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Who was James Swan?

Colonel James Swan. 1795. By Gilbert Stuart, American, 1755–1828. 73.66 x 60.96 cm (29 x 24 in.). Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

James Swan entered American historical lore on December 16, 1773, when he and a few others participated in what became known as the Boston Tea Party, but he has a place in early U.S. business history as well.

While I was doing some research for the Business of Congress blog post which featured “business” oriented material from Thomas Jefferson’s collection, I kept seeing the name Swan and wondered who this gentleman was and why Jefferson included items written by him in his collection.  After a bit of research I discovered his full name was James Swan and he was indeed, an interesting man.

James Swan was born in Fifeshire, Scotland in 1754 and moved to Boston about 1765.  He was an apprentice at a mercantile house, and by the time of the Revolutionary War he was becoming quite prosperous.  Prior to the war, he joined the Sons of Liberty, and at the age of 19 in 1793, participated in the Boston Tea Party.  He was later wounded at Bunker Hill.  After the war he served in Massachusetts state government, including the legislature and the Massachusetts Board of War. [1]  He knew many of the people whose names students of American history would be familiar with – Marquis de Lafayette, John Hancock, and George Washington.  One of his oldest friends was Henry Knox, who later became the first Secretary of War.

View of the attack on Bunker’s Hill, with the burning of Charles Town, June 17, 1775 / drawn by Mr. Millar ; engraved by Lodge.

But Swan was more than just a patriot, he was also involved in business.  After the war he used his experience working in a mercantile house to establish the firm Swan & Schweizer in Philadelphia and eventually he became an agent for the government of France purchasing provisions like lumber, rice, flour, beef, pork, cornmeal, etc. through sub-agents located in principle ports in the United States.  He also acted on behalf of the French government to liquidate the debt the government of the United States owed France, culminating in the 1795 agreement to pay the $2,024,899 debt.

Louisiana Purchase Treaty, 1803. National Archives & Records Administration

He later returned to Paris seeking repayment of a debt the French owed to him (his was the largest debt  “due to the Citizens of the United States by the French Republic prior to the 30th Sept. 1800” mentioned in the Louisiana Purchase treaty).[2]  Unfortunately, like many businessmen of the day, his fortunes rose high and fell quite low, and as a consequence, he spent about 22 years in debtors prison.  He died in 1830, possibly while he was still in debtors’ prison.

The Library of Congress has several items by James Swan including those in Thomas Jefferson’s collection that started me on this quest:

An interesting side note, is that an island in the group called the Burnt Coat islands off the coast of Maine, is named Swan’s Island.



[1] Dictionary of American Biography. Vol 9, page 234.
[2] Howard C. Rice. James Swan: Agent of the French Republic 1794-1796. The New England Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Sep., 1937), pp. 464-486.


  1. jeremy hanson
    December 16, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    was released from debtors prison, see your second reference last page.

  2. Ellen Terrell
    December 17, 2012 at 8:36 am

    Jeremy – while doing the research for this post I came across several different accounts of where exactly Swan died making it difficult for me say for certain.

  3. Keith
    June 6, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    Colonel James Swan was a true American patriot. His passion regarding the formation of our new country where “all men are created equal” was eventually a great source of disillusionment for him. In his early days he penned a pamphlet urging the colonial government as well as the British King to put an end to the slave trade which was so prevalent at that time. He dedicated himself to the causes of the “Sons of liberty” and in his mind thought that with the adoption of our Declaration of Independence and our hard fought victory for independence would create a land where all men truly were equals. Unfortunately the willingness of our founding fathers to allow the continued enslavement of Africans for labor without compensation in order to unite was far more than he was willing to accept.
    In the first few years of the 19th century an accusation of an unpaid dept and his denial caused him to be imprisoned. Although many times throughout his imprisonment for this minor claim of debt his family and friends advised him to and even offered to settle it but he refused. After 22 years he was released and met his longtime friend the Marquis de Lafayette only to die within days of his freedom. His burial place is unknown but his courage and dedication to the founding principals of The United States is fact. Colonel James Swan is truly a forgotten patriot

  4. Carol Goossen
    June 4, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    Was he married and did he have children and/or siblings?

  5. Ellen Terrell
    June 11, 2015 at 9:00 am

    Ms Goossen, I do know that he had 4 of children. It is harder to determine anything about any potential siblings. He came to the colonies young and from what I can tell had humble origins which may be why there isn’t much written about his life before he arrived.

  6. William Story Sargent III
    October 26, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    James was my great x5 grandfather. He and Hepzibah Swan had four children: Hepzibah (Hepsy), born c. 1777; Christiana (Kitty), born c. 1778; Sarah (Sally), born c. 1782; James Keadie, born c. 1783. Kitty married John Turner Sargent, a Boston businessman, whose son, Rev. John Turner Sargent was a prominent abolitionist; his son William Story Sargent was my great grandfather. The family home was 13 Chestnut Street, Boston, built by Hepzibah and designed by Charles Bulfinch. It still stands. Rev J T Sargent married the granddaughter of Dr Elisha Story, who was a friend and fellow Son of Liberty of James Swan.

  7. Christine Clayton
    March 16, 2017 at 8:47 am

    William, he is my 5x great grandfather as well. My gggrandma was a Sargent.

  8. Peter Graham
    October 3, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    Hi All,

    I am a writing teacher at a liberal arts college in Indiana and have been researching James Swan for an article and possibly a biography.

    I was hoping to get in contact with William Story Sargent III and Christine Clayton to talk about Colonel Swan.

    Ms. Terrell: if Mr. Sargent and Ms Clayton don’t see this post, can you possibly contact them for me and ask permission for me to contact them?

    I’d be grateful.


    Peter Graham
    DePauw University
    [email protected]

    PS: Swan did die in 1831, after being released from prison, but the story about dying in LaFayette’s arms is probably legend. From a letter he wrote in prison to William Eustis, it seems clear that Swan had a falling out with Lafayette, although there’s a chance they had a reconciliation when he got out of prison.

  9. Nick
    October 21, 2017 at 8:53 am

    Another cousin here- he’s my 4x great grandfather, thru Kitty, Sargent, Codman, Borland, Brooks families. Quite a guy; I wish there were more/better details about his beef with France, his imprisonment, and the end of his life. In 1929 a full size copy of the Stuart portrait was made; it hangs proudly in my house. I occasionally work as captain on the ferry that serves Swan’s Island.

  10. Ben Tongue
    December 3, 2017 at 10:42 pm

    Professor Graham (and All),

    For your information, if you are not aware, there is a book titled “History of Swan’s Island”, written by H. W. Small, M.D., in 1898. One chapter summarizes the life of Colonel Swan, and another discusses his relationship with Swan’s Island. There was a third printing in 2001, and there may be copies available from the Swan’s Island Library and Picton Press (Rockport, Maine).

    Around 1933, Dr. Small started and possibly completed a Second Edition of the book. Our Historical Society has a copy of the manuscript up to page 63. If you bump into a copy (if it was ever completed), we would love to get a copy. I can forward you a PDF file of this unfinished manuscript if you would like.

    Good luck with your research and your article / book.

    Ben Tongue
    Swan’s Island, Maine

  11. Barb Triplett-Brown
    September 3, 2019 at 7:58 am

    Col. Swan was my 4x’s great grandfather’s brother. The history of him and his family has been quite interesting. A brilliant man.

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