J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

The Mysteries of Asahel Porter

Asahel Porter was one of the casualties of 19 Apr 1775. We have a lot of information about Porter’s death because it was politically significant, and that in turn prompted local historians to seek information about his life. But there isn’t much.

Samuel Sewall’s History of Woburn (1868) identified Asahel as “son of Mr. William Porter.” In his Genealogy of the Descendants of Richard Porter (1878) Joseph W. Porter guessed this was the William Porter who was born in 1713, married Lydia Batchelder in 1733, and had children in Beverly and Salem village (Danvers) from 1738 to 1753.

Alternatively, genealogist William R. Cutter in Brooks Family of Woburn and other works identified Asahel as “Asa,” son of Josiah Porter of Woburn, mentioned tentatively in Joseph W. Porter’s book.

One of the few documents related to Asahel Porter’s life was reprinted in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1875. It’s a marriage certificate:

Seabrook, Oct. 3, 1773.

This may certify whom it may concern, that Mr Asahel Porter & Mrs. Abigail Brooks, both of Salem in the county of Essex, Province of Massachusetts Bay, are legally married by Mr. Samuel Perley, A.M , and pastor of Church att Seabrook.

Test. John Brooks, Timothy Brooks, Mary Knowlton.
The Brooks Memorial (1884) identifies Abigail Brooks as the daughter of Timothy and Ruth (Wyman) Brooks of Woburn, born 18 June 1756 and died 8 Jan 1840.

Perley was the Presbyterian minister at Seabrook. Massachusetts couples went over the New Hampshire border when they wanted to marry quickly and without a lot of questions. It’s not clear why Asahel and Abigail chose that route in 1773, especially since two of her relatives (perhaps her two older brothers) were witnesses. It’s also not clear if they were really “both of Salem” at the time.

The Brooks Memorial says Asahel and Abigail “left one child who lived to manhood.” The Porter genealogist guessed that this son was the Asahel Porter who married in 1796 and settled in Reading. That town’s records say Asahel Porter died in February 1819, aged 43—implying he was born in 1775. Perhaps there was an earlier child who hastened the marriage but died young.

Also on 3 Oct 1773, the Rev. Mr. Perley married Josiah Richardson and Ruth Brooks, said to be from Salem as well. It’s tempting to identify this second bride as Abigail’s older sister Ruth (1753-1807). The Richardson Memorial lists her as marrying Josiah Richardson (1749-1826), and having their first child, Abigail, in 1774. Two of this Ruth’s sisters married two of this Josiah’s brothers.

The problem is that there may have been multiple Ruth Brookses. There were definitely multiple Josiah Richardsons (another one is about to come up), and it’s easy to get them confused. For example, a “Josiah Richardson of Stoneham” married a “Jerusha Brooks of Woburn” in April 1776, and The Brooks Memorial actually assigns that marriage to Ruth.

In any event, in April 1775 Asahel Porter was living in Woburn and working as a farmer. If he was indeed a son of William Porter, then his brother William, born in 1751, had settled in Woburn and married Hannah Munroe in 1774. Her brothers included William Munroe (1756-1837), orderly sergeant in the Lexington militia. At that time, Woburn covered much more territory than it does today, and bordered Lexington.

Early in the morning of 19 Apr 1775, Asahel Porter and another Woburn farmer, our second Josiah Richardson, set out for Boston on horseback, reportedly with goods to sell in their panniers. (There’s a tradition in Woburn now that Porter carried eggs, but I haven’t found anything that specific in nineteenth-century sources.) Their route took them through the western part of Cambridge, called Menotomy.

Along the way, Porter and Richardson ran into the British army column, moving west along the same road toward Concord.

TOMORROW: Asahel Porter captured.


Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

For the record, Woburn still borders Lexington, but less so.

Barbara Musgrave said...

Hello, I came across this today while doing some research. Asahel Porter is a relative of mine. Our belief is that he is the son of Josiah Porter and Sarah Bradstreet of Woburn, not William. ( Josiah ended up in Yarmouth but had two sons who fought for the revolution; Dudley and John)
This is our understanding unless you have other info. Ironically, we are also related to the Harrington's who fell in the Lexington battle through another line.
This is a very good blog, thanks for posting. If you have other information, please advise

J. L. Bell said...

As you can see above, I found conflicting information in two particular genealogies. And with so many men and women with the same names running about in Middlesex County, I couldn’t be certain either way. It’s possible more and better sources have become available since 2010.

Gary Letcher said...

This thread has been running a long time! Thank you for such an excellent review of the Asahel Porter "mystery". I believe I can support the view that Asahel was the son of Josiah Porter / Sarah Bradstreet, married at Rowley Jan. 11, 1749, through the lineage and of Asahel's sister Anna Porter, wife of Jacob Tedford, in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. These are the children of Anna and Jacob:

1. 4/22/1790 Gertrude "Gitty" - named after Jacob's mother
2. 10/25/1791 Asahel - named after Anna's brother who died at Lexington
3. 1793 Frances
4. 6/20/1795 Jacob - named after dad
5. 1797 Benjamin
6. 4/9/1799 Milford Bradstreet - after grandmothers Gitty Mulford and Sarah Bradstreet (Sarah Bradstreet was wife of Josiah Porter)
7. 4/8/1801 Anna - named after mom
8. 1803 Samuel
9. 4/16/1806 Josiah - after maternal grandfather Josiah Porter
10.1807 Henry - after paternal grandfather Henry Tedford
11.1809 John
12.1811 Charles Frederick
13.1814 William Henry

source: Brown, George S.: Yarmouth Nova Scotia Genealogies (Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1993) p.270. (among others)

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting. That brings up the question of why Anna Porter married a Nova Scotian (or how the couple settled in Nova Scotia).

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

Thank you, Gary,
Intriuging, especially the confident "named after"s. I wonder if they are logical deductions, or from an earlier family history/bible.

As to Porters in N.S.
Arrival 1783 Josiah Porter from Lexington settled in Overton. (and 2 other Porters)
"A History of the County of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia" by Campbell, J. R. (John Roy), 1841-1928, Publication date 1876. indicates Porters from Mass. moving to N.S. "Much personal enquiry, and the examination of every document which could throw any light upon the subject, have been resorted to in compiling this list."
p 114

Would be interesting to see what documentation this book of 2010 has:

G said...

Hi Chris, I was not aware of that "new" Porter book. I'll check it out at the Library of Congress in DC (I live nearby), then post what I find here.

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

John, everyone's talking about Asahel Porter

Another contribution to the "post that will not die." I looked at Sgt. Dudley Porter's 1836 pension application (S.30037). He said he was born on March 13th 1753, in Lebanon, Conn. “I returned to Woburn, and after the Treaty of Peace I removed to Yarmouth where I have lived until very recently.”

His statement refers to 19 April 1775 when he was in Samuel Belknap's co. It mentions an ambush near Concord [Bloody Angle] and chase to Charlestown. He fired no less than 16 rounds of ammunition [perhaps the number of holes in the wood block of his cartridge box] “My Brother was killed & I narrowly escaped.” As Asahel was the only Porter known to be killed on the American side, that's telling.

Supporting pension documents by others also mention Asahel:

Jonathan Tidd, 79, “became well acquainted with Dudley Porter of said Woburn at that time, now of Yarmouth Nova Scotia: who is now living at present with me: & is a brother of Asahel Porter, of said Woburn, killed at Lexington fight, 19 April ‘75.”

“I Joshua Reed of Woburn - County of Middlesex & Commonwealth of Massachusetts, seventy four years of age, nearly, testify that when about twelve years of age I was well acquainted with a family by the name of Porter, belonging to said Woburn, & Asahel Porter, who was killed at Lexington fight, was one of that family. & Dudley Porter, another of the family, is now living , whom I have this day seen"

Boston State St. Lawyers Derby & Andrews in 1836 forwarded D.P.'s application to J. L. Edwards, Esq. of the pension office: “Dear Sir We forward herewith the application of Mr. Dudley Porter for a pension. He is a brother of Ashel[sic] Porter, one of the seven [eight] patriots who were killed on the field of Lexington,”

Everyone thought the brothers' relationship worth mentioning, perhaps an indication of the enduring memory of Asahel's death. Perhaps the result of prodding by Dudley, or both. Also, no playing up of Asahel being a civilian that day.

J. L. Bell said...

Excellent to see some primary sources firmly connecting Asahel to someone else!

So we know Asahel was a brother of the Dudley Porter who moved from Lebanon, Connecticut, to Woburn, Massachusetts, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

I just tried some online databases and couldn't find birth records for these Porter brothers in Lebanon, or anywhere else. But they must have been born somewhere!