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Who was James Swan?

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Swan is seated in this half length portrait with a dark coat, cravat, and powdered wig; there is a curtain behind him and a scene of the countryside behind that.
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 1773, 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.

Bison is on the right with the river in between it and Charles Town. there are ships in the river
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.

this is a page of the hand written Treaty Between the United States of American and the French Republic
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.

Comments (21)

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

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

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

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

  12. I have been doing some recent research to find James was a 4x great uncle. My family is descendants of his brother David Cooper Swan, if anyone has any info Id love to see it!!

  13. Good Morning
    My maiden name was Swan and apparently according to an article this gentleman was my great x a few uncle born of the union of William Swan and Christian Keddie, I am currently working on this part of the family tree.
    Just wondering if anyone is interested in a chat about this fellow and his family history.
    Kind regards

  14. He was my ancestor and I am trying to find out where he was buried and if his parents came to the USA or died in Scotland, He also had a brother whodied in the states as well

    • Tracey, it looks like someone was really interested in the story of Swan and his years in debtors prison, as well as the story of his release, death, and the like. He wrote a piece in 2021 but followed it up with a post-scrip that identifies the burial location which as I expected, in Paris. He looked at the digitized records of cemetery burials as the Archives de Paris. He was interred on March 19, 1831 and specifically according to the author, in the 41st division of Père Lachaise. Unfortunately the physical situation seems to indicate no stone survived.

  15. Tracey Reilly and Ellen Terrell. I am the author of the Age of Revolutions post that Ellen cited above. I have been working with the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum and we have confirmed with officials at Père Lachaise that the stone I found with the tree growing up is indeed where James Swan is buried. His stone apparently never had a name. There are plans for a ceremony honoring him with a commemorative plaque in September. I see there are a lot of Swan relatives and fans here. If you want more information on this ceremony please contact me Erika Vause [email protected]

    • This is really awesome. Thank you for the follow-up and all the work you did on finding it and finally getting his name attached to his final resting place.

  16. The page, identified by the URL incorrectly placed tge Boston Tea Party in 1793. Typo, but has been on the page too long.

    • Thanks for the heads up we can fix that.

  17. My father was Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post and through him, Col. James Swan is my 4th great grandfather. I am wondering if the Library of Congress has any more information on him, because I am writing a family history book. Thank you.

    • I am sure that the Library has resources that can provide more information. You may want to contact the Manuscript Reading Room because they have papers from many of the founding father and it might be those would be helpful (some of them like Hamilton and Washington are available digitally; the Adams father/son are in Massachusetts but also seem to be digital). You can search our catalog though you may need to get creative in searching; search for other people and events he may have known and been involved in.

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