Porter, Eliza Chappell (1807–1888)

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Porter, Eliza Chappell (1807–1888)

American educator and relief worker during the Civil War . Born Eliza Emily Chappell on November 5, 1807, in Geneseo, New York; died on January 1, 1888, in Santa Barbara, California; fourth daughter and eighth of nine children of Robert Chappell (a farmer) and Elizabeth (Kneeland) Chappell; married Jeremiah Porter (a missionary), on June 15, 1835; children: nine, six of whom survived infancy.

Born in 1807 in Geneseo, New York, one of nine children, Eliza Chappell Porter spent much of her early life with relatives in Franklin, New York, sent there following the death of her father in 1811. She returned to Geneseo at age 12, and at 16 began teaching school, even though her own education had been spotty at best. In 1828, after moving with her mother to Rochester, she opened a school modeled after the infant schools started in New York City by Joanna Graham Bethune , designed to bring religious-oriented education to poor children. (Porter was extremely religious, having experienced a renewal of faith during a serious illness some years earlier.)

After her mother's death in 1831, Porter moved to Mackinac Island to tutor the children of Robert Stuart, a resident partner of the American Fur Company and a devout Presbyterian. In addition to Stuart's children and those of his associates, Porter also taught the local "half breed" Native American children, an experience which convinced her even more that the infant school movement was the way of God. In 1833, after a trip East to recover from an illness, she opened and staffed a school in the French and Indian settlement of St. Ignace, near Mackinac. She then moved on to the small settlement of Chicago, where she established another school in the log cabin home of John Stephen Wright, a real-estate developer and a "praying man." Winning both praise for her efforts as well as an offer of public funding, in 1834 she transferred the operation to the Presbyterian church of Reverend Jeremiah Porter, whom she had known in Mackinac. In 1835, they married, and over the next five years lived in Peoria and Farmington, finally settling in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Jeremiah served for 18 years as pastor of the local Presbyterian church. While raising a large family (the couple had nine children, only six of whom survived to adulthood), Porter remained active in her educational and religious pursuits. In 1858, the Porters returned to Chicago where Jeremiah took over a city mission.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Porter became office manager of the Chicago Sanitary Commission (later the Northwest Sanitary Commission), a volunteer organization established to solicit, collect, and distribute food and medical supplies to the Union army and to military hospitals. In 1862, feeling she could be of more use in the field, she left her office position to escort a group of women volunteers to Cairo, Illinois, where they helped established hospitals to care for the numerous casualties from the battle of Shiloh. She later assisted in hospitals in the Tennessee towns of Savannah and Memphis, where she also established a school for black children.

In July 1863, Porter returned to Chicago to oversee the Sanitary Commission offices for three months during the absence of its regular directors Mary A. Livermore and Jane C. Hoge . In October, she resumed her goodwill travels, distributing supplies at Corinth, Vicksburg, Cairo, and at Chattanooga, where she joined Mary Ann Bickerdyke in ministering to Sherman's army during its march toward Atlanta. The work in the field hospitals was an exhausting mix of cooking, laundering, distributing supplies, and even providing nursing care to the wounded during emergencies. "Mrs. Porter, tactful and refined, brought a valuable moderating influence to bear upon the impulsive, rough-spoken, and somewhat domineering 'Mother' Bickerdyke, who affectionately called the tiny auburn-haired Eliza her 'little brown bird,'" writes Wayne C. Temple in Notable American Women.

After the fall of Atlanta in September 1864, Porter returned briefly to Chicago, then left on an inspection tour of hospitals in Arkansas and other towns before reuniting with Sherman's army for the Carolinas campaign. In the months following the end of the war, she visited hospitals in Kentucky, Alabama, and Texas, then moved with her husband to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. In 1868, when Jeremiah rejoined the regular army as a chaplain, they moved yet again to Brownsville, Texas, where Porter reopened the Rio Grande Seminary which she had established earlier. Jeremiah was subsequently transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and later to Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, Wyoming. With each reassignment, Porter assisted her husband in his religious duties and also conducted schools for the children in the area. Following Jeremiah's retirement in 1878, the couple spent summers traveling around the country visiting with their children, and frequently wintered in California. Porter died on New Year's Day, 1888, at the age of 80.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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