Peter Porter - Table of Contents  ..............  Black Rock - Table of Contents

Black Rock's Peter B. Porter: Lawyer, Statesman, Soldier
By Dr. Joseph A. Grande

The text below is a reprint from a series published by the The Courier-Express
Reprinted with Permission

Citizens traveling across Niagara Land are apt to notice Porter Avenue in Buffalo, Porter Road in Niagara Falls or Porter Township in Niagara County. And older residents of Buffalo's historic West Side may remember Fort Porter, built in the 1840's and torn down some 80 years later to make way for the Peace Bridge.

Much of the significance of the Porter name in Niagara Land is due to an extraordinary pioneer, businessman and political leader, Peter Buell Porter. Born in 1773, Porter migrated westward after completing studies at Yale University and Litchfield Law School He left behind a comfortable home in Connecticut and settled at the pioneer community of Canandaigua to begin his law practice. Handsome and above average in height, Porter was described by contemporaries as a fine orator and a practical man with a commanding personality.

To the surprise of none, the young New Englander soon began to make his mark. He served as defense counsel during the first jury trial of a court of record in Western New York, but his interests were not solely with the law. Purchasing land near Lake Erie, he joined with his brother Augustus and Benjamin Barton to found Porter, Barton and Co., a trading firm granted the state monopoly to portage goods around Niagara Falls.

Next the young lawyer-businessman ventured into the arena of politics. In 1797, he was chosen Clerk of Ontario County, a region then embracing all Western New York. A few years later came election to the New York State Assembly, where Porter heeded the pleas of Joseph Ellicott, resident agent of the Holland Land Company with its several million acres between the Genesee and Niagara rivers, to promote road construction into the area. This cooperation vanished when Ellicott, engaged in laying out a village soon to be called Buffalo, assailed "Schemers" led by Porter for planning to develop a rival community two miles north at Black Rock. Once the development of Black Rock had begun, Porter moved his home to the shores of the Niagara.

Purchasing land near Lake Erie, he joined with his brother Augustus and Benjamin Barton to found Porter, Barton and Co., a trading firm granted the state monopoly to portage goods around Niagara Falls

IN 1807, during a war scare arising from British aggression against the American frigate Chesapeake, Porter, now a lieutenant colonel in the state militia, directed defense preparations on the Niagara Frontier opposite Canada. His political fortunes continued to prosper as he won a seat in the United States House of Representatives a year later and quickly gained recognition as a spokesman for the frontiersmen of America. His influence in governmental circle convinced Pres. James Madison to move the customs house in Western New York during the shipping season from Buffalo, the county seat with 40 families, to the much smaller Black Rock, and from Fort Niagara to Lewiston where Porter, Barton and Co. had interests. Neither Ellicott nor the village fathers at Buffalo could have been pleased with this decision.

They could agree, however, with Porter's advocacy of federal funds to build roads and canals connecting the population and manufacturing centers of the East Coast with the food-producing West across the Appalachian Mountains. The Niagara congressman, chairman of a special committee on internal improvements, asserted his leadership on the matter with an eloquent speech on the floor of Congress. Of particular interest to him was an "object of the first consequence," the construction of a canal system across New York State to join the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.

Erie Canal: The New York Legislature created a commission in 1810 to study possible canal routes and methods of financing an Atlantic~Great Lakes canal. Appointed to the body were Congressman Porter, canal enthusiast DeWitt Clinton and five others While Porter concentrated his efforts on obtaining federal aid for the project, he opposed Clifton's proposal for digging a canal in a straight line from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, preferring instead a canal from the Hudson to Lake Ontario and one around Niagara Falls. The latter notion is similar to the "American Canal" idea suggested from time to time in recent years as a supplement to Canada's Welland Canal

War of 1812

Peter B. Porter assumed congressional office in 1809 at a very difficult time in American-British relations. Great Britain engaged in a bitter conflict with Napoleonic France, arbitrarily impressed American seamen into the British navy and seized American ships and cargo to discourage trade with the French-dominated continent of Europe. Porter was greatly concerned about the safety of his constituents in event of war, because his district faced British Canada across the Niagara River. Ironically despite anti-British pronunciations coming out of Washington, there was little evidence of similar feeling along the Niagara Frontier. People on both sides of the river got along well and federal laws prohibiting trade with British territories were widely ignored and impossible to enforce. What worried the people on the American side was the threat of war and the poor state of defenses in the area.

In July 1813, a surprise British invasion at Black Rock forced him to flee his home, but he quickly raised a force and pushed the enemy back across the Niagara.

Meanwhile in Washington, Western New York's congressman strongly condemned British actions and demanded a buildup in American defenses. He combined with an aggressive group of young congressmen, among them Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, in expressing a willingness to go to war in defense of American rights if all other avenues failed. For this, the political opposition called than "War Hawks".

In 1811, War Hawk Porter became chairman of the important House Foreign Affairs Committee and during congressional debate promised to partake personally "not only in the pleasures, if any there should be, but in all the danger of the revelry, referring to the possibility of war.

Porter advocated the seizure of Canada to compensate for damages done by British actions. He implored Congress to act swiftly in expanding the army, and urged, albeit unsuccessfully, the building of naval forces on the Great Lakes as part of a Canadian invasion strategy. (His words were eventually heeded but only after hostilities had already begun.) In the spring of 1812 as it because clear that war was inevitable, he advised Congress to delay a declaration of war until the fall when the military buildup would be more advanced and New York's defenses ready. Congress chose otherwise, and, on June 18, 1812, the declaration of war was made official

By then Gov. Daniel D. Tompkins had summoned the Black Rock legislator home to serve as Quartermaster General of the New York Militia When hostilities began, Porter was scurrying about the state arranging to supply, house, equip and transport 13,000 men called up to defend the border with Canada from Lake Erie to Lake Champlain. Soon he received a commission as brigadier general and was given command of all volunteers in Western New York.

In July 1813, a surprise British invasion at Black Rock forced him to flee his home [on Niagara Street], but he quickly raised a force and pushed the enemy back across the Niagara. Consequently, he asked that fewer troops be stationed north of Niagara Falls and more be positioned to protect the settlements at Black Rock and Buffalo. In retaliation for the invasion at Black Rock, 400 men under Porter's command made raids across the river to destroy British installations and supplies.

American forces had by this time gained a foothold on Canadian soil around Fort George near Lake Ontario, but their operations were not aggressive enough for Gen. Porter. He traveled to Albany and Washington in the winter of 1813-1814 and thus was absent from the Niagara Frontier when United States troops evacuated Fort George and senselessly burned the nearby settlement at Newark, now called Niagara-on-the-Lake. A week later, the British invaded American territory to seize Fort Niagara and destroy Lewiston, Black Rock and Buffalo in revenge.

The engagement at Lundy's Lane blunted the American advance and forced a retreat to Fort Erie across from Black Rock and Buffalo.

Upon returning to the war-ravaged Niagara Frontier, Porter launched a campaign to raise more volunteers and Indian allies for another attack on Canada. He crisscrossed Central and Western New York recruiting men and arranging for muskets, rifles, tents and other necessities to be drawn from the state arsenals at Onondaga, Canandaigua and Batavia. The invasion commenced in July, 1814, and American troops advanced without much opposition as far as Chippewa where they were surprised by a fresh detachment of British regulars. Porter's volunteers, after initially fleeing in retreat, regrouped and threw themselves into a fierce battle which ended in a British pull-back. Later in the month at Lundy's Lane, the American commander, Gen. Jacob Brown, observed the "good order" of Porter's men led by their "gallant leader" in attacks on the British lines.

The engagement at Lundy's Lane blunted the American advance and forced a retreat to Fort Erie across from Black Rock and Buffalo. A large enemy army gathered around Fort Erie to lay siege and threaten the nearby American settlements. In August and September, the American defenders, including New York volunteers and their Indian allies, inflicted heavy casualties on the besiegers and, by late September, the enemy abandoned its siege, withdrawing to Burlington and ending the danger to Buffalo and Black Rock.

With the end of military operations, Gen. Porter went to Washington where Pres. Madison gave him command of all American forces on the Niagara Frontier. News of a peace treaty soon arrived, and Black Rock's citizen-soldier, having no idea of "adopting permanently the profession of arms," returned to civilian life acclaimed a hero by his fellow citizens.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Joseph A. Grande is chairman of the Department of History and Political Science at D'Youville College in Buffalo and president of the Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society.

Illustration: Not in the original article.
Illustration source: "Niagara Frontier: A Narrative and Documentary History," in 4 vol., by Merton M. Wilner. Pub. by E. J. Clarke Pub. Co, 1931.

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