Saturday, September 12, 2020

In Search of Our Harriet's Story



Discover How Focused Research May Reveal Life Events of Female Ancestors


            On a country road near Woodbury in Butler County, Kentucky, lies a small cemetery known as Newton. Several years ago, when we visited this cemetery, cattle grazed in a nearby field, as we searched for evidence of family burials. After years of researching Harriet and identifying her family roots, this cemetery visit solved the mystery of our Harriet’s death date. She had been identified as a possible family member through the 1870 population census schedule of Butler County. Persistent searches of Kentucky vital death records had not yielded a record for Harriet Porter, born about 1835-1836.

Image 1. Butler County, Kentucky, Newton Cemetery, headstone for Harriet Porter. Photo by author.

While difficult to read from this photo, Harriet’s death date was etched in the headstone as 28 June 1920, and her birth date as 31 October 1836. Many headstones in the Black section of Newton Cemetery were similar, suggesting family members or associates of the deceased prepared and carved the headstones. Several family members survived Harriet which may be an indication that they provided, and possibly carved her vital dates on the headstone. Her children and grandchildren would have been secondhand informants for her birth date; however, at least one or more were likely witness to or firsthand informants for her death date. Either Harriet’s death was not officially filed with the county, or it was filed and lost in the county offices. Kentucky had legislated that all births and deaths after 1911 were to be filed and recorded at the county level, but experience shows that adherence to this across the state was not always strictly enforced.

The search for Harriet, did not involve a direct, chronological line back to her birth, as she was born, enslaved about 1835-1836 in Kentucky. Prior to Emancipation, she would have been essentially “nameless” if the search were only limited to her given name and known vital information. The quest to identify Harriet’s story required record searches involving associates, neighbors, and suspected family members, better known as cluster research. 

Cluster research (researching individuals associated with or related to a subject or family), helped to identify life facts about Harriet by following the record trail of individuals, known to her during enslavement and after Emancipation. Harriet’s story evolved as part of a multi-family investigation of African-descended individuals and families in Butler and Ohio County, Kentucky, spanning several years. But for a Civil War pension file, vital and county probate records, Harriet would not have been identified in association with her maiden name. As an enslaved person, and a non-head of household female, Harriet would not have been listed by name in federal census records prior to 1870. Unless she appeared in a county court record involving a deed of sale of an enslaved person or a slaveholder’s probate record that referenced enslaved persons, Harriet would have been undiscovered in record searches during her enslavement period.

A direct reference to Harriet in connection to Reason Porter’s 1867 Civil War pension document, identified her as a daughter of Jesse Barnes and Mariah Borah. On 18 April 1867, Jesse Barnes appeared in Butler County, Kentucky, before court official B. L. D. Guffy. His wife, Maria[h] Barnes and daughter, Harriet A. Porter accompanied Jesse for their declaration of guardianship of Reason Porter’s orphaned sons. Ellen Porter was the deceased wife of Reason, sister to Harriet and daughter to Jesse and Maria[h]. This declaration not only established Jesse, Maria[h] and Harriet as in-laws to Reason, it provided supporting evidence that Harriet married someone whose surname was Porter.

Image 2. Butler County, Kentucky, 1867 Guardian Declaration excerpt, Civil War pension file for Reason Porter

This information provided evidence to support her blood kinship to my family. Although her married name was Porter (my maiden name), Harriet’s kinship relationship to me is my second great grandaunt through the Barnes-Borah branch. She happened to marry Rial or Riley Porter who shared a surname, but no known blood kinship with my Porter branch.

The 1870 Butler County population census schedules provided evidence to support that Harriet married Rial Porter, and the couple was listed with presumed children ranging from sixteen years to one month. An older man, Remus Borah, was listed in the household with Rial and Harriet, and in the adjacent household, Horace Borah and his family were listed. Horace was an enslaved male, documented in George Borah’s estate records in 1856. His estimated age in the 1870 census enumeration is within approximate range of the seventeen-year old Harris/Horace listed in George Borah’s inventory document. Remus’ surname, Borah provided evidence to support Harriet Porter’s possible relationship with the Borah family.

By 1880, Harriet Porter was listed in the Butler County population census, erroneously enumerated as “Porter Harret” and all other members in the household were abstracted with Harret as their surname. Harriet was a widow and resided in the household with five children, ranging from twenty-three to five years of age. Jessee Barnes, age eighty-six, was enumerated two households from Harriet, listed as a widower. The proximity of the Porter and Barnes household provided evidence to support a possible relationship between Jesse Barnes, husband of Mariah Borah.

In March 1855, a Butler County resident and slaveholder, George Borah, dictated and applied his mark to his Last Will and Testament. Fortunately, he detailed by name, bequests involving enslaved persons of his estate. His estate was administered, leaving account papers to identify enslaved persons by name and age in an 1856 inventory, and by name in the sales bills, filed in the county courthouse during March and July of that year. These records help to identify that Harriet, her mother and probable siblings were once enslaved by George Borah and his family.

Image 3. Excerpt- 1855 George Borah Last Will and Testament, Butler County, Kentucky; p. 30, Item 10

Image 4. Excerpt 1856 George Borah Inventory from Account Papers, Butler County, Kentucky, p. 2

The 1856 Account Papers excerpt inserted above listed gender, names, ages and dollar value as appraised by George Borah's estate. The estimated value for then twenty-year old Harriet, listed fourth in the list, was $800.

           Knowing that records would not have been created, with Harriet as the focal point, prior to 1870, my research involved accessing various record types in which she may have been referenced as an enslaved individual, or in connection with other primary subjects. This led me to cross-reference with retrieved sources for members of the community or area where Harriet may have resided and analyze the possibility of family members or associates. A key to the search was the investigation of probate and court records of suspected slaveholders. 

            As we research our African American families, and especially our female ancestors, considering and investigating various record types that may hold relevance can be the key to unlocking valuable information to answer our research questions. Expanding our search criteria may open additional opportunities for discovery, and for telling our stories based on evidence in diverse records. 

            A brief timeline, below, provides the chronology of research findings that helped document Harriet’s life.

Table 1 - Harriet’s Timeline





1855 - 1859

Enslaved by George Borah in Butler County; hired out periodically after Borah’s death in 1855-1856

Butler Co., KY Will and Probate case file for George Borah; Butler County Probate records

Harriet’s mother and siblings also documented as enslaved.


Declaration for minor pension on behalf of Reason Porter’s Civil War service. Harriet acknowledged as Reason’s sister in law. Declaration filed by Jesse Barnes, Harriet’s father, and grandfather of Reason’s sons

Civil War Pension file for Reason Porter, deceased, service in 115th USCT; National Archives files

Reason Porter’s wife, Ellen was Harriet’s sibling and another daughter of Jesse Barnes and Mariah Borah


Harriet enumerated in Butler County census as Harriet Porter in household with presumed husband, Rial Porter, and children

Butler Co., KY federal census, 1870, Morgantown, p. 334B, digital image

Age of oldest presumed son inferred Harriet and Rial had been in a relationship since about 1855 or earlier

April 1874

Harriet’s husband, Rial (Riley) Porter died in Butler County

Butler Co., KY death records; register for 1874, digital image. FindaGrave burial abstract


May 1874

Harriet Porter and Jesse Borah named administrators of Rial Porter’s estate by Butler County court

1874 Butler Co., KY Administrator’s Bond, Kentucky Wills and Probate records, digital image

Jesse Borah was Harriet’s brother

October 1874

Birth of male child, unnamed in register, born to Rial Porter and Harriet Borah

Kentucky, Birth records, Butler Co., KY, 1874 register, digital image

Harriet was pregnant when Rial died in April 1874

October 1874

Sale Bill for estate of Rial Porter presented at Butler County court by Harriet Porter and Jesse Borah

Butler Co., KY Inventories, Volume G, p. 78, Kentucky Wills and Probates, digital image

Sale Bill recorded the sale of Rial’s personal property, mostly livestock


Harriet Porter listed on 1875 Butler Co., KY tax assessment schedule in District 1, Negro list, p. 14

Butler Co., KY Tax Assessment Schedule, 1875, District 1, Negro list, digital image, FHL film 8516063

Harriet was listed with livestock as personal property. She had 5 children over age 6 in household.

April 1877

Settlement of Rial Porter estate presented at Butler County court by Harriet Porter and Jesse Borah

Butler Co., KY Inventories, Volume G, p. 335, Kentucky Wills and Probates, digital image

Settlement of Rial’s debits and credits left Harriet with balance of $250.14

June 1880

Harriet enumerated on Butler County federal census as “Porter Harret”

Butler Co., KY federal census, 1880, Morgantown, p. 287A, digital image

Harriet was listed as a widow with five children. Jessee Barnes, her father, resided two households away.

April 1910

Harriet was enumerated in Butler County federal census as a widow and owner of her residence

Butler Co., KY federal census, 1910, Magisterial District 1, p. 7B, digital image

Blanche Caulfield and daughters in household were Harriet’s granddaughter and great granddaughters. Source of Harriet’s ownership of house has not yet been retrieved.

28 June 1920

Harriet died, presumably in Butler County

Headstone photographed in Newton Cemetery, Butler County, Kentucky

No death record retrieved for Harriet Porter


Will Porter, son of Harriet and Riley died in Bowling Green, Warren Co., KY

Warren Co., KY Death Certificate for Will Porter, digital image,

Otho aka Oather Porter, Will’s son named Riley and Harriett Porter as parents of his father.


Laura Porter Helm, daughter of Harriet and Riley died in Butler Co., KY

Butler Co., KY Death Certificate for Laura Helm, digital image,

Elvis Porter, Laura’s nephew named Harriett Borah and Riley Porter as her parents. She was buried in Newton Cemetery near Harriet.


Elves Porter, son of Harriet and Riley died in Woodbury, Butler Co., KY

Butler Co., KY Death Certificate for Elves Porter, digital image,

Oather Porter, Elves’ nephew, named Harriett Borah and Riley Porter as parents of Elves. Elves was buried in Newton Cemetery near Harriet.

 The known children of Harriet Borah and Rial Porter were:

  • Loney (male) born about 1855-1856
  • Francis (female) born about 1858
  • Laura born 1860
  • Wilburn born 1866
  • Mina born about 1867
  • Elvis born about 1869
  • Will born 1874


1.    Newton Cemetery, Woodbury, Butler County, Kentucky, digital image, Harriet Porter headstone, 31 October 1836-28 June 1920.

2.    Butler County, Kentucky, 1867 Declaration of Minor Guardian, USCT 115th Infantry Pension file for Reason Porter; digital image of photocopied document by National Archives, Washington D.C.

3.    1870 U.S. Census population schedule, Morgantown, Butler County, Kentucky, page 334B (stamped), Rial Porter household,, subscription database.

4.    1880 U.S. Census population schedule, Morgantown, Butler County, Kentucky, ED 105, page 287 (stamped), Porter Harret household,, subscription database.

5.    Butler County, Kentucky, 1850 Will of George Borah, Book B, pps. 28-32, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky.

6.    Butler County, Kentucky, 1856 Estate File 233 for George Borah, pps. 518-533, digital image at, subscription database.

7.    Butler County, Kentucky, Death Register listing for Rial Porter, 1874, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, microfilm 994029, photocopy.

8.    Butler County, Kentucky, May 1874 Administrator’s Bond for Rial Porter, Kentucky, Wills and Probate Records, digital image,, subscription database.

9.    Butler County, Kentucky, Birth Register listing for male child [given name unlisted] of Rial Porter and Harriet Borah, 1874, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, microfilm, digital image at, subscription database.

10.  Butler County, Kentucky, October 1874 Sale Bill for estate of Rial Porter, Volume G, Inventories, page 78, Kentucky Probate Records, digital image,, database.

11.  Butler County, Kentucky, Tax Assessment schedules, 1875, Harriet Porter, District 1, page 14, Negro List, digital image at, database.

12.  Butler County, Kentucky, April 1877, Settlement of Rial Porter estate, Volume G, Inventories, page 335, Kentucky Probate Records, digital image,, database.

13.  1910 U.S. Census population schedule, Magisterial District 1, Butler County, Kentucky, ED 30, page 7B (penned), Harriett Porter household,, subscription database.

14.  Warren County, Kentucky, Death Certificate for Will Porter, 1928, Certificate 4610, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives digital image at, subscription database.

15.  Butler County, Kentucky, Death Certificate for Laura Helm, 1942, Certificate 15108, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, digital image at, subscription database.

16.  Butler County, Kentucky, Death Certificate for Elves Porter, 1946, Certificate 3084, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, digital image at, subscription database.