Porter family gifts Historic Deerfield American Revolution first-hand accounts

  • Epaulettes, American, made from imported British or European materials, 1778. Part of a military uniform worn by Colonel Elisha Porter (1742-1796) of Hadley, an important example of late 18th-century officer’s uniform owned and worn in the Connecticut River Valley. Photo/Historic Deerfield

For the Bulletin
Thursday, February 08, 2018

DEERFIELD — Hadley brothers Elisha Porter and Eleazar Porter led very different lives during the late 1700s, but the documents they left behind will help paint a clearer picture of western Massachusetts during the American Revolution.

Historic Deerfield received an extensive collection of written military orders, broadsides, receipts, court documents and letters in December, papers that belonged to Elisha Porter, a Continental Army colonel, and Eleazar Porter, a Hadley judge.

Samuel and David Cooley, descendants of the Porter brothers, gifted Historic Deerfield the collection, which had been held privately as a Porter family heirloom.

“It’s a variety of things and it’s all part of a big documentation of the Porters’ experience in the war,” said Laurie Nivison, Historic Deerfield spokeswoman.

Nivison said the items are not yet on display, but any American Revolution scholar, historian or researcher will be able to access the collection by visiting Historic Deerfield’s Memorial Libraries at 6 Memorial St.

Due to the different professions of the Porter brothers, the documents could draw interest from historians of a variety of disciplines, including military, legal and western Massachusetts historians, Nivison said.

Elisha Porter was a colonel with the Fourth Hampshire Regiment, based in western Massachusetts, and participated in the battles of Bunker Hill and Saratoga. Some particularly interesting documents are those that belonged to him, which are mostly military in nature, Nivison said.

“There is a letter that is signed by Gen. George Washington when he was in Cambridge instructing Porter to move the army north to Canada,” Nivison said. “I had the opportunity to read the letter and it’s pretty extraordinary to read things from the Revolution.”

Elisha was sent with a relief force to help Maj. Gens. Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery in their failed invasion of Canada during the war, an expedition that led to Montgomery’s death.

Other of Elisha’s items include a dispatch signed by Arnold, who later betrayed the Continental Army and joined the British.

According to Nivison, Elisha Porter’s share of the documents — about 70 items — will give insight into how military officials communicated with each other during the American Revolution. They will also give Pioneer Valley residents more information about a somewhat-unknown historical figure.

“He was really someone just outside the limelight, as they say, so it’s pretty extraordinary he was able to save all these things detailing his involvement in the war,” Nivison said.

250th anniversary

Nivison added that Elisha Porter’s items will likely be included with other American Revolution-era items in a future exhibit, possibly around the 250th anniversary of the signing of the start of the war in 2025.

“We have an extensive collection of powder horns from the French and Indian War and the Revolution, and a lot of material from that time, but this is such a big accounting of Elisha’s experiences,” Nivison said.

Elisha Porter’s Continental Army uniform is already included in Historic Deerfield’s textiles collection; the Cooley brothers donated the uniform in the spring of 2017, establishing a relationship with Historic Deerfield.

The receipt for the uniform’s epaulettes is among the newly donated collection of documents.

The portion of the collection belonging to Eleazar Porter, a probate judge and a judge in the Court of Common Pleas, contains documents that are more “day-to-day,” Nivison said.

The writs, orders, summonses and receipts regarding cases in which Eleazar Porter was involved give more details about the American Revolution era than the war itself, but could be useful to legal and western Massachusetts historians.

“This is just a wonderful thing for the people of the area to be able to have and to be able to see as part of the history of western Mass., and we’re proud to be the roots of this,” Nivison said. “It’s definitely part of our mission and we’re excited to be able to bring it to the public in the future.”