Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Augustus Porter Could Have Danced All Night

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Previous: Breakfast At Black Rock Then On To Tonawanda

Judge Augustus Porter, Source: Orsamus, Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York, Jewett, Thomas & Co., 1849, p.358a

Anna Spencer Foster loved the Genesee Country. Born in East Haddam, Connecticut in 1777,1 by the time she was nineteen in 1796 she was living in Palmyra (then in Ontario County) with her first husband Moody Stone.2 The young couple traveled freely through the challenging frontier of Greater Western New York. That year, the young couple forded the Genesee River above the falls to visit her sister and brother-in-law. On the way, they passed through Irondequoit and Rochester (where “there was but one house”).3

Late in the fall of 1796, Nathan Harris hosted a “husking frolic” at his home in that growing settlement.4 In general, these social events allowed neighbors to gather to work on a particular task, then party upon the completion of that task. The tasks could range anywhere and included “husking bees, raisings, quiltings, and pumpkin pearings.”5

Harris, known as “Uncle Nathan,” as the jolly newcomer soon became known as, had emigrated to “Township No. Twelve in the Second Range” within the Phelps and Gorham Purchase. This would later be known as Palmyra. Harris built a log home from the timber on his property. Only a crooked trail led to his isolated cabin.6

This is where Anna attended the husking frolic. There, she says, “We had a pot pie baked in a five pail kettle, composed of 13 fowls, as many squirrels, and due proportions of beef, mutton and venison; baked meats, beans and huge pumpkin pies, hunting stories, singing, dancing on a split basswood floor, snap and catch ‘em, jumping the broom stick, and hunt the squirrel, followed the feast. All joined in the rustic sports, there was no aristocracy in those days.”7

The real fun, however, took place in Canandaigua. Anna recalled “the dances were more fashionable, but there was no aristocracy there.” She really gives the sense that, no matter what one’s position or title is, everyone met on the same level. Even a half century later, Anna remembered dancing with many prominent men. Among her dance partners were the Porter brothers—Peter B. Porter and Augustus Porter.8

We already know the impact Peter Porter had on Black Rock and his role in Lafayette’s visit there. But what of his older brother Augustus?

“Among the men firm of purpose and of indomitable courage who, before the dawn of the last century, strode down the rugged hillsides and crossed the pleasant valleys of New England and, coming to the borders of the river Hudson crossed to explore the country beyond, few names stand out with greater prominence than that of Augustus Porter.” So begins the biography of Judge Augustus Porter as written by his great-grandson.9

Lest you think the preceding represents familial hyperbole, an earlier assessment from another author writes, “Few names were earlier, have been more intimately, and none more honorably, associated with the entire history of settlement and progress in Western New York, than that of Augustus Porter.”10

Augustus was both on January 18, 1769, in Salisbury Connecticut. Unlike his father and younger brother Peter, he did not attend Yale College. In fact, he did not attend college at all. Instead, he studied surveying. Bored with farm life in Connecticut, in 1789 the twenty-year-old ventured out to survey the nearly created Ontario County in Western New York. Remember, at this time, Ontario County included everything west of the Preemption Line (all or part of the twenty western-most counties in New York State today). His first assignment: That section of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase that would eventually become East Bloomfield.11 He later became a surveyor for the Holland Land Company under the supervision of Joseph Ellicott.12

Augustus would spend his summers surveying the uncharted territory of Western New York, returning to his father’s home in Connecticut to write his reports.13 As he rose through the ranks, Augustus located to Canandaigua. Peter joined him there in 1795. One wonders why the married Anna Spencer Foster found herself dancing with these extremely eligible bachelors. Augustus married a year later and brought his new wife with him to Canandaigua. Presumably, all the dancing stopped (at least with other women).

In 1796, while Anna was husking corn at Nathan Harris’ place, Augustus Porter was surveying the Connecticut Reserve as principal surveyor of the Connecticut Land Company. For this, they paid him five dollars a day. He was at the time described as “full middling in height, stout built, with a full face and dark, or rather brown, complexion. In a woodman’s dress, anyone would see by his appearance that he was capable and determined to go through thick and thin in whatever business he was engaged.” He was also missing the thumb on his left hand, on account of the accidental misfiring of a gun.14

Sadly, Augustus’ first wife passed away in 1800. A year later he remarried the sister of a “long time” (six years) resident of Canandaigua. He was slowing down on the surveying side of things, taking up a career that allowed him to be closer to his growing family. In 1802 he was awarded the contract to carry the mail from Utica to Fort Niagara. That same year, he was elected to serve in the New York State Assembly.15

Despite leaving the surveying business, he didn’t forget what he learned. Using the knowledge and contacts he accumulated, he and several others bought the “mile strip” along the Niagara River. According to Albert H. Porter, “In the year 1805 the state of New York first offered the lands along the Niagara river for sale, and Augustus and Peter B. Porter, and Benjamin Barton, and Joseph Annin, jointly, purchased largely of the lands at Lewiston, Niagara Falls, Black Rock, and elsewhere along the river.”16

Some might have thought this a risky investment as it lay smack dab on disputed territory. But Porter wasn’t afraid of the British, having outmaneuvered them early when he traveled to survey Connecticut.17

In early June 1806, he relocated to Niagara Falls, having sold his Canandaigua home to John Greig, a partner of his wife’s brother.18 Remember that name. It figures into our story later on.

While Peter Porter was busy with Black Rock, Augustus Porter focused on Niagara Falls, with an eye especially on Goat Island. Together, all four partners created various companies, specializing in transportation. They had a State sanctioned exclusive monopoly on portage and transport along the Niagara River. Their clients included John Jacob Astor.19 At one point, they controlled nearly all the trading vessels on the two lakes and river. Unfortunately, the British reduced all of Augustus’ buildings to ashes in December 1813.20

Augustus was away from home when the attack came. Luckily, he sent word to his wife to evacuate. She took the children and a few precious goods. She arrived in Canandaigua and stayed with her brother… for four years.21

During that time, as his brother Peter was leading the troops against the Tories, Augustus used his expertise in logistics to keep the supply lines flowing. He was rewarded for his good deeds. The State finally deeded him Goat Island, and he promptly gave Peter half of it. The family returned in 1815 and Augustus Porter rebuilt his house—twice as big as it was before!22

Augustus Porter, who would become the first judge of Erie County, had quite a dance card, beyond Anna Spencer Foster, of course. Among the visitors to his home included Seneca leaders Red Jacket, Corn Planter, and Farmer’s Brother, as well as Washington and Albany luminaries such as Senator Henry Clay, Governor De Witt Clinton, and sitting President James Monroe.

And on the afternoon of June 4, 1825, shortly after three o’clock, Judge Augustus Porter was about to host his most famous guest: the Nation’s Guest.

But only after the distinguished Frenchman offered pleasantries at a dinner across the street.

Next Week: The Natural Wonder Of Niagara Falls, Goat Island, And Lewiston

1 [retrieved June 1, 2024]
2 Turner, Orsamus, Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York, Jewett, Thomas & Co., 1849, p. 470-471
3 Ibid.
4 Turner, Orsamus, Pioneer History of the Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase, William Alling, Rochester, 1851, p. 384
5 Turner, 1849, p. 471
6 [retrieved June 2, 2024]
7 Turner, 1851, p. 384
8 Ibid.
9 Robinson, Charles Mulford, “The Life of Judge Augustus Porter,” Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society Vol VII, Buffalo Historical Society, Buffalo, 1904, p. 229
10 Turner, 1849, p. 358
11 Robinson, p. 236
12 Turner, 1849, p. 406
13 Robinson, p. 236
14 Ibid. p. 238-239
15 Ibid. p. 241
16 Ibid. p. 245
17 Ibid. p. 239
18 Ibid. p. 243
19 Ibid. p. 246
20 Child, Hamilton, Gazetteer and business directory of Niagara County, N.Y. for 1869, Journal Office, Syracuse, 1869, p. 92-93
21 Robinson, P. 257
22 Ibid. p. 259

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