25 August 2011

George Porter Farewell

“Same name” problems fascinate me. Dedicated family historians will usually come across at least one such challenge. For this writer, opportunities just keep arising. In the June 2011 (vol. 99, no. 2) of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, I wrote about a similar but “reverse” occurrence where one woman was known by three different names at different stages of her life.          

I’m saying good-bye to George Porter, i.e. “The Carpenter” of Niagara and York, and George Porter “The Prisoner” of the London District. For the time being ... since one never knows when new information or sources might surface. None of the sidetracks into contemporary Porters—the rifleman, the blacksmith, the surveyor, the doctor, odds and ends—contribute directly to identifying either George Porter. Or whether they could be the same man.

The Carpenter
George the Carpenter disappeared suddenly from his young family; he simply may have died and been buried in a Town of York cemetery with no surviving record. Names for the earliest burials at the “established” church of St James have been lost, unless a rare newspaper item or manuscript source exists. Since George eschewed Anglican baptisms for his children, St James does not seem a likely location—if he did indeed succumb in York and not on travels elsewhere. Other burial places did exist without records we can find, such as the fort’s earliest military grounds, and occasional family plots. Recently my astute colleague Jane has shown that Duchess Street, aka Presbyterian, cemetery existed since 1795—but interment records are unknown if they even survived somewhere.[1] The Carpenter left a wife never documented as a widow, and small children who were apparently farmed out.

The Prisoner
George Porter in jail at York in 1814 was anxious to be released from the York jail for certain events in the London District during the War of 1812. A misunderstanding, he alleged. He said he could retrieve government cattle hidden by the Indians, and wished ultimately to join the Indian Department. The scant records that exist for a decade or two after the War of 1812 have no indication of his presence. He may have headed across the border upon release. If I assume this man stayed in the province and later died here, no less than 63 George Porters are in the database of the Ontario Cemeteries Finding Aid but searches of burial places in the western counties were unrevealing for potential identification or links. A George Porter in Delaware of the London District in 1809 might be the same man, but again, no joy in connecting him to anyone!

Herewith a crazy momentary flash to Occam’s Razor. The oft-used definition is all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is preferred. Which explanation would be: despite the same name and the same (stretching it a bit) general time period, these were two different men. But are all other things equal? For the life of me, I cannot reconcile the enigma of each man claiming a similar lot of land in York Township.

A more scholarly definition of Occam gives pause: One should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.[2] Two parts are considered the basis of Occam's razor:
* The Principle of Plurality - Plurality should not be posited without necessity;
* The Principle of Parsimony - It is pointless to do with more what is done with less.[3]

Should genealogy pay attention to Occam’s principle? Do we quote the glibbest interpretation? The more scholarly definition is seriously at odds with the GPS principle of a reasonably exhaustive search. Yet I went so far afield, unsuccessfully, it does seem pointless to continue accumulating negative findings. ... When can we say it’s enough?

For now, the last days of both George Porters remain clouded in mystery.
[1] Jane E. MacNamara, “Discovering the Duchess Street Burial Ground,” OGS Toronto Branch Projects ( : accessed 10 March 2011).
[2] “Occam’s Razor,” Principia Cybernetica ( : accessed 10 August 2011)
[3] “How Occam’s Razor Works,” How Stuff Works ( : accessed 10 August 2011).

© Brenda Dougall Merriman, 2011.

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