Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Cole Porter. He has long been one of my favourite song and show writers. He has often been compared with Sir Noël Coward but I think they are two very different writers. In tribute to Cole Porter here is a look at his ancestry.
A lot is known about
Cole’s wealthy background. In particular his mother Kate (1862-1952) and his
grandfather James Omar Cole (1828-1923) have played major parts in his life.
But before I go into his
privileged ancestry I want to look at his more humble paternal roots.
The Porter family have
Irish roots. The earliest member of the family to arrive in America was James
Porter (1699-1778) and his wife Eleanor. Their grandson Andrew is recorded in
the 1830 census as living in Gallatin, Kentucky, but he appears to have been
born in Maryland and died in Indiana. Andrew’s son Samuel Porter (1810-1883)
was the first member of the family to achieve some influence in the community.
In 1851 Samuel was
elected as Switzerland County representative to the Indiana State assembly. He
was Cole Porter’s other grandfather, and he wasn’t the only state legislator in
his ancestry, as you’ll see later.
Samuel Porter married a
Scottish immigrant called Catherine McCallum. She had arrived from Scotland
with her parents and grandparents in 1818 at the age of 2. Samuel and Catherine
were well-off but by no means rich. Their son, also called Samuel (Cole’s
father), moved to Peru, Indiana, and began to date young Kate Cole. But Kate’s
father, a self-made millionaire, was at first reluctant to see the couple
James Omar Cole had made
his fortune as a result of the California Gold Rush of 1848. As an adventurous
22-year-old he had left the family home in Peru, Indiana, and headed into the
wild Wild West. From his beginnings as a mining assistant he gathered enough
wealth in ten years to open several stores, a brewery, a cold-storage company
and a sawmill, and become a millionaire.
James wasn’t the first
adventurous member of his family. Like all Americans of colonial descent his
ancestors wee even more adventurous. Many of them left their homes, either in
search of a new life or to escape persecution, and they landed on American
Cole Porter descends
from quite a large number of these early settlers. Several families can be
grouped together geographically, and I’ll concentrate of them because of their
involvement in one of the many conflicts between the colonists and Native
Americans – the Pequot War of 1637.
By 1636 European
colonists had formed several small settlements in Connecticut consisting of
just several hundred people. The area was already a battleground between
several native tribes over control over land, and this developed into a battle
for control over the fur trade with the colonists. The Pequot traded with the
Dutch, and the rival Mohegan traded with the English. Tensions rose, and
eventually it led to the capture and deaths of a Pequot chief and an English
In 1637 the Connecticut
General Court (a newly appointed body that was the first to convene
independently of the governing Massachusetts council) declared war on the
Pequot tribe. Clerk of the Court was Thomas Welles, a settler from Warwickshire
in England. He and his family had arrived in America in 1635 and came to the
Connecticut settlement of Hartford the following year. Thomas is Cole Porter’s
At the 1637 General
Council a special militia of 90 men was raised to fight the Pequots. They
included several of Cole’s relatives. The militia made alliances with the
Pequot’s rival tribes. They attacked several Pequot villages, and the Pequots
surrounded the coastal trading post of Port Saybrook. They raided other
settlements, killing up to 30 colonists.
In the small town of
Wethersfield there lived a large number of Cole Porter’s ancestors including
the Footes, Demings, Treats and Churchills (no relation to Winston), all of
whom were to become influential in later American history and have many other
The conflict reached a
tragic climax with the Mystic Massacre, an attack by the colonists and their
allies on the Pequot village of Mystic. Most of the Pequot warriors had gone to
attack Hartford, leaving mainly the women, children and elderly in the village.
The militia callously set fire to the village and killed anyone trying to
escape. Of the 600 Pequot villagers only less than 20 survived.
Many of the Pequots fled
from their other villages and tried to find refuge with other tribes, most of
them without success. A large group of Pequot refugees were trapped in
swampland. This time the militia allowed the women and children to leave but
the rest were attacked and defeated. Any surviving Pequot warriors were hunted
down, by both colonists and rival tribes, almost wiping out the Pequot for
A second Connecticut
General Court was convened at which the Pequot lands were seized and
distributed among members of the militia and their allied tribes. Among the families
to benefit were Cole Porter’s ancestors Thomas Barnes, Capt. Thomas Weld and
Deacon William Peck, among others.
And so did Thomas
Welles, the Clerk of the Court. When Connecticut drew up its constitution it
was he who produced the documents, effectively declaring Connecticut a separate
colony. Thomas rose in the legislature to become Treasurer, then Secretary,
then Deputy Governor, and finally Governor of Connecticut, the only person in
history to hold all four offices.
Throughout his career
Thomas served as a magistrate and served on three witchcraft trials. One of
those on trial was another of Cole Porter’s relatives, Mrs. Lydia Gilbert.
courtroom incident, though it didn’t involve Thomas Welles but his grandson
Thomas Thompson. He was married twice. His first wife died leaving 2 daughters
(including Anne, Cole’s 4-times-great-grandmother). Thompson remarried, and his
new wife had a bit of a temper, according to neighbours, and Thompson was
beaten regularly by his wife. In 1705 Thompson’s wife threw a pair of shears at
him, the points entering his skull and going into his brain. It didn’t kill him
instantly but he survived several days in agony, dying around Christmas time.
His widow was put on trial for murder, found guilty, and (we believe, no-one is
Cole Porter had colonial
ancestors who lived in other parts of New England. Peter Tallman was a German
colonist who settled first on Barbados and then moved to Rhode Island. His
grandson William married Anne Lincoln, whose brother was ancestor of Abraham
Lincoln. William and Ann’s son Benjamin married Dinah Boone, a first-cousin of
frontiersman Daniel Boone.
In the past decade
genealogists have been discovering new records and several of Cole Porter’s
ancestral lines to royalty have been disproved. One of these was through Thomas
Welles above, who has no connection to the English noble family with royal
blood from whom he was said to have descended. However, there is one bloodline
which provides an appropriate link to an English king, and it comes through
Thomas Welles’s wife Alice Tomes. Alice is descended from Piers Gaveston, the
lover (and possible “wedded brother” partner) of King Edward II and Constable
of Nottingham Castle.