In many ways the city he founded and which has always borne his name mirrors the personality of Nathaniel Rochester.
He was a progressive conservative. He had grit and determination without rashness. He was industrious, thrifty and prudent. He was solid rather than colorful. He was inclined to be austere with strangers but affable with friends. He was loyally devoted to his family, his church, his political party and his community.
He was upright, fixed in his opinions, abstemious in a time when many were intemperate. He was a dignified figure with the air of one accustomed to command-this lean, stooped six-footer in his long-tailed broadcloth coat, stiff white stock and bell-crowned beaver hat. He was a Southern colonel, but not the "hell for leather, mint juleps on the veranda" sort. People did not slap him on the back or call him "Nat."
Before he came to the Falls of the Genesee to father a city, he had served in the legislatures of two states, had fought his way up from clerk in a country store to business success and civic leadership in two communities.
It took courage for a man in his 59th year to leave comfortable and settled surroundings and start afresh in a new country. Nathaniel Rochester had a shrewd eye for mill seats and water power. But the profit motive was not the only force that impelled him in middle life to pull up long-established stakes in Maryland. There was his abhorrence of human slavery, although he had always lived in the South, coupled with his desire that his family grow up in a free land. He liberated his slaves soon after reaching Northern soil.
Had Nathaniel Rochester ever put down on paper the memories of a long lifetime, it would be the story of a self-made American ever crossing new frontiers.
First there would be boyhood memories of the Virginia plantation on which he was born Feb. 21, 1752. It was in Westmoreland County which also bred George Washington, James Monroe and the distinguished Lee clan. The house in which he was born still stands. It is a modest house, for although the Rochesters had lived on the same acres since the first of the line, Nicholas, came from Kent, England, in 1689, they were far from affluent.
Nathaniel had no memories of the father who died when the boy was two years old. He was five when his mother remarried and 11 when the family moved to a new home in North Carolina.
Then came a business career, interrupted by war. At 16 he began work as a clerk in a store in Hillsborough. Within five years he was a partner in the business. With the advent of the Revolution, the young man joined the rebel cause. He sat in two provincial conventions which charted North Carolina's road to independence. He became a colonel of militia and a paymaster of Minute Men, later commissary general of 11 regiments of the line. His business acumen served the cause well. When illness forced his withdrawal from active military duty, he took over the management of an arms factory. He served as clerk of Orange County. Four decades later he was to become the first clerk of Monroe County in New York State.
After the Revolution he became a business partner of Col. Thomas Hart, whose daughter was to marry the celebrated Henry Clay. But because of the unquenched hostility of the Tories in the region, Hart decided to move to Hagerstown, Md. That was in 1780 and young Rochester went with him.
Always those Hagerstown years lived in his memory as happy, prosperous ones. It was there he married handsome Sophia Beatty, of Scottish lineage. He was 36 and she was 14 years his junior. Eleven of their 12 children were born in Hagerstown. Two died in infancy.
The tall, energetic Colonel climbed steadily to the top echelon of the Maryland town. He became in turn postmaster, county judge, sheriff, a Presidential elector and served one term in the state legislature. He attended only one session and in after years recalled:
I was so much disgusted with the intrigue and management among the members that I afterwards uniformly refused to go again during my residence in Maryland."
No hack politician was this man his neighbors so often called to public office. In later years in the Genesee Country he evinced the same distaste for "intrigue and management."
He and Colonel Hart carried on many enterprises, including a nail and rope business and a flour mill. They also invested in lands and trade in Kentucky and Tennessee. When the first Hagerstown bank was organized, Rochester became its first president, just as four decades later he would head the Bank of Rochester, first in the mill town.
Among his fellow directors in the Hagerstown Bank were two men of inherited wealth and position, Maj. Charles Carroll and Col. William Fitzhugh. They were close friends of the self-made Rochester.
Land Agent Charles Williamson's promotions of the Genesee lands had induced Carroll in 1799 to visit Western New York. He came back with glowing accounts of the new region and induced Rochester and Fitzhugh to make a trip to the Genesee Country, with the idea of investing in land there.
In September, 1800, when the leaves were beginning to turn, the three middle-aged Marylanders came on horseback up the Williamson Road to the Genesee, followed by a mounted Negro servant with their baggage.
Before their eyes the Genesee Country unfolded in all its rich promise. Ever on the alert for mill seats, Nathaniel Rochester noted the power-laden waters of the Canaseraga at Capt. Dan Faulkner's town of Dansville.
Arrived at Williamsburg, Carroll and Fitzhugh purchased of Land Agent Williamson 12,000 acres in the Genesee Valley south of Geneseo. Rochester bought 400 acres nearby-and 120 acres at Dansville where there was water to turn mill wheels.
Where Carroll and Fitzhugh were thinking largely of a gracious life on vast country estates, Rochester was thinking of the economic future of his growing family. He was determined eventually to sever all ties with Maryland and move to the frontier where there were no slaves and the opportunities were greater. Despite his years, the pioneering spirit still burned within him.
In 1801 Carroll and Fitzhugh visited their purchase. Rochester was ill and could not. In 1802 he and Fitzhugh made the long trip to the Genesee Country.
All three rode again this way in early October of 1803. That visit resulted in the historic purchase of 100 acres at the Falls of the Genesee, now the heart of downtown Rochester. When the three Marylanders paid their installments on their earlier purchases, the acting agent at the land office in Geneva, John Johnstone, pictured the latent power of the three Genesee falls.
They decided to visit the site. From Canandaigua they went on horseback over the woods trail to the tangled marsh where the silence was broken only by the thunder of the waterfalls.
The site of the future metropolis of the Genesee was a dismal, forbidding place. On either side of the river was a jungle of briars, vines and saplings bordering the forest-all except the half acre, dotted with stumps, that Ebenezer (Indian) Allen, the pioneer miller, had cleared in 1789. The Allen grist mill was falling into ruin, the dwelling place of rattlesnakes, bats and spiders.
But the Three Wise Men from the South heard the chant of the power-packed waterfalls and saw the star of destiny shining over the mill site.
Thoughtfully they rode back to Geneva and there purchased from the Pulteney land agent the 100 acre tract at the Falls which Phelps and Gorham had granted to Indian Allen. They paid $17.50 an acre for it.
For Nathaniel Rochester 1810 was the year of decision, when he closed out his interests in Maryland and set out for a new home at Dansville in the Genesee Country. The Hagerstown people, some of them in tears, lined the main street as the cavalcade got under way. The Colonel and his five Sons and a daughter rode on horseback; the other women in carriages; ten slaves and the household goods in three great wagons.
The Colonel's five years in hill-girt Dansville were busy ones. He was operating a grist mill, a saw mill, 700 acres of land and the first paper mill in Western New York. A lasting reminder of his residence in Dansville is the Church Square which he gave the village. On it stand four houses of worship. In Dansville he freed his slaves.
Rochester made frequent trips to the Falls, where he planned a settlement. There was a time when his faith in the 100 Acre Tract wavered and he offered to sell his share to Carroll. That gentleman wrote him to "hold on and you will have an estate for any man." Rochester "held on" and soon was writing his partner that "it must become a town of great business at some future period."
By 1811 he was telling his friend, William Scott of Scottsburg, that "Dansville will be a fine village but the Falls is capable of great things and I am too old to build two towns." He also revealed that he would give the town at the Falls "my family name." The city of Rochester was not named after its founder. Its founder named it.
He was not too old in 1811 to survey the site of Rochester, largely with his own hands. He laid out village lots and advertised them for sale in the Canandaigua paper. He encouraged settlers, not speculative sales. He laid out his town in the Southern pattern, without a common, with its two principal streets wide and straight and bisecting at the Four Corners.
In 1812 he saw the first log house rise at that crossroads, on the present Powers Building site. He saw the river bridged at Buffalo (Main) Street-and that bridge was to mean much to the tiny settlement. But the War of 1812 and the threat of British invasion retarded its growth for four years.
The development at the Falls was entirely a Nathaniel Rochester enterprise. Neither of his partners ever lived in Rochester. Fitzhugh did not move to the Genesee Valley until 1815 and Carroll came the next year. And the cautious Colonel Rochester lived in Dansville for five years and on a farm in Bloomfield for three more years until he moved to the village which in 1817 was incorporated as Rochesterville. It had a population of 700 and its first flour mill after the Allen grain grinder.
Rochester moved into a house on Exchange Street, with grounds extending to the river. There he cultivated a garden and tended the fruit trees. Old settlers recalled seeing the tall, thin, stooped man hard at work early in the morning.
Every facet of his community interested Nathaniel Rochester. He and his partners gave the land for the Court House Square and for the first church and school. He was a leader in the movement for the Erie Canal, for he foresaw that the Clinton Ditch would transform his village into a booming city. He played in the first village band and he was the first president of the Rochester Athenaeum, a pioneer experiment in adult education.
He was a Presidential elector in 1816, as he had been in Maryland in 1808. He carried the fight for the creation of Monroe County to the State Legislature and won over the opposition of Canandaigua, the old capital of the frontier. He was named the first clerk of the new county and served a term in the State Assembly.
He won a charter for a Bank of Rochester, again defeating Canandaigua interests, and became its first president. Before the bank was established, he had personally extended credit to his townspeople.
He was the first citizen of the mill town he had lifted out of the mud and stumps. When distinguished visitors, including Lafayette in 1825, came to town, he welcomed them, a role George Eastman, the Kodak magnate, was to play in another century.
In 1824 Colonel Rochester built a home at Spring and Washington Streets beside a brook in which ran pure, cold water and trout swam, the present site of the Bevier Building of the Rochester Institute of Technology. He set the pattern for the Quality Folk-residence in the Third (Ruffled Shirt) Ward, membership in St. Luke's Episcopal Church and affiliation with the Republican (the later Whig) party.
The patriarch of the village, which in 1822 had changed its name back to Rochester, presided over a large rally of the followers of John Quincy Adams in the Presidential year of 1828. He vigorously opposed "the election of a Chief Magistrate for military renown only." Adams's Democratic opponent was General Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans.
It was the Colonel's last public appearance. He died in his Third Ward home in May, 1831 in his eightieth year.
In his last two decades, the fullest of his long life, he had seen a bold dream come true. The swamp where he had staked out his village lots had burgeoned into America's fastest growing city, "the Young Lion of the West."
He had seen the swamps drained and the trees felled; the mud-chinked log cabins with the stick chimneys give way to substantial frame houses; the river banks lined with mills; the main streets with shops and stores; the canal basins teeming with boats.
He had seen his Maryland-born sons become influential in a community that was predominantly of the New England stock. He had seen his town battle such pushing rivals as Carthage, at the Lower Falls, Frankfort, (the Lyell-Brown-State sector), Charlotte, the lakeport, and James Wadsworth's Castle Town at the river rapids. Had he lived long enough he would have seen his mill town swallow all of them.
His descendants still live in the town he founded and to which he gave his family name. The coat of arms that his family in England adopted in the 16th Century is on the official city flag of the New World Rochester.
At the time of the city's centennial in 1934, there was a movement for the erection of a statue of Colonel Rochester in a conspicuous spot. Bryant Baker, New York sculptor, designed a model of a bronze statue, nine feet tall, to stand on a granite base seven feet high. It depicted the Colonel as he appeared when first he came to the Genesee Country, striding along, staff in hand. The plan never materialized although it has been revived at intervals. So there's no heroic bronze figure of the founder in the city he fathered.
Nathaniel Rochester sleeps in Mount Hope Cemetery, overlooking the Genesee, surrounded by members of his clan. On his tombstone is this inscription:
"If you seek his monument look about you."
"The Chain Bearer"
The Indians' name for Augustus Porter was "Chain Bearer." They first knew him as a young surveyor in woodsman's garb, lugging his chains, flags, transits and compasses through the wilderness as he cut up their ancient hunting grounds into neat squares and fixed the boundaries of the white speculators' domains.
In later years when Augustus Porter lived in a mansion beside the thunder waters of Niagara and was the most important man on the Niagara Frontier, he was known far and wide as "The Judge."
Those two titles point up the two phases of the career of this Connecticut Yankee who was among the vanguard of pioneers on the Phelps and Gorham Purchase and for a decade was the leading surveyor on the frontier.
When he turned his energy and his skills to business, he built a transportation monopoly along the Great Lakes that John D. Rockefeller the first would have envied.
He fathered the roaring industrial city that is Niagara Falls, N. Y., and early saw in the mighty cataract enough water power to turn all the mill wheels in America. He had the grand vision but the waters were not to be fully harnessed in his time.
The blood of generations of pioneering New Englanders-and of Roger Williams, the great dissenter-ran in his veins. The first Porter had come to Connecticut from England in 1639.
Augustus Porter was born in Salisbury, Conn., on Jan. 18, 1769, the son of a physician who was a Yale College graduate. He was fourth in a family of three girls and three boys. The youngest brother, Peter B. Porter, was to win national renown in the political-military arena.
During the Revolution, when, as in all wars, there was a shortage of labor on the home front, young Augustus worked on a farm Summers and was able to attend school only in the Winters. He learned surveying at an early age.
He was only 20 when he heard the call of the West," where huge new tracts were being developed and surveyors were in demand. In 1789 he left Sheffield, Mass., with a party bound for Ontario County and the Phelps and Gorham Purchase. His father had bought lands in the Genesee Country and young Porter was to survey them.
The party traveled by the water route via the Mohawk, the Seneca River and the Seneca Outlet to Geneva, seeing only three white persons on the way from Fort Stanwix (Rome) to Geneva. Then Porter and three others followed the Indian trail to Canandaigua where Phelps and Gorham opened their land office.
Augustus Porter spent seven Summers in the Genesee Country, going back to Connecticut each Winter. Once he made the trip on foot and another time in a two-horse sleigh. In 1790 he met another Connecticut man, James Wadsworth, who was bound for his new home in the Genesee Valley.
Those were busy years for the Chain Bearer." He surveyed the present townships of East Bloomfield and Livonia; as sub-agent of Col. Hugh Maxwell, surveyor for Phelps and Gorham, he laid out 40 towns in Steuben County and helped Andrew Ellicott, surveyor-general of the United States, run a line from the Pennsylvania border to Lake Ontario. He surveyed nearly all the territory between Seneca Lake and the Genesee and fixed a new line for the Phelps and Gorham Purchase.
The ties that bound him to this new land grew stronger when he became a land owner, as well as a surveyor. He had an interest in 200,000 acres which included part of the present Rochester and owned a tract near Avon. In 1796 he married and took his Connecticut bride to a new home in Canandaigua.
That same year Porter tackled the biggest assignment of his surveying career. He was engaged by the Connecticut Land Company to survey the tract on the South shore of Lake Erie in Ohio known as the Western Reserve. Although he was only 26, he was made principal surveyor, for which he was paid five dollars a day. The party had to work in an unbroken wilderness lull of hostile Indians but they succeeded in laying out several towns, among them one they named Cleaveland after the managing agent, Moses Cleaveland. It's spelled "Cleveland" today.
In 1797, Porter who now had acquired a national reputation in his field was hired by Robert Morris to determine the boundaries of his purchase of the land West of the Genesee to which he had obtained title from the Indians.
Again he was working in a veritable wilderness. Only one white man's dwelling stood on the trail between Avon and Buffalo. Game was the principal food and bear meat cooked over a fire in the woods at the end of a pointed stick was a delicacy.
An assistant gave this picture of "Chain Bearer" Porter in those days:
"He was full middling in height, stout built, with a full face and dark, or rather brown, complexion. In woodsman's dress, anyone could see by his appearance that he was capable and determined to go through thick and thin in whatever business he was engaged. By the bursting of a gun he had lost the thumb of his left hand."
In 1799 tragedy entered his life. He returned from a trip to find his young wife dying. A son had been born to them the previous year. He made a sad journey with his Lavania, to bury her in her native Connecticut. After that a widowed sister cared for his household and motherless boy. He had the companionship of his younger brother, Peter B., who had begun practicing law in Canandaigua in 1795. When Peter was made clerk of Ontario County in 1799, he named his brother as his deputy.
That year was a turning point in the life of Augustus Porter. He took his first public office and he embarked on his business career by winning the contract for carrying the mails via stage from Utica to Fort Niagara. Also he remarried. His new wife was Jane Howell, a sister of Nathaniel W. Howell, then a young lawyer in Canandaigua and destined to become a judge. They moved into a new house opposite the Canandaigua Academy. The bridegroom took a seat in the State Assembly. His business interests widened and his "chain-bearing" days were over.
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His stage business winch took him often to Fort Niagara awakened him to the possibilities of the Niagara Frontier, blessed with its magnificent water power-and the opportunity for a transportation monopoly.
He, his brother Peter, Benjamin Barton and Joseph Annin purchased from the state in 1805 a large tract around Niagara Falls, including the water power rights.
That same year Augustus Porter built at the present site of the city of Niagara Falls a blacksmith shop and a saw mill and the next year he moved his family, which now included three sons, to a new home there.
He began a new life in a wild, sparsely settled region where the scenery was superb. Bears and wolves prowled in the woods. Wild geese swooped down upon the river. Eagles soared above the cataracts and rattlesnakes sunned themselves on the rocks. The waterfalls in the great gorge roared out a mighty, unending anthem.
The land deal Porter and his associates had made with the state gave them the exclusive and extremely lucrative right of transporting goods across the Niagara portage, on the condition that they build warehouses, provide teams and at the end of 13 years that all improvements revert to the state. Thus they collected a carrying fee on every shipment that crossed the Niagara Frontier.
Cargoes bound for the West would go from Albany to Schenectady by team, thence by water to Oswego where they would be transferred to Lake Ontario boats, to be unloaded at Lewistown (now Lewiston). There they were teamed over the Portage Road to Schlossers Landing, two miles above the Falls.
But first they had to be moved up the mountain ridge. The heavy goods were raised and lowered on a sliding car operated by windlass on an inclined plane. The car ran over wooden rails on broad runners. This ingenious contrivance had been used before the Revolution and the British had hired Indians to operate it. Possibly it was the first application of the railroad principle in America.
At Schlossers the shipments were put aboard Durham boats which were poled up the Niagara River to Black Rock (now a part of Buffalo) where there was a warehouse. Another warehouse was at Lewiston.
The Porter interests enlarged their carrying operations until they were handling most of the business along the Great Lakes. They built and ran ships on Erie and Ontario, supplied military posts along the lakes and handled an enormous fur business, with John Jacob Astor a principal client.
In 1807 Porter opened the first grist mill on that frontier, on the site of Niagara Falls. Forty soldiers came from Fort Niagara to raise it and in the process they stripped Porter's orchard of its rich yield.
In 1808 Porter built a mansion of brick, the most splendid in the area, with a large garden and orchard. Then what is now the teeming city of Niagara Falls was a tangle of brush.
That was the year in which Niagara County was formed. It embraced the present Erie County and the courts were held in Buffalo, with Augustus Porter chosen the first judge. Through the rest of his life he was known by all as "The Judge."
His village slowly emerged-a ropewalk which used hemp grown on the Wadsworths' Genesee Valley estates; a tannery, a carding mill, a tavern, a cluster of houses. When the War of 1812 came to the border, it became almost a deserted village.
With Porter away much of the time looking after his farflung interests now threatened by the war, his wife, in the mansion with the children, commanded the village home front. Guns of the militia were stored in the Porter cellar and once when word came of an Indian raid, she calmly passed them out through a window, one by one, to the defenders. The raid was a false alarm but she proved her mettle.
Finally the village was so exposed that the Judge sent word to his wife to go to her brother's home in Canandaigua for her safety and that of her children. She made the trip through the woods in a sleigh but before she left she knocked out the bungs of every whiskey barrel in the cellar. She did not propose to let the Indians get hold of the firewater and inflict needless cruelty on the settlers. For four years of war she stayed at Judge Howell's home in Canandaigua. Her husband was busy helping the American cause through his transport business.
After the war the Porter family returned to Niagara, to find their home in ruins, burned by the British and Indians, and only two houses and the tavern standing in the village.
Because the house had been used as an arsenal, the government reimbursed Judge Porter for its loss. He built a new mansion, a great, rambling place beside the cataract, and in its high basement he maintained his business office, as well as the first local postoffice.
Slowly the village revived after the war, with the Porter saw, grist and carding mills as its chief industries. As late as 1828 it was known as Manchester but the old Indian name clung to it and finally it officially became Niagara Falls, N. Y.
Judge Porter acquired Goat Island in the Niagara River after the Indians had ceded it to the state, reserving perpetual rights to fish and hunt there. He constructed a road around the island and built a bridge from the mainland, an engineering feat he directed himself. He became interested in developing the harbor of Black Rock where his brother Peter resided before joining Augustus at the Falls.
The Porters supported the Erie Canal movement although that waterway was to doom their transport business at Niagara. No longer could they collect fees of $32,000 a year merely for portaging salt around the falls at $2 a barrel, as they had in 1816.
After the coming of the canal, the Porters turned to development of Niagara power. In vain they tried to interest Eastern capital in the project which involved cutting a ditch through the rocks. Augustus Porter never gave up his dream of harnessing the mighty waters for widespread industrial use. But he had been in his grave 20 years when the discovery of dynamite made the ditch possible. And 20 years later the development of electricity made his dream come true.
In his old age, the Judge saw his village leap forward. Churches came and a newspaper and finally a primitive railroad line to Buffalo. The tossing waters turned more and more mill wheels-but not on the scale the Judge envisioned.
He was a power in frontier politics but never the glad-handing vote seeker. Always he stood a bit aloof and on his dignity. People did not take undue liberties with the grandee of Niagara any more than they did with Judge Church of Belvidere or old Nathaniel Rochester at the Genesee Falls.
Judge Porter entertained notable visitors at his homestead-President James Monroe, Lafayette, De Witt Clinton and the Seneca chiefs, Red Jacket and Cornplanter, who considered him their true friend. When the Indian chiefs called, Porter gave them copious quantities of cold water before any liquor was served. He knew the Redmen's weakness for firewater.
His children married and settled around him. Augustus Porter founded not only a city but also a family line that to this day is prominent in the affairs of the Niagara Frontier.
He was 74 and still vigorous when in 1843, he fell and injured his hip while helping his workmen at his saw mill. As a result he was lame the rest of his life.
His last years were marred by illness. On June 10, 1849, "the Chain Bearer," who had become a frontier tycoon and a judge, died in his mansion. He had lived 80 eventful years, 60 of them on the frontier to which he had come in 1789, an eager young surveyor.
He had seen the wilderness become a settled countryside, brisk cities spring out of swamps and the forest and his town beside the thunder water give promise of future greatness.
Very Important Politicos
In that faraway time when Canandaigua was the capital of the frontier, a remarkable array of able politicians gravitated to the shire town of a vast new county. Generally they were young, ambitious, college-bred lawyers of the New England stock.
Some of them made their dent on the national scene. Four men who at various times lived in Canandaigua served in the cabinets of five Presidents, something of a record for a community of the size of "the Chosen Spot."
One of the four did not fit the pattern in all respects. Gideon Granger was a Yale graduate, a lawyer, and he came from Connecticut. But when he settled in Canandaigua in 1814, he was no longer young nor politically ambitious. For 13 years he had served as postmaster general under Jefferson and Madison.
His son, Francis, inherited the crafty old Jeffersonian's flair for politics. The second Granger rose to power in the Whig Party and was postmaster general during the short reign of William Henry Harrison. Previously he had been an unsuccessful candidate for the Vice Presidency.
Another Very Important Politico, the brilliant John Canfield Spencer, lived in the shire town during nearly all of his long public career, which was climaxed by service as secretary of war and of the treasury under John Tyler.
First of the foursome on the Genesee Country stage was Peter Buel Porter, who arrived from Connecticut in 1795. The vital young lawyer began his political climb in Canandaigua but he was a resident of Black Rock on the Niagara Frontier when he won national attention, first as a "War Hawk" Congressman, then as a general in the War of 1812 which he had helped to bring on and later as peacetime secretary of war in the cabinet of John Quincy Adams.
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Peter Porter, a handsome youth with a lock of unruly hair draping his forehead, a glib tongue and a disarming presence, was a lively addition to the little circle of land owners and lawyers that stayed at the Sanborn tavern in the frontier village.
His elder brother, Augustus, the surveyor, an early bird on the Phelps and Gorham Purchase, was one of the group. So were Oliver Phelps and Thomas Morris of the landed gentry. In 1796 a rather austere young attorney, Nathaniel W. Howell, destined to be a judge and a power on the frontier, joined them.
Young Porter, a Yale man who had studied law under the famous Judge Reeves at Litchfield, Conn., had deep-seated ambitions for glory and for gold. He lost no time in winning attention in the raw young settlement. He was defense counsel in the first trial of record in Ontario County, that of a man accused of stealing a cow bell. Porter won his case over the prosecutor, N. W. Howell.
Around 1800 Porter built the stately white house with pillars that still stands at 210 North Main Street in Canandaigua. In after years another cabinet minister, John Spencer, was to live there and much later a United States senator, Elbridge G. Lapham.
After a term in tile State Assembly, Porter was elected clerk of Ontario County, a post from which he was ousted in 1804 because of his friendship with Aaron Burr, that year a candidate for Governor.
All his life Peter B. Porter was a fighter-in the court room, on the battlefield, in legislative halls. After his election to Congress in 1810, he moved to Black Rock, then a pushing rival of Buffalo which long since absorbed it. Porter became associated with his brother Augustus and Benjamin Barton of Lewiston in shipping and other investments on the Niagara Frontier. Thereafter his career was to be identified with that region.
In Congress he championed internal improvements and was a member of the commission on inland navigation which recommended a canal across New York State. Porter joined the "War Hawks" in Congress, led by Henry Clay, his life-long friend. Speaker Clay named Porter head of the potent Foreign Relations Committee. They, with Felix Grundy, John C. Calhoun and other young "War Hawks." kept pushing the little President, James Madison, toward a second war with Great Britain. Some 85 years later a combination of Jingoes, among them Teddy Roosevelt, and two sensational newspapers inspired another unnecessary war-during the reign of another cautious President, William McKinley.
Porter's committee submitted a bellicose report following a none too conciliatory message on foreign affairs from Madison. Porter's report demanded freedom of the seas, denounced Britain's "barbarity" in impressing American seamen and recommended considerable increase in the United States armed forces. The report antagonized public opinion in England which had a full-scale war with Napoleon on its hands.
The war with England came and when word of its declaration reached the "War Hawks" in their Washington boarding house, Clay gave a lusty shout, spilled his soup on his waistcoat when Calhoun hugged him. Peter Porter let out an Indian war whoop and the whole company did a war dance around the big table.
Porter, ambitious for military glory in the conflict he had promoted, resigned his seat in Congress and was commissioned a brigadier general of militia with the added job of getting provisions for the troops which had gathered on the Niagara border for an invasion of Canada.
Porter's 2,000 New York militiamen joined the forces massed at Black Rock under Gen. Alexander Smyth. Smyth issued flamboyant proclamations, landed part of his army across the river in Canada and then when Porter was about to embark his men the commander got cold feet and called off the invasion.
General Porter was incensed at the action and published in a Buffalo paper a ringing denunciation of Smyth as a coward. Smyth retaliated by charging Porter with profiteering in furnishing supplies. The two generals fought a duel on Grand Island, with Smyth the challenger. After each had fired a harmless shot, seconds halted the affair, which ended with both principals shaking hands and having supper together. However, Smyth was soon dropped from the army rolls and went home in disgrace.
Given the rank of major general, Porter repelled a British attack on his home town of Black Rock in 1814. That same year he hastened to Charlotte where a British fleet had appeared, to be met by a small but defiant band of settlers. Previously Porter had sent to Capt. Isaac Stone of the Rochester Dragoons an 18-pound cannon and a brass four-pounder for the defense of the lake port.
On arrival at the mouth of the Genesee, Porter sent an aide to meet a British officer who came ashore under a white flag. The officer threatened to land a force of 400, including some Indians, unless the stores at Charlotte were surrendered. General Porter told him: "We will take care of your landing party and if you send out another hag of truce, we will fire on it."
The general's defiance plus the bluff staged by the little band of defenders, who marched and countermarched among the trees to create an illusion of strength, paid off and the British fleet sailed away, empty handed.
Porter commanded a brigade under Gen. Jacob Brown in the Canadian campaign of 1814 and had a creditable record at Chippewa, Lundy's Lane and other engagements. He was not the greatest general of the War of 1812 but he was far superior to most of the inept commanders in the American forces.
In 1814 he was elected to his old seat in Congress and later that year was one of the American commissioners who set up the international boundary lines under the war-ending Treaty of Ghent. For his services during and after the war, the general was presented the freedom of the city of New York and a handsome sword. In Western New York he was feted as a military hero.
After serving as New York secretary of state, Porter in 1817 lost the gubernatorial nomination to De Witt Clinton. He was a member of the first Erie Canal Commission and strove mightily but vainly to make Black Rock the western terminal rather than Buffalo. Clinton inspired the lasting enmity of Porter by favoring Buffalo.
Peter Porter's highest honor came in 1828 when he was chosen secretary of war in the cabinet of John Quincy Adams. Adams was defeated in the election of that year and Porter's tenure was brief arid uneventful.
On his appointment as secretary of war, he sold his interests in the Ogden Land Company, which has been charged with obtaining Indian reservation lands by bribery and fraud. Porter made a neat profit on the deal. While administering Indian affairs as war secretary, he advocated removal of the Iroquois beyond the Mississippi.
A political enemy, Martin Van Buren, commented that "Peter B. Porter has the reputation of being too devoted to the advancement of his personal fortunes."
General Porter, a good horseman, a fluent speaker, a politician of easy manners, was a colorful figure in a colorful era. He never dodged a scrap and during the Morgan excitement followed the Anti-Masonic flag. Another foe was the Holland Land Company.
In 1838 he moved to Niagara Falls, N. Y., where he joined brother Augustus in many enterprises. He died there in 1844, at the age of 71, a very wealthy man.
Older residents of Buffalo will remember the old army post at the Front which was named Fort Porter after the defender of Black Rock. And near the general's old home in Buffalo, there still is a Porter Avenue.
* * *
Gideon Granger had been postmaster general longer than any man before or since when President Madison eased the Connecticut politico out in 1814. That was the year he settled in Canandaigua, there to spend the rest of his days.
He was born in Suffield, Conn., in 1767, a descendant of Englishmen who had pioneered in New England. At an early age he was a leader of the Connecticut bar. He served in the State Senate and was hailed as the father of the public school system in the state, as well as one of the most. Influential Anti-Federalists.
Elected to the Presidency. Thomas Jefferson, wishing to improve his position in Federalist New England, picked Granger for the postmaster generalship. At that time the postmaster general did not have full cabinet rank, there was little patronage to dispense and the duties of the post were not onerous.
So Gideon Granger had time for the kind of political endeavor at which he was adept. He served as Jefferson's "look-out" in sounding out public sentiment and in ferreting out enemy plots. He kept the President informed of every move of the New England Federalist bloc that sought separation from the Union and he exposed Aaron Bun's undercover alliance with the Federalists when the tricky New Yorker was seeking the governorship.
Historians of the Jefferson era have described Granger as "cunning and tireless." He had a gift for marshalling figures in a way that the average man could comprehend and wrote many pamphlets extolling the Jefferson fiscal policies.
Granger was a heavy investor in land and, along with other Connecticut Yankees, profited from speculation in the Ohio Western Reserve. He became agent for a company organized to protect New England investors in a huge Georgia land fraud. But when he lobbied on the floor of Congress for settlement of their claims, he felt the lash of John Randolph's fierce invective. This display "conflict of interests" by one of his official family annoyed Jefferson but the Sage of Monticello apparently considered Granger was too valuable to be dumped.
Granger's political maneuverings, especially his endorsement of De Witt Clinton for the Presidency against his chief, failed to please the patient James Madison, who finally got rid of his postmaster general in 1814. Granger's handling of the mails during the War of 1812 was the subject of some complaints.
The aging Granger picked the flourishing frontier village of Canandaigua as his residence in his retirement. He had come to know the Genesee Country while agent for Connecticut in settling the tangled estate of Oliver Phelps. The state was Phelps' largest creditor. Granger and Phelps had been associates in various land ventures.
In Canandaigua the former cabinet officer practiced law and could not resist the lure of politics. He served a term as state senator and joined the camp of De Witt Clinton. He was an early supporter of the canal project.
In 1822 Gideon Granger, the strong-featured, astute master of political science, died in the mansion he had built when he first came to Canandaigua in 1814.
That gracious three-story house, in a warm coat of yellow, still stands well back from North Main Street and surrounded by a wide sweep of grounds. Its 23 high-ceilinged rooms are filled with period furniture, including the dinner table that Dollie Madison salvaged when the British burned the White House in the War of 1812.
After Gideon Granger, three generations of his clan lived in the big homestead. For a time it housed a fashionable school for young ladies. On the death of Miss Antoinette, last of the Grangers, the mansion became a retreat for elderly Congregationalist ministers and their wives. When the church gave up the property in 1945, the landmark faced possible demolition. Under the terms of Miss Granger's will, the homestead was never to be used for any commercial purpose.
A group of public spirited Canandaiguans saved the place by raising funds to purchase it and to preserve it as a typical example of an elegant post colonial home.
Gideon Granger left a large estate. He founded a patrician family line in the old shire town. But his finest legacy was the noble residence he built when Canandaigua and the Republic both were young. Today it is a memorial to the good taste of the pioneers.
* * *
Francis Granger, the Whig son of Jeffersonian Gideon, inherited a fortune, position and a taste for politics. Like his father he was a native of Suffield, Conn. Like him he was a Yale graduate and an attorney. But he labored little at his law books. He had an estate to care for and he was deep in politics all his adult life.
He was a gentleman of courtly and urbane manners reared in a gentler school than his rugged father who had been close to the frontier.
Francis Granger entered public life as a member of the Assembly. In the Legislature he attracted immediate attention. Here is a contemporary picture of the young Canandaigua grandee in those days:
"He was a six footer, impeccably groomed in a bottle green coat with gilt buttons. Graceful, with his hair well curled, his broad brow exposed, he was the idol of the ladies in the galleries."
His longtime ally, William Henry Seward of Auburn, later wrote in his waspish way of "Frank" Granger: "He is an aristocrat at heart. A prince among his equals, affable to inferiors but recognizing no superiors. He is honorable and honest with no deep store of learning nor even extensive degree of information except in the field of politics. He loves money almost as much as power."
In the Legislature at the time of the Anti-Masonic excitement in the wake of the disappearance of William Morgan, Granger favored a sweeping investigation of the affair. Morgan had been abducted from the county jail in Granger's home town.
An ambitious and then little known Rochester editor, Thurlow Weed, became the spearhead of the new Anti-Masonic party and recognized the prestige the courtly Granger gave the movement. For years the Canandaigua Chesterfield was tied to the political chariot of the Rochester Warwick. Soon Weed moved to Albany and there became the state czar of the new Whig Party and a power in national politics.
Weed sensed Granger's popularity in Western New York and tried to get the Canandaiguan to head the state Anti-Masonic ticket in 1828. Granger turned it down and instead made a losing run for lieutenant governor on the National (Adams) Republican ticket.
That was the first of many disappointments Granger was to suffer in his ceaseless quest of public office.
In 1830 he ran for Governor as a Whig with Anti-Masonic support. He lost to Van Buren and had to be content with a seat in Congress. In 1834 when Weed wanted him to head the state ticket, Granger chose to stay in Congress. As it turned out, the Whigs lost. In 1838 when party fortunes were looking up, and Granger wanted the gubernatorial nomination, Boss Weed picked his crony, Bill Seward. Seward won. In 1839 when Granger yearned for a seat in the United States Senate, Weed had another candidate.
In 1838 Granger had made a hopeless race for the Vice Presidency as a running mate of William Henry Harrison. But in the celebrated Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign of 1840 Harrison and Tyler beat Van Buren and Johnson and the Whigs were in power for the first time.
As a sop to Weed, his man Granger was given the post-master generalship, a post rich in patronage, the office his father had held for so many years.
Alas for the dreams of Weed and the New York Whig machine-within a month after he was inaugurated, Harrison was dead, and Tyler, a States Rights Southerner and a Democrat at heart, took the reins. Soon he was at odds with Clay and the other Whig leaders. In the Fall of 1841 the cabinet, with the exception of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, resigned en masse. Granger did so rather reluctantly. He liked being in the cabinet.
When 1850 rolled around, Granger had drifted away from Weed, Seward & Co. and was a follower of Millard Fillmore and the compromise bloc on the slavery issue. Granger presided over the Syracuse Whig convention that year and when the delegates quarreled over endorsement of Seward's strong anti-slavery stand, the Canandaigua politician, after trying to restore harmony, led 40 middle-of-the-road Whigs out of the hall. Because of the flowing silver locks of their leader, the bolters went down in history as "The Silver Grays."
Granger favored a moderate approach to the slavery question and in 1860 supported the Constitutional Union ticket of Bell and Everett. He had entertained Edward Everett, the Bay State orator, at the Granger homestead in Canandaigua.
In 1861 as the war clouds thickened, Granger was a delegate to the futile Peace Convention in Washington. There he met his old mentor, Weed, and the erstwhile political allies were reconciled.
Francis Granger, gentleman of the old school, died in the mansion in 1868. Long he had been considered Canandaigua's first citizen. The shire town was proud of its aristocratic adopted son. Frustration marred his political career but through weal or woe, Granger never lost his good manners.
* * *
Scholarly, brilliant, full of political know-how, John C. Spencer was a political soldier of fortune who served in many camps. From the time he became private secretary to Governor Daniel D. Tompkins at the age of 19, he was almost continuously in public office for four decades.
He was born at Hudson, N. Y., in 1788, the son of judge Ambrose Spencer, a political power. He was graduated from Union College and after being admitted to the bar was soon recognized as an able trial lawyer. He had the gift of tongues and he was absolutely fearless.
He came to Canandaigua in 1809 and lived in the Peter Porter mansion for 36 years before moving to Albany where he died in 1855.
His political rise was steady and seldom hampered by foolish consistency. A Democratic Congressman in 1817, he wrote a report condemning the Bank of the United States which the followers of Andrew Jackson later used in their assault on the institution. By that time Spencer had reversed his course and changed his party. In 1818 he was the candidate of the Clinton organization for the United States Senate.
Elected to the state legislature in 1820, he was chosen special counsel for the investigation of the Morgan affair. With characteristic independence, he prosecuted several Masons in cases arising from the Morgan kidnaping and wrote a fiery report citing the obstacles thrown in his path. He was enraged when Governor Throop threw out his claim for $2,000 for expenses in the probe and gave him a measly $1,000 for services.
That tossed Spencer into the Anti-Masonic fold as an ally of Weed and Seward. But that redoubtable pair could not always manage the Canandaigua lawyer-nor could anyone else.
Speaker of the Assembly, one of the revisers of the state legal code, New York secretary of state, state superintendent of schools-they were among the offices Spencer field in a short period. Still he found time to write legal volumes and scholarly treatises.
After the mass resignation of the Harrison cabinet in 1841, Spencer, then a federal district attorney, was called unexpectedly by John Tyler to become secretary of war. It is said that before Spencer accepted the post, he had to tear up a speech he had written denouncing Tyler's "treachery to the Whig Party." The Canandaiguan completely severed the thin ties that bound him to Weed and Seward when he joined the Tyler cabinet.
In 1842 Spencer was shifted to the treasury where he served about seven months before he resigned. He did not see eye to eye with Tyler on the Texas annexation policy and fully expected to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Twice President Tyler sent Spencer's name to the Senate and twice the Senate turned it down. Secretary of the Treasury was the last of many titles that John Spencer held in his remarkable public career.
Some called him haughty. He had little patience with the slow-witted. But few possessed his ability to get at the meat of any question nor to state his case in such logical, forceful prose. He was often caustic, always a fighter like his father, the old judge. John C. Spencer has been called "the John C. Calhoun of the North."
While he was war secretary, Spencer was saddened and embittered by a personal tragedy. He had a son, Philip, who grew into a tall, handsome daredevil with a cast in one eye. When Philip was 21, in the summer of 1842, the youth sailed on the U.S. brig Somers as a midshipman. On the return cruise from Africa, a steward whispered into the ear of the brig's skipper, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, the story of a plot aboard ship to mutiny, seize the craft and raise the black flag. The steward named as the leader of the plot the young son of the secretary of war.
Philip Spencer and two other seamen were tried by a council of ship's officers and condemned to death. They were hanged from the yard arm of the brig four days after they were arrested.
The execution of so prominent a youth created a national sensation. The Spencers and their friends called the sentence hasty and unjust. They demanded that Captain Mackenzie be punished. John Spencer threw all the weight of his political power into the investigation. The captain was acquitted after a court martial.
To the day he died in 1855 an embittered John Spencer believed that his son had been executed without receiving a proper defense and that the mutiny plot had been merely a boyish prank.
Phil had been popular in Canandaigua where some well-born damsels shed tears over his fate, and at Union College, his father's alma mater, where he had helped to found the Chi Psi fraternity during his student days. In 1871 a member of the fraternity wrote a song that was adopted by the national group. Here's a stanza:
This is the song the brothers of Chi Psi still sing to the clink of the lifted glasses-in memory of a Canandaigua boy and a sad story of long ago.
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