Swan, James G. (1818-1900)

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 1/09/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5029

James G. Swan lived one of the most varied and colorful lives in the early history of Washington Territory. He was variously an oysterman, customs inspector, secretary to congressional delegate Isaac Stevens, journalist, reservation schoolteacher, lawyer, judge, school superintendent, railroad promoter, natural historian, and ethnographer. Above all, Swan was a chronicler. He wrote one of the earliest books describing life in Washington Territory, two Smithsonian monographs, many newspaper articles and technical publications, and more than 60 volumes of still-unpublished diaries. These works document not just pioneer society but also the Northwest Indian cultures that pre-dated white settlement and existed along-side it. Swan's appreciation of and efforts to record Indian art, technology, history, legends, and language made him a rarity among early Washington settlers.

Early Fascination with the Northwest Coast

James Gilchrist Swan was born on January 11, 1818, in Medford, Massachusetts. His father, Samuel, captain of a trading ship, was lost at sea when James was 5, and he and his siblings were raised by their mother, Margaret Tufts Swan. As a boy, James was fascinated by his uncle William Tufts' stories of his travels on the remote Northwest coast during an 1806-1810 trading expedition to the Columbia River and Vancouver Island.

Swan went into the ship-fitting business in Boston, married and had two children. However, the pull of the West Coast remained strong. The California gold rush gave him an opportunity to head west, and in 1850 Swan joined the thousands from New England sailing to San Francisco. Swan's family stayed in Massachusetts, and he never again lived with them.

Although he spent two years in San Francisco, mostly outfitting vessels, Swan's real goal was not the California gold fields, but the Northwest coast of his uncle's stories. His interest in the area was increased when Chetzemoka, a leader of the Clallam Indians on the Olympic Peninsula, visited San Francisco and Swan spent several weeks showing him around.

Three Years At Shoalwater Bay

In 1852, Swan settled for the first time in Washington, on the shore of Willapa Bay, then known as Shoalwater Bay. Swan's friend Charles J. W. Russell had settled there in 1851 to harvest oysters from the Bay's rich tidelands for shipment to San Francisco, and in 1852 he invited Swan to join him. Swan lived on Shoalwater Bay until 1855. In 1857 he described the Bay and his experiences there in The Northwest Coast, Or, Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory, one of the earliest books about life in Washington.

When Swan arrived, there were only about 15 settlers on the Bay, virtually all engaged in the oyster trade. During the three years he lived there, pioneer settlement increased significantly, and by 1854, Swan wrote, "We had now grown into the dignity of a village" (Swan, Northwest Coast, 319). The settlers named the town Bruceville but soon changed it to Bruceport, the name it bears today.

Besides the settlers, Swan met and got to know the Indians of the region. He became friends with Toke, a local chief, and his wife Suis, who lived with their family across the Bay from Bruceport, on a point still known as Toke Point. Swan found Toke and especially Suis to be excellent sources of information about the history of the Bay and its inhabitants. Another friend was Kape, a chief of the Quinault Indians who lived farther up the coast, from whom Swan purchased an impressive cedar canoe, 46 feet long by 6 feet wide and capable of carrying more than 30 people.

Swan learned the Chinook Jargon, a trade language that Northwest Coast Indians used to communicate between tribes and with non-Indians, as well as the Chehalis language the local Indians spoke among themselves. He spent long winter evenings conversing with the Indians and learning their history, legends, and way of life. The Northwest Coast includes detailed descriptions of Indian homes, crafts, hunting and fishing tools and techniques, religious ceremonies, songs, games, vocabularies of the Jargon and Chehalis languages, along with illustrations by Swan, who was an accomplished artist. The book also describes Swan's travels, often with Indian friends, around the Bay and its tributary rivers, to Chinook and Astoria on the Columbia River, and up the Pacific coast to Grays Harbor and the Quinault River.

A few months after arriving on Shoalwater Bay, Swan took advantage of the Donation Land Claim Act and filed a claim to almost 300 acres at the site of a former Indian village near the mouth of the Bone River, then called the Querquelin (Mouse) River. The site was suggested by Toke, who offered to find Swan a good place. It had oyster beds and rich soil for gardening, and was sheltered from the rough water of the bay.

Along with harvesting oysters from his claim, Swan worked at a variety of jobs. In 1854, he was appointed inspector of customs for the coast from the Columbia River to Cape Flattery. When the first court was established in Bruceport, Swan, who had studied admiralty law, served as one of the lawyers, although he had not yet taken the bar exam. "Squire" John Champ, the elected justice of the peace, was an old settler who had no legal experience at all. While neither the arguments nor decisions were "very learned," Swan wrote, they "gave the same results that all lawsuits do -- satisfaction to the winner and indignation to the loser" (Swan, Northwest Coast, 320). Swan had even less training in medicine than in law, but occasionally acted as doctor, providing medicine to the Indians and caring for Indians and settlers during a smallpox outbreak soon after his arrival.

In February 1855, at the invitation of Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), Swan traveled up the Chehalis River to the treaty ground near the present site of Cosmopolis, where Stevens presented a proposed treaty to the coast Indians. Although Swan admired Stevens and believed that he had the Indians' best interests at heart (a belief not necessarily shared by the Indians or by subsequent historians), his book expressed concerns about Stevens' proposal for the various coast tribes to be placed together on one reservation. Swan thought it wiser for each tribe to retain a portion of its traditional lands.

East Coast Interlude and Move to Port Townsend

Swan left Shoalwater Bay in the fall of 1855 and went east to write his book. He settled in Washington, D.C., where he also wrote articles for newspapers in Boston and Olympia. After The Northwest Coast was published in 1857, Swan worked as private secretary to Isaac Stevens, who had been elected Washington Territory's delegate to Congress. With his interest in natural history, Swan took advantage of living in the capital to visit the Smithsonian Institution. He met the director, Joseph Henry, and began a lifelong friendship with Spencer Baird, a Smithsonian naturalist. Baird was building up a network of collectors, whose ranks Swan soon joined.

Swan's stay in the East was temporary. In 1859 he moved to Washington Territory for good, choosing his destination based on Isaac Stevens' advice "that from its Geographical position, Port Townsend would become a place of commercial importance" (Swan, "Sketches," 4-5). While Port Townsend never achieved the importance Swan hoped for, he remained fiercely loyal to the town, where he lived the rest of his life except for some years at Neah Bay on the Makah reservation.

The Swan Diaries

January 29, 1859, was a doubly significant date in Swan's life: he boarded the ship on which he would sail from San Francisco to begin his life in Port Townsend, and he made the first entry in the voluminous diaries that may be his greatest achievement. Swan undoubtedly kept journals previously -- he mentions "having lost a valuable collection of notes" made at Shoalwater Bay (Swan, Northwest Coast, 6) -- but none survive except a manuscript account of a trip to England and Scotland in 1841.

However, the 60-odd diaries, notebooks, and memorandum books of various sizes and shapes that Swan filled with over 2,500,000 words from 1859 until just before his death in 1900 remain today a comprehensive record of his travels, studies, and daily experiences. Except for the final two years (1900 is at the Beinecke Library at Yale; it is unclear whether a volume for 1899 survives), the diaries are housed in the Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives section of the University of Washington Libraries, where they have inspired subsequent writers. Journalist Lucile McDonald (1898-1992), who discovered the diaries in the 1950s, wrote a series of 32 articles about Swan for The Seattle Times Sunday Magazine and later published Swan Among the Indians (1972), the only Swan biography to date. Some years later, novelist Ivan Doig (1939-2015) spent a season exploring the diaries and the places in Washington where Swan lived and traveled. Doig's Winter Brothers (1980) is a unique and fascinating memoir that combines an account of Swan's life, including many quotations from the diaries, with Doig's meditations on Swan's life and times as well as his own.

Years earlier, Swan himself used the experiences recorded in his diaries as raw material, spending much of his first few years in Port Townsend contributing articles to newspapers in California and Washington. A century later the Washington State Historical Society reprinted some of the most interesting articles written between 1859 and 1862 in Almost Out of the World (1971). Soon after arriving in Port Townsend, Swan renewed his friendship with the Clallam leader Chetzemoka, who lived nearby. He wrote about fishing excursions with Chetzemoka and his family, and described religious ceremonies they invited him to attend.

Travels Around Sound, Strait, and Coast

Many articles recounted Swan's journeys around Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He sailed to Bellingham Bay, Whidbey and Camano Islands, Clallam Bay and Dungeness with two prominent pioneers -- Colonel Michael T. Simmons (first American settler on Puget Sound, having arrived in 1845) and Captain Robert Fay (commander of the vessel that brought the first Denny Party scouts to Alki Point in September 1851) -- who, as Indian agents, were distributing "treaty goods" to the Lummi, Skagit, Snohomish, and Clallam Indians. Swan visited lighthouse keepers on Smith Island, and homesteaders on Protection Island and at Port Discovery, Sequim Prairie, and "False Dungeness" (now Port Angeles), describing the early settlers' farms and lifestyles.

He traveled to the Quileute Indian village of La Push, at the mouth of the Quillayute River on the Pacific Coast, where a Quinault chief he knew from Shoalwater Bay introduced him to the Quileute leaders. With the Indians, Swan canoed and hiked inland through thick forest to an extensive prairie near the present site of Forks, and climbed to the top of the large island just off the village, which the Quileutes had used as a refuge in wartime. Swan reported the Quileute name for the island as Alekistet, but proposed in his article that it be named for F. W. James of Port Townsend, whom he asserted was the first white man to ascend it. The island is indeed called James Island today, though some sources state the name honors a Quileute chief.

Although he ranged widely, Swan’s travels began to take him repeatedly to one destination: Neah Bay, near Cape Flattery at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The cape -- the northwestern tip of the continental United States -- and its inhabitants figured prominently in the stories of early European and American exploration of the Northwest coast that so fascinated Swan as a boy. The land around the cape was and is the home of the Makah Indians, with the largest village at Neah Bay.

Life with the Makah at Neah Bay

Swan first visited Neah Bay in March 1859, within weeks of arriving at Port Townsend. For the next three years he traveled repeatedly up and down the Strait between the two ports, often in Makah canoes, spending weeks or months at Neah Bay. Early on he met and was greatly impressed by a young and well-liked Makah chief called Swell, whose murder several years later was a personal blow and a dramatic subject for Swan's articles. He also met Henry Webster, who operated a trading post at Baada Point near Neah Bay and became a good friend and patron to Swan. By the fall of 1861, Swan was living in Neah Bay. He traveled on foot to all five Makah villages – Neah and Baada on the Strait, and Sooes, Waatch, and Ozette on the Pacific Coast -- to conduct the first census of the Makah, counting a total of 654 tribal members.

The ambitious Webster was appointed Indian agent for the newly created Makah reservation, taking charge in 1862 and putting Swan on the payroll as schoolteacher. After conducting a survey of the reservation boundary, Swan supervised the construction of a schoolhouse and other Indian agency buildings. He spent the next four years living in the schoolhouse and teaching school when he could persuade children to attend. Since families had other priorities, Swan had difficulty keeping his pupils in school. Nevertheless, unlike those in charge of many Indian schools, Swan respected the Makah enough that he did not force school on them.

Swan's first and favorite pupil was Jimmy Claplanhoo, who went on to become a tribal leader and captain of a schooner. Claplanhoo and his family remained close to Swan, and helped care for him in his final years at Port Townsend. Swan was as much a friend as a schoolteacher to the Makah children and their families. He cooked for the children and gave them toys. In turn, they helped him find shells, fossils, birds, and animals for his Smithsonian collections. Swan had sent his first specimens to Professor Baird from Port Townsend, and continued to send shipments from Neah Bay. Swan also purchased examples of Makah baskets, blankets and other crafts for the museum.

As at Shoalwater Bay, Swan spent much of his time learning the Indians’ language and way of life. He wrote and illustrated a detailed ethnography of Makah culture, published in 1870 as a Smithsonian monograph, The Indians of Cape Flattery. According to Swan, the Makah vocabulary in his monograph was later used on the reservation to teach English to Makah children and to teach Makah to the whites. Along with his natural history collecting and ethnographic studies, Swan kept and later published detailed meteorological records documenting the prodigious rainfall at the cape. In another similarity to life at Shoalwater, Swan again found himself in the role of doctor. He was in charge of the reservation’s medical supplies and the schoolhouse often doubled as a clinic.

Much as he liked life at Neah Bay with the Makah, between inconsistent attendance and the constant interruptions of his other duties Swan found teaching frustrating. His irritation mounted when his superiors in the Indian department criticized his methods. In 1866 he resigned and left the reservation, gratified by a demonstrative send-off from the Makahs.

Return to Port Townsend

Back in Port Townsend, Swan continued his pattern of working in numerous fields without settling down to one position. He passed the bar exam, practiced admiralty law, and served as United States commissioner. He helped draft a pilot bill and a fisheries bill for the Washington Legislature, and subsequently served on the Pilot Commission. He was at different times probate judge and justice of the peace for Jefferson County, and also served as school superintendent.

For several years Swan devoted much of his energy to convincing the Northern Pacific Railroad to locate the western terminus of its transcontinental line in Port Townsend. Cities throughout the territory competed for this prize, and Swan firmly believed that his adopted town was the best choice. The railroad paid Swan to travel to various sites and prepare reports evaluating them, but it did not follow his advice. Swan was bitterly disappointed when Tacoma was chosen as the terminus, a decision he denounced as based on “the influence of the land monopoly of the Board of Directors ... for private motives of gain” (Swan, "Sketches," 8).

With the Haida and Makah

Swan did not neglect his interest in ethnography. He continued to seek out Indian friends and many visited his Port Townsend office. Swan was particularly fascinated by the art of the Haida Indians from Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands, copying the tattoo designs of his visitors and purchasing their carvings. In 1874, he published another Smithsonian monograph, illustrating and explaining Haida designs and recounting the stories behind them. Swan continued collecting Indian artifacts for the Smithsonian and for display at several major exhibitions. In 1875, the Smithsonian provided funds for him to travel to Alaska and purchase items for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, including totem poles, a 60-foot canoe, and an entire lodge that Swan had built, as well as many smaller objects.

Henry Webster, by then collector of customs for Puget Sound, enabled Swan to spend another three enjoyable years at Neah Bay when he appointed Swan customs inspector there in 1878. The duties were not demanding, and Swan had time to study, write, visit with old friends and former pupils, and cultivate a garden. Swan became close to the new Indian agent, Charles Willoughby, and his family. He interpreted for Willoughby and assisted him in arranging the first election conducted by the Makahs. Swan wrote in his diary (on January 23, 1879, long before women had received the right to vote in any state): “One feature in the election was that several women voted by permission of the Agent ... thus establishing a precedent in this tribe of womans suffrage which is right, as the women of the tribe always have a voice in the councils” (Doig, 165-66). When Webster lost his position, Swan lost his as well, and returned to Port Townsend in 1881.

Two years later, at the age of 65, Swan made his last major journey, fulfilling a longtime wish by traveling to the Queen Charlotte Islands homeland of the Haida Indians he so admired. After years of suggestions from Swan, the Smithsonian funded a four-month trip and Swan spent the summer of 1883 collecting artifacts and studying Haida culture. He was assisted by Johnny Kit Elswa, a Haida artist he had worked with in Port Townsend, some of whose drawings and explanations of Haida legends are included in Swan's notebooks. Besides collecting, they made a daring trip in Haida canoes to the wild west coast of the Queen Charlottes, virtually unpopulated since smallpox had ravaged the Haida two decades earlier.

Final Years

Swan lived to see Washington, which was not yet a territory when he arrived in 1852, achieve statehood in 1889. As vice-president of the Washington Pioneers, Swan marched near the head of the grand procession in Olympia. Two years later, he helped organize the Pioneer convention at Port Townsend, arranging with the Clallam Indians for a huge clambake on the beach.

Swan remained active, writing articles and collecting artifacts well into his 70s, and keeping up his correspondence and diaries until the end. James G. Swan wrote his last diary entry on May 16, 1900, just two days before he died of a stroke at the age of 82.


James G. Swan, The Northwest Coast (Harper & Brothers, 1857; reprint, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972, 6th printing, 1998); Swan, The Indians of Cape Flattery (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1870; facsimile reproduction, Seattle: Shorey Book Store, 1964); Swan, The Haidah Indians (Smithsonian Institution, 1874; facsimile reproduction, Seattle: Shorey Book Store, 1964); Swan, Almost Out of the World (Tacoma, Washington State Historical Society, 1971); Swan, “Washington Sketches,” 1878, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley: Microfilm Edition, Newspapers and Microforms, Microfilm No. 153 (University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington); Swan, Diaries, Notebook 1, p. 1, January 29, 1859, Notebook 23, pp. 133-34, January 23, 1879, James G. Swan Papers, Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Lucile McDonald, Swan Among the Indians (Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1972); Ivan Doig, Winter Brothers (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980); Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916), Vol. 1, pp. 17-18; Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923), 122; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle and King County's First Non-Indian Settlers" (by Greg Lange), www.historylink.org (accessed September 29, 2015); Diary: 1900, Box 10, Folder 194, Franz R. and Kathryn M. Stenzel Collection of Western American Art, Series II -- James G. Swan Artwork and Associated Material, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; "Description of the Collection" (http://webtext.library.yale.edu/xml2html/ beinecke.STENZEL.con.html).
Note: This essay was updated on April 11 and September 29, 2015.

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