In English and Scottish the surname Porter was an occupational name for a doorkeeper of a castle, monastery, or other such large 'house', or a gatekeeper of a walled city. This position often gave the person accommodations and other privileges. Sometimes the position was carried down through generations, especially for gatekeepers in castles. Porter also has origins from the occupation for a man who carried loads for a living, thus we get the word 'porter' for someone who carries our bags in a hotel, railway station, etc. In Dutch it can also mean a freeman of a seaport (modern Dutch poorter). *
The meaning 'to carry' is what I always associated my surname with as I was growing up.
From Ancestry.Com I found the following stats:
In 1840 there were 224-445 Porter families living in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Maine, and Massachusetts; 75-223 living in Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and Illinois; 1-74 living in New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa Territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
In 1880 the heaviest concentration of Porter families remains in Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. More Porter families have moved into Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa.
In 1920 the heaviest concentration of Porter families again remains in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts, and Illinois. But now more have moved into Missouri, Texas, Georgia, and California.
Are the above statistics important to my research? In some ways yes ... if I'm having a difficult time finding a family after a certain period of time I might use these stats to throw a wider net in my research.
This same area within Ancestry.Com gives me the top places of origin for those with the surname Porter. Of course this information comes only from Ancestry's New York Passenger Lists, so it is not all inclusive but can give one a start. From the Porter Family Facts' Top Places of Origin for Porter I can see that the majority of Porters listed in the New York Passenger Lists came from England and Ireland. I was told that my Porters are English; however, it is interesting to see that quite a few came from Ireland also.
If you don't have a subscription to Ancestry.Com, you can still find a lot of information on your surname. I input the search phrase "origins porter surname statistics" into Google and found many free websites. Also just try "origins surname" as a search; this returns a lot of good websites on surname origins.
Disclaimer: I have no association with Ancestry other than as a subscriber to their services.
* Information on the meaning of the surname PORTER is from the Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-508137-4