American History and Genealogy Project


A Sketch of the Life of Col. James Swan

 James Swan was the original purchaser of the twenty-five islands included in the Burnt Coat group. The largest of these islands, which contains this town, was named for him - Swan's Island. He was born in Fifeshire, Scotland, in 1754, and came to this country about the year 1765. Although a small boy he was unusually active and intelligent, and soon found employment in Boston. As a boy he was studious, devoting all his spare time to his books and in this way secured an excellent education.

Even in his younger years, Swan had a varied experience. Before his twenty-second year he had been merchant, politician, soldier and author. When only eighteen years of age, while yet but a clerk in a counting house, which was situated next to Ellis Gray's, opposite the east end of Faneuil hall, he wrote and published a work on the African slave trade. This book was published in 1772, and was entitled: "A Dissuasion of Great Britain and Her Colonies from the Slave Trade." A copy of this work is said to be in the Boston public library.

He served as an apprentice for several years with Thaxter & Son, and while there he formed an intimate friendship with several other clerks, who, in after years, became widely known. Among these were Benjamin Thompson, afterwards made Count Rumford by the king of Bavaria; and Henry Knox, who was a clerk, probably in the same store, and afterwards became the bookseller on Cornhill, and later a general in the Continental army

While young Swan was here employed, he boarded on Hanover Street. This was at the time of the birth of the Boston Tea Party. Swan had taken a great interest in the stirring events which were transpiring just previous to the Revolutionary war, and all his sympathies were awakened in behalf of the Americans, who were manfully resisting the tyrannical laws by which Great Britain was trying to enslave the colonists.

To resist more effectually these unjust laws, an association was formed called the Sons of Liberty. Swan and the other apprentices joined the association, and he was present and took part in that act of disloyalty to the crown, which became a part of the world's history, the Boston Tea Party.

England, alarmed at the show of resistance which the colonists were making, repealed all the obnoxious laws except the tax on tea, but the colonists would not submit even to that tax. So an immense meeting was held in Faneuil hall to discuss this matter, and it was there decided that the tea in the ships then lying in Boston harbor should never be brought ashore. According, a party of the Sons of Liberty, disguised as Indians, went aboard the ships and emptied three hundred and forty-two chests of tea into the water.

History reveals that while these young men were on their way home from the Boston Tea Party, they passed the house at which Admiral Montague, a British officer, was spending the evening. This officer raised the window and cried out:

"Well, boys, you've had a fine night for your Indian caper. But, mind, you've got to pay the fiddler yet."'

"O, never mind," replied one of the leaders, "never mind, squire! Just come out here, if you please, and will settle the bill in two minutes."

The admiral thought best to let the bill stand, and quickly shut down the window.

When Swan and his companions returned to their boarding place with tea in their shoes and smooched faces, they ran the gauntlet of the boarders at the next morning's breakfast. Among others who were in the Tea Party were Samuel Gore, who lived to the advanced age of ninety-eight years, George Robert, who died at the age of ninety-two, and Samuel Sprague, father of the poet.

Swan was engaged in the battle of Bunker Hill, where he was twice wounded. It is said that he was volunteer aid to Gen. Warren, but this is improbable, as all accounts of that battle show that Warren declined command, and was killed while fighting in the ranks with a musket. So it was not likely that he had an aid-de-camp.

Swan was afterwards promoted to captain in Craft's artillery. He was at the evacuation of Boston by the British on March 17, 1776. The next day he witnessed the entrance of Washington into Boston amid great rejoicing, as the inhabitants had been besieged for eleven months. Afterwards Swan became secretary of the Massachusetts board of war. He was elected a member of the legislature and adjutant-general of the state. At the close of the war he was major of a cavalry corps. Throughout the whole war, he occupied positions of trust, often requiring great courage and cool judgment, and the fidelity with which every duty was performed was shown by the honors conferred upon him after retiring to civil life.

Prior to the Revolutionary war, there was a man living in Boston named Barnaby Clark, who was a merchant and ship owner. He had two children, Samuel and Hepzibah. The latter, in 1776, became the wife of James Swan.

There was also living in Boston at this time a wealthy Scot, an old bachelor, named William Dennie, who was connected in business with Barnaby Clark, and in whose employ Samuel Clark sailed as shipmaster. A strong friendship existed between Barnaby Clark and William Dennie, and the latter, having no relatives in America, often said he would divide his property between the two children of the former. When he died, however, he left his whole estate to James Swan, being instigated there to, it was believed, by Swan's influence.

Samuel Clark, Swan's brother-in-law, was a Revolutionary soldier, and was a major in one of the Boston regiments which took part, under Gen. Sullivan, in the Rhode Island campaign, which failed on account of a great storm that prevented the cooperation of the French troops. In this storm Major Clark contracted a disease of which he died in Boston at the age of twenty-six years, leaving a widow and infant son, also Samuel Clark. (The latter was the father of my informant, Samuel C. Clark, who now resides in Marietta, Georgia, at the advanced age of ninety years. He was a neighbor of the Swan family in Boston, and an intimate friend.)

By Major Clark's will all his properly was divided between his wife and son, and he made James Swan one of the executors of the will and guardian of the child. His will gave directions as to the investments and care of the estate, none of which was observed by Colonel Swan, and when Samuel Clark became of age, twenty years after, he was only able to obtain his property by a lawsuit with Swan. Swan, by means of the large fortune willed to him, entered the mercantile business on a large scale, and became very wealthy.

At the beginning of the Revolution he was said to own about two and a half million acres of land in Mingo, Logan, Wyoming, and McDowell counties, in western Virginia; Pike county, Kentucky, and Tazewell county, Virginia. He sold what he could of this land, and devoted the proceeds to furthering the cause of American independence. In return for his services the state of Virginia re-deeded to him all the property he sold, and gave him much more lying west of the Alleghanies. He also bought much of the confiscated property of the Tories. Among others was the estate belonging to Governor Hutchinson, lying on Tremont Street, between West and Boylston streets, Boston, which became very valuable property. There was also on the southerly side of Dudley Street, near Dorchester, an estate of one Colonel Estes Hatch, who died, leaving it to his son Nathaniel, who was a Tory and who went to Halifax in 1776. The state confiscated the property of about sixty acres. It was purchased by Colonel Swan in 1780 for £18,000, and afterwards offered for sale to Governor Hancock for £40,000, but he would not pay the price Swan demanded.

In 1784 Swan purchased the Burnt Coat group of islands. This was about the time that his friend Gen. Henry Knox came to Maine, and purchased a large tract of land in Thomaston, where he built a large mansion and spent much of the latter years of his life. Throughout their whole lives the friendship formed in their boyhood days subsisted between Colonel Swan and General Knox, and may have induced them to have taken up their residences together in Maine.

After the war, Colonel Swan lived on the corner of West and Tremont streets. This place he afterwards sold, and it was converted into a garden theatre. He also owned a house on Dudley Street, near Roxbury. The last was an old fashioned mansion. He built in Dorchester an elegant summer residence, a part of which is standing and apparently in good condition. During Swan's short residence in Boston he gave liberal entertainments, and among others who accepted his hospitality were the Marquis de Viomeuil, second under Count de Rochambeau, Admiral d' Estaing, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Gen. Henry Knox.

Later Colonel Swan became deeply involved in debt from speculations which turned out badly. In 1787 he went to Paris, and through the influence of Lafayette and other men of influence, made a fortune through government contracts by supplying their army. Here he lived through all the dark days of the French Revolution. During this period he made every effort to colonize the proscribed French nobility on his lands in America. He had induced a number to immigrate and received on board his ships a vast quantity of their furniture and belongings, but before the owners could follow their furniture on board, the relentless guillotine had caught them in its hungry jaws. The laden ships put to sea and safely arrived in Boston. One of these ships was commanded by Capt. Stephen Clough, of Wiscasset, Maine. He was an eyewitness to the execution of the French queen, which fiendish act remained indelibly impressed upon his memory. He gave to his youngest daughter the name Antoinette in memory of her.

In these cargoes sent over by Colonel Swan was a great deal of elegant furniture, beautiful pieces of tapestry, family plate, and fine paintings from royal palaces. These adorned the old Swan mansion in Dorchester. Some of these are still in the possession of his descendants, but many of them have long since been disposed of. A massive silver soup tureen was bought of the family by a gentleman in Boston. If its mate could have been procured it would readily have sold for $1,000. Comparatively useless of itself, he eventually sent it to the East Indies, where it sold for $300. At a period long subsequent its companion was disposed of in Boston. A pair of andirons of elegant and elaborate workmanship was sent here from Paris that for a number of years enjoyed a "golden" reputation. Later they became the property of the late George Blake, and after his death they were discovered to be brass gilt.

Much of the furniture, including three or four sideboards, became the property of General Knox, who was then furnishing his mansion in Thomaston. Other articles were added to the Knox mansion by James Swan, jr., who married General Knox's youngest daughter Caroline, who was the last of the family to occupy the old mansion, which for want of care and repairs went almost to ruin over her head.

These sideboards, which came into General Knox's possession, are still retained as relics in Knox County. One of them is now in Thomaston. It came into the possession of Hon. Hezekiah Prince, of Thomaston, in 1813, when he resided in the house at Mill River, built and furnished by Knox for his son Henry. The dwelling house and many other portions of the Knox estates had passed into the hands of his creditors. This sideboard and other furniture of Henry, jr., remained in the house and was sold, and bought by Mr. Prince. It remained in the Prince family nearly a quarter of a century. It is now owned by Charles S. Coombs, of Thomaston. Another was bought by Samuel Fuller, of Thomaston, and sold to Boston parties.

Prince Talleyrand was convened to Boston by Colonel Swan, and sent to Montpelier, the home of Knox in Thomaston, about 1794, where he was for some time the guest of the general.

Mrs. Swan accompanied her husband on several trips to Paris. But on his last trip Colonel Swan came to grief. He had contracted a debt in France claimed to be 2,000,000 francs. This indebtedness he denied, and refused to pay it. He was caused to be arrested by the French government and confined in St. Pelagie, a debtors' prison, from the year 1808 to 1830, a period of twenty-two years.

Swan steadfastly denied the charge brought against him, and although he was able to settle the debt, he preferred to remain a prisoner rather than secure his liberty on an unjust plea. He proposed, by a lifelong captivity if necessary, to protest against his pretended creditor's injustice. He gave up his wife, children and friends, and the comforts of his Parisian and New England homes for a principle. He made preparations for a long stay in prison.

Swan's sincere friend, Lafayette, in vain tried to prevail upon him to forego his designs of living and dying in St. Pelagie. But, no; he was stubborn to the last. He lived in a little cell in the prison, and was treated with great respect by the other prisoners, they putting aside their little furnaces with which they cooked, that he might have more room for exercise. Not a day passed without some kind act on his part, and he was known to have been the cause of the liberation of many poor debtors. When the jailer introduced his pretended creditor he would politely salute him and say to the former:

"My friend, return me to my chamber."

Here in prison for long years he remained, until, on July 28, 1830, on the ascension of Louis Philippe to the throne of France, he was forced out of prison with the other debtors at the age of seventy-six years. This St. Pelagie was the prison where Mme. Roland, of whom Thiers speaks so beautifully, and the infamous Du Barry, mistress of Louis XV, were taken to execution, and where Josephine experienced her first vicissitude of fortune, as related in the beautiful story of her life by Imbert de St. Amand.

With funds sent to him by his wife in America, Swan hired apartments in the Rue de la Clif, opposite St. Pelagie, which lie caused to be fitted up at great expense, in which were dining and drawing rooms, coaches and stables and outhouses. There he invited his friends and lodged his servants, putting at the disposal of the former his carriages in which they drove to the promenade, the ball, the theatre, everywhere in his name. At this Parisian home he gave great dinners, but as in that beautiful play of the "Lost Man" in which William Rufus Blake was so grand as Geoffrey Dale, there was always a place left for the absent one at the table. Swan seemed happy in thus braving his creditors and judges. He allowed his beard to grow, dressed a la mode, and was cheerful to the last day of his confinement.

When the Revolution of 1830 discharged the debtors from St. Pelagie, this brave old man (who had passed through our Revolutionary war, one of the bravest men of his day, as well as through the horrors of the French Revolution) went with them. Three days after, on July 31, he returned to St. Pelagie to reinstate himself a prisoner, for what could this old man, who had passed nearly a third of his life a prisoner, do? Here he was seized with a hemorrhage, and died suddenly in the Rue d' Echiquier, very near to where the firm of Jordan, Marsh & Co. have their foreign office.

After his freedom his one desire was to embrace his friend Lafayette, and this he did on the steps of the Hotel de Ville. The next morning Col. Swan was dead. He is said to have been a fine looking old gentleman, greatly resembling the great philosopher and statesman, Benjamin Franklin. Col. Swan's romantic career seems to have had many elements of greatness, which were especially shown by his sacrifice and heroism during the dark days of our Revolution, as well as by the many deeds of charity and liberal hospitality which characterized his whole life. It is to be regretted that his otherwise noble and generous character should have been blemished by his financial transactions.

Col. Swan had an interesting family which he left in his New England home during his long stay in Paris. His wife, Hepzibah Clark Swan, together with Hon. Jonathan Mason, who died in 1831, owned the Mt. Vernon place, which Mrs. Swan occupied during her husband's long stay in France. She was a woman of great personal beauty, of strong impulses, and a most marked and decided character. Col. Swan remitted to his wife large sums of money which were invested for her use, and were subject to her power of appointment. Besides this she received two-tenths of all the income of the Dorchester estates, and numerous other properties in Boston. Repeated attempts were made to get at his estates in Boston, as having been purchased with his creditors' funds, but they were unsuccessful. Mrs. Swan for some time lived in the elegant mansion in Boston now owned by Benjamin Wells, on Chestnut Street, and also the beautiful summer residence in Dorchester. In the garden of this mansion is still to be seen the enclosure where lies buried Gen. Henry Jackson, the original trustee who had charge of her property. Mrs. Swan died in 1826. Col. and Mrs. Swan were the parents of four children, one son and three daughters, the latter of whom have many descendants in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

Their son, James Keadie Swan, was born in 1783, and was graduated from Harvard College in 1802. He was described as "a spoiled child of wealth and dissipation, with no business, no capacity, little taste, and no means of getting a livelihood but by a yearly allowance from his mother". He married, as was said at the time, "through the influence of two scheming mothers", Caroline F., the youngest daughter of Gen. Henry Knox, of Thomaston, in 1808. She was sixteen years of age, and a most amiable and charming person. After the marriage Swan took up his residence in Thomaston at the old Knox mansion, where his wife endured him for twenty-eight years. He died March 22, 1836, over fifty years of age.

Mrs. Swan married July 31, 1837, Hon. John Holmes, of Alfred; this was his second marriage. He was one of the most distinguished men of his time in Maine, United States senator, United States district attorney, etc. He removed to Thomaston, repaired and occupied the Knox mansion. The second marriage of Mrs. Swan was as happy as the first had been unhappy Mrs. Holmes died in Thomaston Oct. 17, 1851, aged sixty-one years. She left no children.

One of Mrs. Swan's daughters married John C. Howard, who died leaving several children, two of whom were married in Boston, one to Rev. Francis Wayland, D. D., late president of Brown University and the other to Rev. C. A. Bartol, of the West church, Boston.

Another daughter married William Sullivan. She was a most refined, amiable and ladylike person, and her husband was equally distinguished; his elegant manners, kind disposition and considerate notice of the young made him very popular. His graceful and elegant hospitality and the charming society of his beautiful and accomplished family made his home delightful to all friends and visitors. One of their daughters was married to the talented artist Stewart Newton, and after his death she became the wife of Mr. O'Key, of New York. Seldom, if ever, has there gathered within the walls of one of Boston's mansions a more agreeable family.

Sullivan was a man of culture and refinement. He published an interesting volume entitled: "Familiar Letters on Public Characters." At the bar he was a pleasing speaker, and took high rank in his profession.

The third and last daughter of Mrs. Swan was married in succession to John Turner Sargent, esq., and to Rev. Dr. Richmond. After the death of the latter, she, by permission of the legislature, resumed the family name of her first husband. For several years she occupied her mother's mansion in Dorchester. In early life she was preeminently distinguished for beauty. Her real name was Christiana Keadie, but she was always called Kitty Swan. She was the mother of three sons, one of whom, John T. Sargent, was well known as a minister in Boston. Another had a cultivated musical taste. He published a volume of poems. He was the father of the young Kitty to whom he recently dedicated a graceful and pleasing song.

In Hancock registry is the record of the will of "James Swan, of Dorchester, U. S., now in Paris, made in prison Sept. 9, 1824, proved May 7, 1831". He names in it his wife, Hepzibah Clark, sister Margaret, widow of David Swan, of Leith, Scotland; brother David Cowper, for services in France; brother-in-law John Nixon, who is employed in the N. E. Glass Works in Boston, for loss he met in removing from Nova Scotia to Boston: oldest daughter Hepzibah Clark, widow of John Clark Howard, of Boston: Christiana Keadie, widow of John Turner Sargent, of Boston: Sally or Sarah Webb, wife of William Sullivan, and son James Keadie, "who has a bad description." Mrs. Swan and William Sullivan were named as executors. In his will he donated large sums of money to his children, and to the city of Boston to found an institution called the Swan Orphan Academy. Charles P. Ross was appointed administrator, but the estate was declared insolvent. Joseph May and William Minot were appointed commissioners, and they reported the claims against the estate to be:

Joseph Prince, judgment $ 19,749 60

William Sullivan, trustee 28,866 01

William Sullivan 10,106 95

Jean Claude Piquet 5,5841 90

Antonio Furey Piquet, administrator of the estate of Jean Claude Piquet, judgment in the circuit court 126,997 76

William Sullivan, judgment in the supreme judicial court of Massachusetts 5,473 34

$197,055 56 Sullivan's claim disallowed 38,972 95

Amount Swan owed $158,082 61

The estate was hopelessly insolvent, for but little property in Swan's name was found.


Source: A History of Swan's Island, Maine, by H.W. Small, MD, Ellsworth Me, Hancock County Publishing Company, Printers, 1808



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