businessmen of Black Rock (Buffalo) and Niagara Falls. Augustus eventually became a judge and Peter became a general in the military, which are huge (and shameful) over-simplifications of their respective lives.[3]

The Person of Interest Part:
Number one, George the Carpenter named his second son Augustus. Not your run-of-the-mill name (the first son was David). The name does not occur in his wife’s family. It seems to be rare among the New England Porters. No use asking about baptismal sponsors ... George quite successfully avoided all contact with church and clergy in Newark and York. Number two, a descendant recalls a family tidbit that George himself had been engaged “as a surveyor” at one time. Number three, the Niagara proximity features again—but that is a given with all persons of interest. Residents on each side of the Niagara River were well aware of each other’s activities and considerable traffic—economic and social—went back and forth. References to leading citizens were published in newspapers on both sides.

When George the Carpenter’s son Augustus was born about 1798, the family was in the town of York. But George still had some unresolved property claims in Newark. Did he pull the name Augustus out of a hat? Or did it come from his own unknown, now forgotten, ancestral line? Or could it be he deeply admired a well-known entrepreneur across the river? A man, coincidentally, with the same surname ...

The Surveyor’s year of birth makes him a contemporary of the Carpenter. Augustus from Connecticut was unlikely to be the captured Rifleman in 1794, if we are to trust the report of the Rifleman being a “native of Pennsylvania.”

The Other Surveyor
Admittedly, I am hung up on the name Augustus. So hung up I might suspend credibility with this one. In 1788 Augustus Jones (c1757-1836) was sworn in as a Crown surveyor near Newark.[4] From 1791 to 1800 he served as chief surveyor for the old Nassau District of Upper Canada which encompassed the Niagara peninsula and well beyond. Augustus came from a family settled in Newburgh, in the Hudson River Valley, and had trained as a surveyor in New York City.

 Does it defy possibility that, when George the Carpenter first came to Upper Canada, he worked on Jones’ survey crew for a year or so? If Augustus Jones actually recorded the names of his axe men, chain bearers, and so on (few surveyors seemed to do this in their working diaries), it might give us a reason for the naming of George’s son ... assuming he had great respect for Jones.

The earliest surviving survey diary of Augustus Jones is from the winter of 1793 with no names of the men he hired.[5] His 1797 diary, at work on the Grand River, illustrates the occasional reference to the largely nameless employees: “one of the hands” was bitten by a rattlesnake, and applying some roots to the wound “made the man easy.”[6] 

Both scenarios for naming a child Augustus—the surveyor in New York State, and the surveyor in Upper Canada—would eliminate the name as a clue to family origins. 

Now that I’ve taken up this much space, the promised Doctor will have to wait till next time. It’s not all bad to have your imagination working for you when the target keeps dodging. But the circles around the bulls-eye target expand wider and fainter. Perhaps these preliminary surveys of “Persons of Interest” will clarify where more disciplined and focused research should apply.

[1] Albert Welles, History of the Buell family in England: from the remotest times ...(New York: American College for Genealogical Registry, Family History and Heraldry, 1881), 108 and 110. [Dates of birth vary slightly in other family accounts.] 
[2] James Harvey Hotchkin, A History of the Purchase and Settlement of Western New York (New York: M.W. Dodd, 1848), 14.
[3] Charles Mulford Robinson, The life of Judge Augustus Porter, a pioneer in western New York, by his great-grandson, Charles Mulford Robinson (Buffalo: Buffalo Historical Society Publications, 1904).
Bob Kostoff, “Porters Prominent Locally,” Niagara Falls Reporter (http://www.niagarafallsreporter.com  : accessed 17 June 2010), 2 August 2005.
[4] “Augustus Jones,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography (http://www.biographi.ca/ : accessed 23 September 2010).
[5] Crown Land Survey Diaries, Field Notes and Reports, “regarding a survey of Burlington Bay to the Forks of the Thames,” [Augustus Jones, January-February 1793], RG1-59, vol. 47, no. 614; Archives of Ontario microfilm MS 7438.
[6] Correspondence and Memoranda Relating to Surveys, “Survey at the River Ouse for Capt. Brant,” [Augustus Jones, from August 1797], RG 1-2-1, vol. 46, 75-76; Archives of Ontario microfilm MS 7438.
    Some of the books can be viewed on Google Books or Internet Archive.

© Brenda Dougall Merriman, 2010.

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