Peter Buell Porter

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Peter Porter
Peter Buell Porter.jpg
12th United States Secretary of War
In office
May 23, 1828 – March 9, 1829
PresidentJohn Quincy Adams
Andrew Jackson
Preceded byJames Barbour
Succeeded byJohn Henry Eaton
11th Secretary of State of New York
In office
February 16, 1815 – February 12, 1816
GovernorDaniel D. Tompkins
Preceded byJacob R. Van Rensselaer
Succeeded byRobert L. Tillotson
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 21st district
In office
March 4, 1815 – January 23, 1816
Preceded byNathaniel W. Howell
Succeeded byArchibald S. Clarke
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 15th district
In office
March 4, 1809 – March 3, 1813
Preceded byWilliam Kirkpatrick
Succeeded byJoel Thompson
Personal details
Peter Buell Porter

(1773-08-14)August 14, 1773
Salisbury, Connecticut Colony, British America
DiedMarch 20, 1844(1844-03-20) (aged 70)
Niagara Falls, New York, U.S.
Resting placeOakwood Cemetery
Political partyDemocratic-Republican (Before 1825)
National Republican (1825–1834)
Whig (1834–1844)
Spouse(s)Letitia Breckinridge
Children2, including Peter
RelativesAugustus Porter (Brother)
EducationYale University (BA)
Litchfield Law School
AwardsCongressional Gold Medal
Military service
Allegiance United States
 New York
Branch/serviceNew York (state) New York State Militia
Years of service1812–1815
RankMajor General
Battles/warsWar of 1812:
 • Battle of Black Rock
 • Battle of Chippawa
 • Battle of Niagara
 • Siege of Fort Erie

Peter Buell Porter (August 14, 1773 – March 20, 1844) was an American lawyer, soldier and politician who served as United States Secretary of War from 1828 to 1829.

Early life[edit]

Peter Buell Porter was born on August 14, 1773, one of six children born to Dr. Joshua Porter (1730–1825) and Abigail Buell (1734–1797), who married in 1759 in Lebanon, Connecticut.[1] His siblings were: Joshua Porter (1760–1831), Abigail Porter (1763–1797), Eunice Porter (1766–1848), Augustus Porter (1769–1849), Sally Porter (1776–1820).[1] His father, Dr. Joshua Porter, a 1754 graduate of Yale, fought in the Revolutionary War as a colonel. He was at the head of his regiment in October 1777 when John Burgoyne surrendered his 6,000 men after the Battles of Saratoga. After the war, he was elected to various official positions for forty-eight consecutive years.[2] His maternal grandparents were Peter and Martha Buell (née Grant) of Coventry, Connecticut.[1]

He attended and graduated from Yale College in 1791, studied law in Litchfield, Connecticut with Judge Tapping Reeve, who also taught Aaron Burr and John C. Calhoun.[3]


In 1793, Porter was admitted to the bar, and commenced practice in Canandaigua, New York. From 1797 to 1804, he was Clerk of Ontario County, and was a member of the New York State Assembly (Ontario and Steuben Co.) in 1802. In the fall of 1809, Porter moved to Black Rock, New York, later part of Buffalo, and became a member of the firm of Porter, Barton & Company with his brother Augustus, which controlled transportation on the Niagara River.[3] The company portaged goods by land from Lake Erie to Lewiston on the Niagara River through Niagara Falls, then shipped them east on Lake Ontario.[4]

United States Congress[edit]

In 1809, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives as a Democratic-Republican. He served in the 11th and 12th United States Congresses, holding office from March 4, 1809, to March 3, 1813. During his service in Congress, he was a leading figure among Congressional "war hawks" and Chairman of the Committee that recommended preparation for war with Great Britain, and was known as an early supporter of James Madison.[5] Porter, along with Henry Clay and others, pressured Madison to end the discussion and take up arms against England, in what became known as the War of 1812.[5]

At the same time, from 1810 to 1816, he was a member of the Erie Canal Commission, a commission on inland navigation established in 1810 by the New York State Legislature to survey a canal route from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes.[3] Porter served on the Commission with fellow Democratic-Republicans, Simeon De Witt and DeWitt Clinton. The Federalists on the Committee were Gouverneur Morris, William North, Thomas Eddy, and Stephen Van Rensselaer. In 1811, Porter and the Democratic-Republicans were joined by Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton. Charles D. Cooper joined in 1815.[6][7][8]

War of 1812[edit]

Peter Buell Porter during the War of 1812, circa 1864

While in Congress, Porter, realizing the level of America’s unpreparedness for war, pushed for greater numbers of soldiers and supplies. When his efforts fell on deaf ears, he instead offered his experience in trade to the military. Beginning in May 1812, he was served as assistant quartermaster general in the New York State Militia.[5] As a brigadier general, he participated in and criticized General Alexander Smyth’s abortive operations against British Canada in 1813 at the Battle of Black Rock, culminating in a bloodless duel between the two. The historian John R. Elting wrote of the duel, stating "Unfortunately, both missed."[9]

Porter later raised and commanded a brigade of New York militia that incorporated a Six Nations Indian contingent and led his command with distinction. He brokered a deal with Red Jacket, who agreed to provide 500 troops under Porter's command.[5] For his actions, he was presented a gold medal under joint resolution of Congress dated November 3, 1814 "for gallantry and good conduct" during the Battle of Chippewa, the Battle of Niagara, and the Siege of Fort Erie.[3]

With the end of military operations, Porter went to Washington where he was given command of all American forces on the Niagara Frontier by President Madison. When news of a peace treaty arrived, he returned to civilian life and was declared a hero by his fellow citizens.[10]

New York politics and return to Congress[edit]

From February 1815 to February 1816, he served as Secretary of State of New York as a Democratic-Republican under New York Governor Daniel D. Tompkins. He was also elected to the 14th United States Congress. Although his term in Congress began on March 4, 1815, the actual Session began only in December, and he took his seat on December 11, 1815. On January 23, 1816, he resigned, having been appointed a Commissioner under the Treaty of Ghent, which caused a controversy as to the constitutionality of sitting in Congress and holding this commissionership at the same time.[11]

In 1817, his political friends of Tammany Hall printed ballots with his name and distributed them among their followers to vote for Porter for Governor of New York at the special election which was held after the resignation of Governor Daniel D. Tompkins. DeWitt Clinton, the otherwise unopposed candidate, was fiercely hated by the Tammany organization, and Porter received about 1,300 votes although he was not really running for the office. Porter became a regent of the University of the State of New York in 1824, and served in that capacity until 1830.[3]

He was again a member of the State Assembly (Erie Co.) in 1828, but vacated his seat when he was appointed to the Cabinet.[3]

Secretary of War[edit]

From May 16, 1828, to March 9, 1829, Porter served as U.S. Secretary of War under President John Quincy Adams, and was an advocate for the removal of Eastern Indians beyond the Mississippi. He moved to Niagara Falls in 1836 and was a presidential elector on the Whig ticket in 1840.[3]

Personal life[edit]

In 1818, Porter married Letitia Breckinridge (1786–1831), the daughter of John Breckinridge (1760–1806),[12] a U.S. Senator from Kentucky from 1801 to 1805, and Attorney General of the United States under Jefferson from 1805 to 1806.[13] Her mother was Mary Hopkins Cabell, of the Cabell political family.[12] Letitia was widowed from her first marriage in 1804, to Alfred William Grayson, who had died in 1810. Grayson, a graduate of Cambridge University, was the son of Senator William Grayson of Virginia. Through her first marriage, she had a son, John Breckinridge Grayson (1806–1862).[14] Together, Peter and Letitia had:

On March 20, 1844, General Porter died in Niagara Falls and was interred in Oakwood Cemetery, along with brother Augustus.


A paddle-steamer named the General Porter was launched in 1834.[16]

His son, Peter A. Porter died in the bloody Battle of Cold Harbor during the American Civil War. His grandson was Peter Augustus Porter (1853–1925), a U.S. Representative from New York and his nephews were Augustus Seymour Porter, a United States Senator from Michigan, and Peter B. Porter, Jr., an Assemblyman and Speaker of the New York State Assembly.

Slave Ownership[edit]

In 1820, Porter and his wife Letitia signed an affidavit attesting to the ownership of five enslaved Africans. Their names were recorded as John Caldwell, born 1800; Richard Caldwell, born 1810; Lannia Caldwell, born 1803; Mildred Caldwell, born 1806; and Betsy Gatewood, born 1815. This affidavit appears in the Buffalo Town Proceedings[17] in the collection of the Buffalo History Museum.


Fort Porter, Porter Avenue in Buffalo, Porter Road in Niagara Falls, and Porter Township in Niagara County are all named in honor of Gen. Porter.[18] Porter's letters and papers survive in the library collections of the Buffalo History Museum.[19]

Porter Hall at Buffalo State College was named after Gen. Porter in 1980 but changed to Bengal Hal in July 2020 due to Porter's slave ownership. [20] Similarly, Porter Quadrangle within the Ellicott Complex at the University at Buffalo was named after Porter in 1974 but his name was removed in August 2020 due to Porter's slave ownership.[21]

In 1834, a paddle steamer named the General Porter was launched, on Lake Erie.[16] She sailed out of Buffalo, New York, until 1838, when she was sold to the Royal Navy, which renamed her HMS Toronto. The Royal Navy employed her patrolling Lake Erie, the St Clair River, and the upper Niagara River.


  1. ^ a b c Welles, Albert (1881). History of the Buell Family in England: From the Remotest Times Ascertainable from Our Ancient Histories, and in America, from Town, Parish, Church and Family Records. Illustrated with Portraits and Coat Armorial. New York: Society Library. Retrieved October 27, 2016.
  2. ^ "The Late Col. Porter. Funeral of Col. P.A. Porter Sketch of his Life and Character". The New York Times. June 18, 1864. Retrieved October 21, 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Bell, William Gardner (March 1, 2001). "Peter Buell Porter". Center Of Military History United States Army. Retrieved October 27, 2016.
  4. ^ Foran, Jack. "The Day They Turned The Falls On: The Invention Of The Universal Electrical Power System". University of Buffalo. Archived from the original on September 20, 2017. Retrieved October 26, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d Ridler, Jason (2011). "War of 1812". RCGS/HDI/Parks Canada. Archived from the original on February 6, 2017. Retrieved October 27, 2016.
  6. ^ Morris, North, De Witt, Eddy, Porter and Cooper ceased to be Commissioners when the Legislature appointed a new Commission consisting of Clinton, Van Rensselaer, Ellicott, Holley and Young.
  7. ^ Bernstein, Peter L. (2005)
  8. ^ Koeppel, Gerard (2009)
  9. ^ Elting, John R. (1991). Amateurs, to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. pp. 51. ISBN 0-306-80653-3.
  10. ^ Grande, Dr. Joseph A.; LaChiusa, Chuck. "Peter B. Porter". The Courier-Express: Buffalo Architecture and History. Retrieved October 27, 2016.
  11. ^ Google Book: Abridgment of the Debates of Congress, from 1789 to 1856 page 585
  12. ^ a b BRECKINRIDGE, John – Biographical Information. Retrieved on October 19, 2011.
  13. ^ Index to Politicians: Breckinridge. The Political Graveyard. Retrieved on October 19, 2011.
  14. ^ The Cabells and their kin: A ... – Alexander Brown – Internet Archive. (July 19, 2007). Retrieved on October 19, 2011.
  15. ^ "Elizabeth Lewis Porter - Oakwood Cemetery". Oakwood Cemetery Inc. Retrieved October 27, 2016.
  16. ^ a b "GENERAL PORTER; 1834; Steamer; AMERICAN". Great Lakes Maritime Database. Archived from the original on October 6, 2014.
  17. ^ "Buffalo Town Proceedings, 1814-1837, p.93". Retrieved June 8, 2020.
  18. ^ "Peter B. Porter".
  19. ^ "Guide to the Microfilm Edition of the Peter B. Porter Papers" (PDF). Retrieved July 6, 2013.
  20. ^ "Porter name coming off residence hall at Buffalo State". WIVB. July 31, 2020. Retrieved August 1, 2020.
  21. ^ David J. Hill (August 3, 2020). "UB to remove names of Millard Fillmore, James O. Putnam, Peter B. Porter". Retrieved January 11, 2021.

Further reading[edit]

  • Stagg, J. C. A. "Between Black Rock and a hard place: Peter B. Porter's plan for an American invasion of Canada in 1812." Journal of the Early Republic 19.3 (1999): 385-422. online
  • Scheuer, Michael F. "Peter Buell Porter And The Development Of The Joint Commission Approach To Diplomacy In The North Atlantic Triangle." American Review of Canadian Studies]] 12.1 (1982): 65-73.
  • Mogavero, I. Frank. "Peter B Porter, citizen and statesman" (PhD. Diss. University of Ottawa, 1950) online.
  • United States Congress. "Peter Buell Porter (id: P000446)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
  • Biography in Secretaries of War and Secretaries of the Army a publication of the United States Army Center of Military History
  • Bernstein, Peter L, Wedding of the Waters, New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2005.
  • Cornog, Evan, The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Koeppel, Gerard, "Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire", Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2009.
  • Shaw, Ronald E, Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854 Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990.
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 15th congressional district

Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 21st congressional district

with Micah Brooks
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Secretary of State of New York
Succeeded by
Preceded by U.S. Secretary of War
Served under: John Quincy Adams

Succeeded by