|The Eliza Chappell School was roughly at Lake and Clark Streets are today.|
She opened a school for small children in Rochester, New York in 1828. In 1831, she traveled to Michigan and began tutoring at a frontier settlement on Mackinac Island. After a few months she opened a school for mixed-raced Indian children.
|Eliza Emily Chappell|
In 1834, the school was moved into the first Presbyterian Church in Fort Dearborn, on the southwest corner of Lake and Clark Streets. The school was rented from the church for nine dollars a month.
That year, Chappell established a normal school for future teachers, located on the future site of LaSalle Street, for 12 girls who lived on the prairie.
Chappell married Rev. Jeremiah Porter, the youngest child of Dr. William Porter and Charlotte Porter, on June 15, 1835. Porter and Jeremiah first met on Mackinac Island during discussions about establishing a school.
After the Porters were married, they left Chicago for Farmington, Illinois. They moved to Peoria, Illinois, before settling in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on January 4, 1851; they remained there until 1858. The Porters returned to Chicago when Jeremiah became pastor of Edwards Congregational Church.
The Porters were living in Chicago at the outbreak of the American Civil War; they promptly entered the service. As early as the summer of 1861, Chappell-Porter visited Cairo, Illinois, organizing hospitals, distributing supplies, escorting volunteers, and seeing to the sick or wounded. In October 1861, Eliza became the office manager of the Chicago (later Northwestern) U.S. Sanitary Commission, which solicited food, medical dressings, and other supplies for use in frontline military hospitals.
After the Battle of Shiloh in early April 1862, Chappell-Porter recognized that she would be more useful in the field. In July 1863, she returned to Chicago to act as associate director of the Chicago branch of the Northwest Sanitary Commission with fellow humanitarian Dorothea Dix. Most of 1862 was spent in field hospitals at Ft. Pickering where Jeremiah was stationed. Following the Battle of Vicksburg, Porter traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she worked side by side with Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Chappell-Porter and Bickerdyke directed all manner of volunteer field-hospital work, such as cooking, laundering, distributing relief supplies, and—in emergencies—nursing the wounded.
Chappell-Porter followed the U.S. Army to the Battle of Atlanta. Jeremiah served as Chaplain in Battery A of the First Illinois Light Artillery at Ft. Pickering. Porter secured nurses from Chicago, and on orders from medical director Dr. Charles McDougal, escorted the nurses to Savannah. The Porters followed the Union Army through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia.
Chappell-Porter worked closely with Bickerdyke distributing supplies and caring for the sick. Eliza helped treat the wounded in Memphis from the Battle of Vicksburg. After the battle, Porter went through Louisville to Nashville, then on to Alabama, where she assisted Lincoln Clark's wife at Huntsville Prison. She continued her relief work up until Sherman’s Campaign.
Both Eliza and Jeremiah were active reformers. Jeremiah met abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois, for an anti-slavery convention, and Chappell-Porter educated children and veteran freedmen during and after the Civil War. She established a school in Memphis for African-American children. She participated in founding a school at Shiloh, Tennessee, for former slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.
In Austin, Texas, Chappell-Porter established a Sunday school for freed slave children. "Eliza would have a multitude of little black children packed close as their little wriggling bodies would permit. I seem to see her standing before them in that rude room upon that rough floor her beautiful eyes beaming, her whole face illuminated with love while every eye was fastened upon her face as she taught them of God and His laws, of Jesus and His love." She went on to establish a kindergarten for African-American children in a missionary settlement in East Austin, Texas.
Eliza and Jeremiah were active in the Underground Railroad. During their stay in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the Porter home was the last stop before slaves crossed into the safety of Canada. She regarded it as a "secret service before the Lord". When a fugitive slave and his three small children arrived at the Porters' doorstep in Green Bay in the middle of the night, Eliza suggested housing the family in the church. For four days, the belfry served as a refuge until a sailboat could be procured to carry the passengers to a steamboat bound for Canada.
In addition to her medical assistance, Eliza made appeals to many politicians about obtaining speedier recovery of convalescent soldiers—especially sending those soldiers home to northern hospitals. Chappell-Porter even appealed to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C. in 1863:
But it is not for the dead I plead, but for those who still live, and are suffering home and heart sickness in Southern hospitals. We ask that as you are giving furloughs to all veterans who are able and willing to re-enlist from the ranks, you will not forget the sick and wounded veterans, but extend furloughs to them also.
President Lincoln, do you know that the holding of our sick in government hospitals, is doing more in some sections of our country to prevent re-enlistment, and weaken confidence in our government than all other causes combined?After her service in the Civil War ended in October 1865, the Porters went to the "Mexican frontier" in Texas to distribute supplies to U.S. soldiers on behalf of the Sanitary and Christians Commissions. Chappell-Porter also opened a Protestant school. She taught in the school herself until the autumn of 1866, when Jeremiah became the pastor of the Congregational church in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. By this time it had been five years since the Porters has settled into a home of their own. In 1868, the Porters returned to schoolwork in Brownsville, Texas, when Jeremiah became pastor of the Presbyterian Church there. In Brownsville, Eliza reopened the coeducational Rio Grande Seminary. After about a year in Brownsville, they returned to Chicago.
Jeremiah was appointed Post Chaplain by the U.S. Senate in 1870, and sent to work at Fort Brown, Texas, on the north side of the Rio Grande. In January 1874, the Porters went to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory, among the Comanche and Kiowa tribes, because Jeremiah was the chaplain for Ulysses S. Grant's command. Chappell-Porter "taught the children of the garrison in a day school [Rio Grande Female Institute], gathered the laundresses for instruction and made herself the special friend of everyone in need."
Jeremiah was transferred to Ft. Russell, Wyoming, in 1875. By this time, Porter's health started to deteriorate. After a bout with malaria and pneumonia, her lungs were never the same, making frontier living intolerable. She spent much time away from her husband, because she couldn't venture out in the cold. Chappell-Porter was torn between wanting to be near her sons in Chicago, and avoiding the harsh winters; she found any permanent resting place impractical. She spent summers in Wisconsin or Michigan, and winters in Florida, Texas, or California. Even though her health failed her, she kept busy with correspondence and "read with keen interest."
Elzia caught a chill at Christmas in 1887 that developed into pneumonia. She died at the age of 80 on January 1, 1888, in Santa Barbara, California. Memorial services were held in Chicago on January 17. People from all walks of life shared recollections of Chappell-Porter.
Mary Livermore—a fellow member of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, journalist, and women's-rights advocate—remarked of the "uniform gentleness and untiring diligence that characterized her," noting "What a power she was in the hospitals" and "It seems to me that her biography, like that of our Lord, may be condensed into one phrase, 'she went about doing good'."
Jeremiah remained active, giving lectures to large crowds up until just before his own passing in 1893.
Eliza Chappell-Porter is buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.
The Eliza Chappell Elementary School, located at 2135 West Foster Avenue in Chicago, was built in 1937 and is named in honor of Chappell-Porter. The school, formerly known as the Foster and Leavitt site, was named on October 20, 1937, with Elvira Fox as the elected principal. A plaque was placed in Chappell-Porter's honor at the southwest corner of State and Wacker Streets, acknowledging the first public school in Chicago in 1833.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.