David Dixon Porter was born in Chester, Pennsylvania on June 8, 1813, a son of David Porter and Evalina (Anderson) Porter. The family had strong naval traditions; the elder Porter's father, also named David, had been captain of a Massachusetts vessel in the American Revolutionary War, as had his uncle Samuel. In the next generation, David Porter and his brother John entered the fledgling United States Navy and served with distinction during the War of 1812. David Porter was named to the rank of commodore.
The younger David was one of 10 children, including six boys. His youngest brother Thomas died of yellow fever at the age of ten, contracted when traveling with his father for the Mexican Navy. The surviving five sons all became officers, four in the U.S. Navy:
- David Dixon, became the second man promoted to rank of admiral.
- Hambleton, died of yellow fever while a passed midshipman.
- Henry Ogden
- Theodoric, became an officer in the US Army; he was killed at Matamoros in the Mexican–American War.
His uncle John Porter and his wife did not have as many children, but their son Fitz John Porter was a major general in the US Army at the time of the Civil War. Another son, Bolton Porter, was lost with his ship USS Levant in 1861. His aunt Anne married their cousin Alexander Porter. Their son David Henry Porter became a captain in the Mexican Navy during its struggle for independence (see below). The naval tradition continued into later generations of the family's descendants.
In addition to rearing their own children, his parents David and Evalina Porter adopted James Glasgow Farragut. The boy's mother died in 1808 when he was seven, and his father George Farragut, a U.S. naval officer in the American Revolution and friend of David Porter Sr., was unable to care for all his children. Commodore David Porter offered to adopt James, to which the boy and George agreed. In 1811, James started serving a midshipman under Porter in the U.S. Navy, and changed his first name to David. He had a distinguished career as David G. Farragut, serving as the first man to attain the new rank of admiral, instituted by the U.S. Congress after the American Civil War.