James Swan: Part One of Three

April 16, 2016

JAMES SWAN: Part One of Three Posts

A Dead White Man You Should Know.



Of the three dead eighteenth century white men that are the subjects of my current posts, all of whom are remarkable individuals; however. James Swan stands out as an incomparable and certainly unique individual, in any epoch.images-2

There is a single cube room at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that contains one of the finest and only intact suite of eighteenth century French furniture in the United States. Two of the pieces in the suite have their maker’s original invoices. Even were I not to have read the valuable information cards provided by the MFA, it was apparent to my reasonably educated eye that the collection is splendid and in a state of glorious restoration. Aside from the stunning quality of the gilding, the upholstered pieces are recovered in the most appropriate and sparkling new silver and pale blue silk lampas, co-equal in spirit, luxury and glamour with what it covers.


Marie-Antoine Thierry Ville d’Avray,


The suite consists of 10 pieces made in 1788 specifically for  Marie-Antoine Thierry Ville d’Avray,


Marie-Antoine Thierry Ville d’Avray,

Louis XVI’s former valet and, at that date, the Administrator of the Garde-Meuble, the Royal storage for furniture, crown jewelry, and weaponry. These pieces furnished the master bedroom of Thierry’s apartment at the Garde Meuble, a perk he was entitled to by his positon.


Marie-Antoine Thierry Ville d’Avray,

The building is now called the Hotel de la Marine, and is one of the twin colonnaded buildings on the Place de la Concorde that was a principal site of the roaming guillotine during the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Four years ago, the French Government, which was feeling the pinch like many governmental authorities universally, offered to rent the Marine for commercial use, but now has placed it under the aegis of the Louvre for a museum-type usage beginning in 2017.



Other pieces in the room that aren’t part of the Ville d’Avray suite enjoy the ultimate French royal attribution of having belonged to Marie Antoinette. Other than Madame de Pompadour,


the major mistress of the Queen’s father-in-law Louis XV, she was truly a person having the most superb taste in a country and at a time when good taste was more of a norm than elsewhere in the world, then and now.


The first time I visited the room over a year ago, there was hanging there a portrait by Gilbert Stuart of a powdered and rosy-checked gentleman of early middle age identified as James Swan, a person whose name I had never previously come across. Close by was another Gilbert Stuart portrait of a grand and elegantly dressed woman identified as James Swan’s wife, Hepzebah Clarke Swan. (Her unusual, not especially euphonious, name finds its origins in the Old Testament; and, this type of name was given by the more zealous Protestant New Englanders to show their scorn for so-called “Roman Catholic names” such as Mary, Anne, and Elizabeth, in common use by the less scrupulously religiously.)


The museum cards in the room inform that the suite of furniture furnished James Swan’s house in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and that some of it was given to the MFA by his descendants and some were purchased by the MFA from other descendants, all during the 20th century. Both portraits, I suppose for intra-museum “turf” considerations, now hang apart from each other along with other Gilbert Stuart portraits in the Museum’s new Art of the Americas wing, which for me is unfortunate; the former “Swan presence” conveyed a truly domestic bearing to the room, as the Swans seemed to look with justifiable pride at the assemblage of their furnishings.

I know that many 18th century Americans had collections of fine, and sophisticated furniture to adorn very smart and sometimes opulent houses up and down the Eastern Seaboard. However, those pieces were made largely in the United Kingdom or in America, virtually all English in origin or in design. I am aware that Thomas Jefferson bought some French furniture for Monticello while he was Minister to France in the late eighteenth century. According to historian John T. Marck, Jefferson shipped nearly 100 crates of goods from Paris to his Palladian inspired house in Charlottesville Virginia, much containing wine, brandy, and eaux de vie, during his stint in France as negotiator on the peace treaty between the United States and England. I have seen photographs of some of Monticello’s French furniture but none is of the imposing quality and majesty of Swan’s furniture.

George Washington also acquired some eighteenth centurywhen he lived as first President in Manhattan and rented a large house previously occupied by the French minister to the United States, the Elenor-Francois, Comte de Moustier. The Count returned to France precipitously in 1789, most probably resulting from the commencement of the French Revolution. Washington also purchased de Moustier’s furniture and other household goods to fill out his new, more spacious residence. These goods included a suite of French seating furniture, a dressing table, and a 300 piece Sevres porcelain dinner service. Neither the President’s new French furniture nor whatever else appointed his house apparently was particularly stylish or grand. William Hazlitt, the eighteenth century English essayist, who visited Washington at the former de Moustier residence, wrote: “The drawing-room in which I sat, was lofty and spacious, but the furniture was not beyond that found in dwellings of opulent Americans in general, and might be called plain for its situation.”



Washington did take some of de Moustier furniture to Mount Vernon after his presidency, where it now sits. I have seen photographs of the dressing table that Washington purchased from de Moustier. It is of late Louis XVI origin, made of plain mahogany, is severe and functional, and of a variety that an upscale antiquarian might describe as a middling “bourgeois piece”.


The same description might apply to the white and minimally gold-trimmed Sevres porcelain that that the President purchased from de Moustier that lacks the sinuous lines, polychrome decoration, and plentiful gilding that one normally associates with eighteenth century Sevres production. Presumably, Comte de Moustier imported for use in New York utilitarian pieces that wouldn’t offend the “republican eyes” of the new United States statesmen who considered themselves the spiritual heirs of early Roman republicans.

It seems curious that the French Minister was so discreet in his choice of furnishing, as he, in the French aristocratic fashion of the time, wore an earring and red high-heeled shoes. In addition, he lived with his late wife’s sister as his mistress, which outraged the society ladies in NYC who scorned what they considered as an outlandish pair. At the time, the fledgling United States was a poor nation, saddled with a massive amount of unpaid war debt, much of it to France, its major ally during the War of Independence. On the other hand, France’s Ancien Regime was desperately in need of funds to avoid becoming bankrupt. Indeed, one of de Moustier’s major duties in the United States was to gain an agreement for debt repatriation from Washington’s administration. As this was not financially feasible, Washington needed to avoid needlessly offending de Moustier and his companion by prudish New Yorkers. The astute President, in order to calm pubic sentiment against the French Minister, invited de Moustier and his mistress to spend two weeks at Mount, and even had the talented woman paint miniature portraits of the President and his wife, and some of her children.




Washington’s hospitality may have smoothed de Moutier’s ruffled feathers, but did nothing to help resolve Royal France’s desperate want of money. Louis XVI was forced to call France’s ancient parliament that hadn’t sat for zx years to raise new taxes to feed the Royal maw. That fusty institution morphed into the Assembly Nationale, which as we know turned upside down the Ancien Regime by empowering the non-ecclesiastical and noble classes, resulting in the destruction of the monarchy.


A letter dated December 14,1990 in the Swan archives at the MFA, notes succinctly:
“It seems to me that Swan was not a connoisseur of  French decorative arts in the same way as Jefferson, Madison, (Robert) Morris, or Monroe. It is therefore a paradox that the objects acquired by him are far superior to the objects acquired by these other.”

My interest in finding more about the then-to-me mysterious Mr. Swan grew exponentially.

What I found in researching James Swan is much more fascinating that I could have imagined, truly the stuff of historical fiction bordering on the pulp. I was also surprised that so much written about Swan resembles the efforts of the blind men scoping out the form of an elephant; that is to say, conflicting, incomplete and with mythic aspects which is peculiar since so much of Swan’s family, business, and personal pursuits are so well known and recorded on both continents. I have looked at Swan with functioning eyes and yet pockets of mystery remain.


I think that Swan’s early beginning prepared him to accept his later challenges and upsets. He was born in Scotland in 1754 and immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a lad of the very young age of 11 years in or about 1765, apparently unaccompanied at least upon his arrival on American shores. Although orphaned children were sent to the colonies to live with relatives, there is no indication that Swan was taken in to live with a relative or friend of his family at his journey’s end. It could be that Swan’s parents (one or both) began the voyage with him and died at sea which was then a common occurrence for all ages of passengers, although there is some evidence that Swan as an adult corresponded with his father. Poor children of early ages were taken to colonial America often with the consent of their families unable to afford their upbringing and placed in servitude as indentured servants in the seventeenth and eighteenth enturies on a pre-contractual basis. However, there were men called “spirits” who haunted seaports to induce lone children with candy to board ships going to the colonies, hence the expression “being spirited away”.

Although there is no suggestion that Swan had been indentured, records of indenture were often destroyed or never kept. Possibly, Swan was taken up and apprenticed by an employer immediately upon setting foot in Boston. As I noted in my last post on the life  of Brook Watson, potential colonial employers waited at harbor wharfs for incoming ships to take on the newly arrived, given the sparse employee market conditions in the American colonies. Apprentice workers customarily were taken into their employer’s house where they were lodged and fed. In any event, after arriving in Boston, Swan is reported to have worked at a “counting house” (which is what we call an accountant’s office) and studied on his own to become educated.

Swan’s first named employment was a business called Thaxter & Son, which may have been the same as the counting house; but, I believe was some variety of retail shop selling books. At the age of eighteen, Swan wrote a well-read pamphlet challenging the African slave trade in Great Britain and its colonies, entitled “A Discussion of Great Britain and her Colonies from the Slave Trade”. This was very plucky, inasmuch as several notable Boston families were involved in that trade.

During his apprenticeship period, Swan became a fervent Patriot and joined the Sons of Liberty, an association formed to resist perceived abuses of British colonial rule. To protest against a new British tax on tea and restriction that tea in the America be supplied only by the well-connected British East India Company (some of whose shareholders were members of the English royal family), the Sons of Liberty decided that no such tea should be brought ashore. Some dressed as Mohawk Indians with lampblack-smudged faces to conceal their identity, Swan and his Sons of Liberty compatriots boarded the three ships carrying tea, and threw 342 cases of tea into the water of Boston harbor. This event, of course, which became known to history, but only in the 1830’s, as the “Boston Tea Party,” was called simply “the Destruction of the Tea.”

An amusing event, however, occurred immediately after as the “Indians” were returning from the “big brew;” an English Admiral called to them from an upper window of his house, advising that they would be dealt with properly on the following day for their escapade. They called back and suggested that he come down and settle the matter that evening. “Tar and feathering” had by then become a form of torturing sympathizers of England; and, the admiral closed the window and the matter was closed as well.

During the Revolutionary War, Swan fought and is reported to have wounded twice in the Battle of Bunker Hill. This battle, albeit occurring very early in the conflict and which ended indecisively, in many ways influenced the British to concede American independence after x years. Before the battle began, the British officers and their troops believed that the war would be a piece of cake. After all, Britain had the best army in the world that would be fighting a bunch of “peasants” untrained in military discipline and the arts of war. However, moments after the battle began, it was clear to all of the English that the “peasants” were obviously incredibly skilled marksman, which resulted from their experience in hunting as well as dealing with Native Americans from hidden positions, resulting in a wholesale slaughter not only of the British foot soldiers but its officers as well. The memory of the Bunker Hill battle site strewn with dead and dying Englishmen men was never forgotten.


From his employment prior to the war and his service in the Continental Army, he secured valuable connections among his Massachusetts co-Patriots including Henry Knox who was a significant American Continental army general, Years later, Knox became father-in-law to Swan’s only son. Swan also gained friendships with the liberal French aristocrats who fought alongside the colonials in the Revolutionary War, such as Lafayette and Rochambeau. These Frenchman became invaluable contacts for Swan in the late 1780’s when he began a mercantile business in pre-revolutionary France.

In the post-war period, Swan had quickly become a successful merchant on his own in Boston. His early financial and social successes placed him in a position to court and marry Hepzebah Clarke in 1776, whose father Barnaby Clarke was a very rich Boston merchant and ship owner. The young Swans cut a fashionable and, by the standards of that time, a racy swath through Boston society where Puritanical sentiments lingered. The Swans were founding members of a very cosmopolitan group of Bostonians called the San Souci Club. It met weekly for dinner, card playing, and dancing and was the subject of a thinly-disguised play called “Free and Easy” written by Mercy Otis Warren,


also a club member and the product of two eminent Boston families. 100 years earlier, the club members would most likely have been pilloried or worse banished to the wilds of Connecticut by their very dour forefathers at the first whisper of the club’s nocturnal “popish” diversions. “Popish” used by early Puritans to stigmatize anything or anyone that seemed lighthearted and gay (in any sense of that word), improbably including maypole dancing.


Some texts as well as a letter in the MFA archives from a current Swan descendent describe Swan as a “scoundrel;” and, I think that it is probably an accurate characterization. However, this epithet could be applied equally to a number of his New England contemporaries who were sharp traders, often dealing in opium and Africans, or were privateers which was a semi-lawful form of piracy that was condoned if inflicted on British flag ships. These early merchants and shippers did what they needed to do in order to produce generational wealth that, in turn, conferred impeccable social stature on their near and distant heirs bearing great American names. However, poor Mr. Swan produced neither lasting wealth nor high social rank for his progeny, the latter of which came from their marrying well and the former from their mother’s independent wealth. His legacy lies in the glorious furniture at the MFA and, for me, most significantly in the tales and legends of his convoluted and mysterious life.

In support of his scoundrelhood, “The History of Swan’s Island, Maine” by Herman Smalls written in 1898, suggests that Swan early in his marriage persuaded an elderly friend and business associate of his father-in-law, one William Dennie, a childless man lacking blood heirs to leave his entire estate to Swan, which indeed he did. Prior to dying, Dennie, who possibly was demented, maintained that his heirs would be Swan’s wife and her brother. Also, when Barnaby Clark died, Swan was named the executor of his father-in-law’s estate, which was divided equally between Swan’s wife and her late brother’s son, Samuel Clark, a minor and named after his father who died during the Revolutionary War. Mr. Clark’s will instructed how his estate should be managed. According to Smalls, Swan observed none of the management instructions and used the estate assets for his own benefit. Mrs. Swan’s co-heir and nephew had to sue Swan to gain his share when he came of age. Smalls states that his personal knowledge of Swan was derived from the same son of Swan’s brother-in-law who was 90 years old at that time.

Swan, armed with Dennie’s money and control over his father-in-law’s estate, developed his mercantile business on a large scale and prospered during the unfettered post-war capitalist era. Aside from living as a Bostonian nob, Swan also invested in real estate purchasing among other things several of islands off the coast of Maine called the Burned Coat group, the largest of which he called Swan Island, by which name it is still called. Like other affluent Patriots, he purchased properties confiscated from Loyalists, also called Tories, at rock-bottom prices. Loyalists were American colonials who retained allegiance to England and hoped for more sensible administration of the colonies for which they were content to remain as citizens under the British Crown. Ultimately, the violence imposed upon them and their properties by the zealot end of the Patriot movement caused them to flee from America to England or Canada before the Revolutionary War began, leaving per force their real and other nontransportable properties behind to be forfeited.

In the 1780’s, Swan built a country house in Dorchester,


then an outlying suburb of Boston, on confiscated Loyalist acreage. The most distinctive feature of the house was a round dining room that was 32 feet in diameter and had a domed ceiling nearly as tall as the room’s diameter. It was later attributed to Charles Bulfinch, but there is no record of Bulfinch’s involvement with the design of the house or does the house reflect Bufinch’s aestheics. This house was the repository for Swan’s grand eighteenth century French furniture, only some of which is in the MFA. It was pulled down only at the end of the 19th Century when Dorchester had become undesirable as a locale to have a mansion house.

Before and after the Revolution, land outside of the established 13 colonies was available for purchase at pence or pennies per acres in enormous tracts. Even the several governmental authorities, Royal and colonial authorities and then the Federal and various State Governments, to fuel prosperous development, would give gigantic tracts of acreage for free to persons whom they favored. This was an astute policy, as none of the governing entities had the economic wherewithal to develop the new areas; and, if done by and paid for by individuals, such largesse would some day reap tax revenues. The establishment of Lordships of the Manor in the seventeenth century, by the Dutch for the Van Renssalaer family in upstate New York, and by the English for the Livingston, Beekman, Van Courtlandt, and other familes in New York State, are early examples of how several American colonies were first settled, administrated, and developed without cost from afar by their colonial parents. Washington, for example, was given some 30,000 acres in Western Virginia.

James Swan bought and, in some cases, was given what ultimately amounted to over 2,500,000 acres of virgin land in what was then Virginia and Kentucky, an area that now would represent approximately 1/6th of the State of West Virginia. It is highly unlikely that Swan ever saw any of the properties he purchased. According to Smalls, Swan owned this land at the beginning of the American Revolution, although this timing is questionable as Swan then very young, still unmarried, and, at best, a fledging entrepreneur, if not still an apprentice in someone else’s business. It is more probable that he began accumulating these properties after the war.

While Swan’s vast Western land purchases are mentioned in Smalls’ book, the most complete discussion of what became a vexing morass is found in a curious book called “Pages from the Past: Recollections, traditions and old timers’ tales of the long ago: incidents and episodes in the early history of West Virginia”, with a 1974 copyright, written by a man called George W. Summers and assembled and edited by James F. Comstock. Comstock was amongst other things a humorist who published the “West Virginia Hillbilly”. Given the format of the book which is a composition of unrelated tales, its various chapters of the “Pages” were most probably have been printed in the “Hillbilly.”

The chapter on James Swan is called: “OWNED A SIXTH OF W. VA. DIED IN PRISON FOR DEBT”. It states that Swan “bought land as long as his dollars and credit lasted” and that—

“Whatever he could get “looked good” to him and he bought until it is doubtful whether he ever knew just how much “wild land” he really owned.”

The author writes that–

“…Swan died bankrupt and destitute, broken-hearted and forlorn, imprisoned for debt, and unable to realize out of all his millions of acres in West Virginia land enough to gain his freedom…. The lands Swan bought not only made him bankrupt, but impoverished everyone else involved in joint ownership with him. After his death, his heirs turned over all his lands to his creditors, and even they lost practically everything they had invested with him, or loaned to him.”

The “Pages” shows no sources for its facts; however, it is replete in details of transactions and lawsuits arising from interests in the properties that began in the main after Swan died in 1831. The author of the book, George W. Summers, bears the same name as a mid-19th judge whose name is noted therein as having heard some phases of the “Swan” lawsuits. He is likely to have been a descendant of that judge and perhaps had “inherited” family lore on Swan’s ventures.

After Swan’s death, litigation brought by his purchasers, over questions of ownership and wildly unexacting boundaries of the sundry tracts, was battled in State and Federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court. Some of Swan’s West Virginia property was sold to French and German nobles as well as some royals, probably German princelings, for their possible immigration to America who were participants in the litigation as well. This mess of law suits continued for nearly 150 years after Swan’s initial purchases of the subject properties in the late eighteenth century. A letter from Taylor Vinson, an attorney in West Virginia dated February 2, 1977 addressed to a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, states that he had the “dubious pleasure” of submitting the final order “forever closing this case” sometime in the middle 1930’s.

The newly emerged United States assumed the debt issued by the various American continental authorities during the Revolution to fund their war efforts. An estimate of the American war debt in current dollars exceeds 20 billion dollars. A large portion was owed to France as well as to its Americans. The new nation went into an economic depression just after the Revolutionary War and was unable to service its debt on any timely basis. Like so many other patriots who bought these debt instruments, Swan’s financial status plummeted during this period of a de facto moratorium on debt payments. The adverse economic milieu of the time must have badly affected his other business activities as well. Most likely, his revenue shortfall left him unable to service fully or at all the interest, principal, and real estate tax obligations to which he was shackled by reason of his West Virginia land and their related mortgages. This began the long lasting debacle of Swan’s American land ventures.

In 1787, Swan decided to go to France and forge a new business career and, most likely, to escape the clamor of his stateside creditors, if not actually bankruptcy.




APRIL 5, 2016

Peg Leg Watson

I left off my last post dealing with the life of Brook Watson at the point when the boy returned to Boston from Cuba at the age of fourteen or fifteen years of age, with a wooden leg resulting from the shark attack. Far from experiencing a happy reunion with his guardian Levens, on whose ship Watson sailed to Cuba as a cabin boy, he found to his dismay that Levens had become a bankrupt and disappeared, and with Levens, his house and home for Watson, which was then owned by a shrew. Watson was fortuitously taken up by a kind stranger named Captain John Huston, a shipper, who took Watson along with him to Eastern Canada where he lived and supplied provisions to the British army stationed there. Watson lived in Huston’s house as a son in the family than as a servant. In this twenty-first century where most suddenly formed relationships are subject to a wry skepticism as to intent, Rev. Andrew Brown,

Rev. Andrew Brown in marble

the unpublished historian I introduced in the first section of this post, notes that Huston’s was much impressed by the boy’s–

“great and good, honest and honorable, ever attentive and obliging, apt to learn and to improve.

One thing in support of taking Huston’s interest in Watson at eighteenth century face value is the chronic colonial shortage of able, working people, both male and female. In point of fact, prospective employers in American cities waited for ships to arrive from England, to hire as they disembarked passengers looking for work that were given free passage by the shipper who hoped to collect the transatlantic fare from a prospective  American employer.

During the 1600s and 1700s, the French and English were unceasingly at war with each other. Sadly, the French-English conflicts spilled over into North America in the mid-1700s, as  part of the so called Seven Years’ War fought in Europe. In the first post on Watson, I left you hanging as to the fate of the Acadians, the people of French origin who inhabited what is now Nova Scotia in eastern board of Canada. These French-speaking, Roman Catholic rural people, by reason of various treaties between the French and English, legally became British subjects at the beginning of the eighteenth century, which made them at best “suspicious” to the French, and were referred to as “French neutrals” by their Anglican British overlords, which placed them in less than limbo status as British subjects.

The story of the Acadians’ expulsion from the Canadian lands that many of them had occupied since the early 1600’s is tragic, but too complicated in its multiple parts to describe in less than 100 or more  pages, which is not my intention here. What I want to achieve is to acquaint my readers with the basic element of that exile, which combines features similar to the exile of Armenians from Turkey in the early twentieth century as well as haunting facets that chillingly bring to mind the treatment, but not the intended extermination, of the Jewish population in areas controlled by Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The objective of the British in exiling the Acadians was justified by their real desire to avoid a “Fifth Column” among their midst by what they considered at best as heretical “Neutral” citizens, somewhat similar to the reasons given by the Turks and Germans for ridding their communities of Jews. One should remember that Hitler’s original plan to rid Germany of the Jews was to ship them to the Island of Madagascar.

Also, with some exception, I want to restrict the scope of my discussion of the Acadian exile largely to Brook Watson’s role in that calamity, most of which I have become acquainted directly from his own letter to the Reverend Andrew Brown, who  who was penning a history of Nova Scotia, having been a minister at an Anglican Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, during the key years of the Acadian expulson. I should note here that his intended history was never published; as we know, Brown’s historical papers ended up as packing butter and cheese before what remained was salvaged by an astute customer.

The Acadian’s principal settlement was Annapolis Royal.

Annapolis Royal

Here, in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, the English built a fort and garrisoned it with English troops, changing the name of the Province from Acadie to Nova Scotia. However, the Brits took no steps to populate the region with British settlors, as it did with the colonies along the American coastline. That changed in 1749, when Colonel Charles Cornwallis

General Cornwallis

was appointed its first Governor of the Province and brought with him from England a group of settlors, presumably farmers and some tradesman engaged to farming and animal husbandry, to the region he renamed as Halifax. (Cornwallis is best know as an important British general in the American War of Independence and as the British officer who was authorized to surrender in 1781 to the American and French force at the Siege of Yorktown.)

The end of the French and Indian War

Predictably, France viewed England’s new policy of populating the region with British settlers as potentially averse to its remaining, albeit somewhat distant, colony in Canada, which constitutes more or less the present Canadian province of Quebec, and perhaps, bellicose in intent given the long history of warfare between the two nations. The French government in Quebec City, which previously had had scant contact with the Acadians, sent some troops from Quebec in 1750, to stir up any latent animosity of the Acadians and Native Americans into active harassment of the the English settlors. The French also to build a fort in the area called Beausejour. For some reason, the Native Americans viewed the French more favorably that the British, perhaps because the French had been less enterprising in developing a presence the New World. It is true that some Acadians gave shelter to the Native Americans from English retribution.

Cozy relations between Acadians and Native Americans

The French policy of inciting the Acadians and Native Americans against the Brits succeeded so well that the British decided to chastise the French by attacking the garrison of French soldiers at Fort Beausejour. A number of Acadians took take part in the French defense of Beausejour.

The Remains of Fort Beausejour 

When the French fort was captured easily by the British in June of 1755, the French troops were allowed to retreat to their former bases. Even the Acadians who took part in the defense of the fort were allowed to return to their respective homes; however, the English governing Council of Nova Scotia, headed by the Acting Governor Charles Lawrence, determined that it was time to deal definitively with the Acadians, who always seemed to present a real or imagined threat to British rule, an attitude supported by their participation, albeit limited, in the defense of Fort Beausejour.


The British Council decided to exile the Acadians from Canada entirely, and orders were issued to initiate that expulsion. A proclamation was issued commanding the Acadians to appear at Beausejour (renamed Fort Cumberland) on a specific day, without stating the purpose. When they arrived, they were surrounded by British troops. The Acadian men were locked up in the fort, and the women and children were required to return to their homes, there to remain until further notice. The remaining men, some four hundred in number, were told them that they were declared rebels on account of their past misdeeds; that their lands, homes, chattels including animals, were forfeited to the Crown, and that, in the meantime, they would be treated as prisoners.  The gates of the fort were then closed. This same round up was repeated across the Acadian territories.

In September of that year, Brook Watson, with a troop of British soldiers, was directed as a part of the Acadian solution to go to an Acadian settlement called Baie Verte (Green Bay, in English),

Baie Verte of the Acadians still pristine

which was then a sizeable and flourishing settlement. He was ordered to collect and send to Beausejour/Fort Cumbrland, for embarkation, all the women and children to be found in that district, the men having been kept in the fort. After the round-up was completed and the Acadians taken out of the Baie Verte, Watson was ordered to set fire to the town and all of the surrounding homes, outhouses, and barns. Thereafter, Watson was charged with the responsibility of providing food and drink (“victualling”) on the awaited transport ships for its forced passengers.

By August 31, 1755, the transports to take the Acadian to exile had arrived at Beauséjour, and early in the month of September the embarkation began. On October 1 of that year, eighty-six Acadian prisoners dug a hole under the wall of fort where they were imprisoned and escaped in the night. But, on October 13 a fleet of ten transport ships, carrying nine hundred and sixty Acadian exiles, left Nova Scotia bound for South Carolina and Georgia. After the departure of the vessels the British soldiers destroyed every barn and house in the vicinity that remained and drove large herds of Acadian cattle into Fort Cumberland.

Watson remarked in a letter to the Rev. Andrew Brown that:

“The season was now far advanced before the embarkation took place, which caused much hurry, and I fear some families were divided and sent to different parts of the globe, notwithstanding all possible care was taken to prevent it. These wretched people, given up by France without their consent, were for adhering to those principles which the liberal mind must deem praiseworthy, plucked from their native soil, cast out by the nation who claimed their obedience, and rejected by that from whence they sprang, and to whose religion, customs and laws they had evinced the strongest attachment.”

After Beausejour, Lawrence had succeeded in exiling approximately a thousand Acadians. About this time, he should have received a letter of August 13, 1755, from Sir Thomas Robinson at the Court in London, to the effect that the king wished the Acadians to remain unmolested. But as some of them had already been deported, Lawrence thought there was nothing to be done but to finish the business of expulsion. And, perhaps, if his policy of exile accomplished the vitalization of the relative moribund British colony of Nova Scotia, he would not face reprimand, but might indeed bask in the glory of a newly thriving colony.

There was a letter published in the Philadelphia Gazette on September 4, 1756, said to have been written by the Acting Governor Lawrence of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawrence, dated August 6 at Halifax, that succinctly expresses Lawrence’s view of the expulsion:

“We are now forming the noble project of driving the French Neutrals out of this province. They have long been our secret enemies and have assisted the Indians. If we are able to accomplish their expulsion, it will be one of the great achievements of the English in America, for, among other considerations, the lands which they occupy are among the best in the country, and we can place good English farmers in their stead.”

Wikipedia notes that the Rev. Andrew Brown was “strongly critical of Acting Governor Charles Lawrence of Nova Scotia

Charles Lawrence

for his role in the expulsion of the Acadians. Brown was also of the view that the expulsion of the “French” was dominated by Boston colonial interests, centering upon unfettered fishing and trapping fur animals in Nova Scotia. As noted before, the British development of the Northeastern America was much more intense than their endeavors in Nova Scotia.

Over all, about 6000 or more people were exiled from Canada. Watson notes that about thirteen hundred perished by shipwreck. Some of the Acadian on British ships that arrived at French ports were denied entry on the ground that they weren’t French citizens, which was technically correct, if not unrealistic. Others who arrived in France were denied entry because of small pox among their midst on the ship. According to Watson, those Acadians were “carried off in great numbers” by the pox. Many went to the French West India, such as Guadalupe and Martinique, were they were admitted, but “died for want of food, as a famine at that time prevailed in the islands; and, the French people there would not help them, as they were not French subjects.”

Watson also wrote that:

“Those who survived the calamity were sent to join their remaining brethren who had been sent to the British colonies from New England to Georgia; they were here more fortunate, for notwithstanding the rancor which generally prevailed against all Roman Catholics, their orderly conduct, their integrity, sobriety and frugality secured to them the good-will of the people and gained them comfortable support.”

Some of the Acadians who were lucky enough to land safely in the North American colonies still longed for their Canadian homes and built boats, taking their families from as far as Georgia along the American coastline to Nova Scotia, or up the Mississippi River.  Watson writes:

“But alas! what did they find? all was desolated for the more effectually to drive them out of the country, all their houses had been burnt, all their cattle killed by order of Government, hence they found no shelter, still they persevered with never-failing fortitude, with unremitting industry, and established themselves in different remote parts of the Province, where they had been suffered to remain, but without any legal property. at least I have not heard of any land having been granted to them; their numbers, I am told, have increased about two thousand, and am informed they still continue, what I know them to be in their prosperous state, an honest, sober, industrious, and virtuous people. In 1755 I was a very humble instrument in sending eighteen hundred of those suffering mortals out of the Province.

Although none of the Acadians appear to have been sent directly to Louisiana, large numbers of them found their way there from various places, especially from Virginia, where they were not allowed to remain. Finding in Louisiana men speaking their own tongue and welcomed by the Spanish rulers of Louisiana at that time, the Acadians felt a sense of security, and gradually settled down with a degree of contentment. There are to-day in various parishes of the state of Louisiana many thousand Acadian-Americans who are called “Cajuns,” which are known outside the State for the cuisine and their amazing music, Zydeco.

A true tale of the horror, compounded priestly hypocrisy, faced by the Acadians is illustrated in one of Rev. Andrew Brown’s papers that was found used to wrap cheese and butter.

“A Capt. Nichols, commanding a transport… was employed by ye Government of Nova Scotia to remove from the Island of St. John about 300 French neutrals with their families. He represented to the agent before he sailed the situation of his vessel, and the impossibility there was of his arriving safe in Old France at that season of the year.

He was nevertheless compelled to receive them on board and proceed upon the voyage. After getting within 100 leagues of Scilly, found the ship so leaking that, with all hands employed, they were not able to prevent her sinking. Finding that she must in a few minutes go down, and that all on board must perish if the French did not consent to the master and crew taking to the boats, by which means a small number had a chance of being saved.

Capt. Nichols sent for their priest and told him the situation, and and pointed out to him the only probable means of saving the lives of a few, among which the priest was one.

He accordingly harangued the Frenchmen for half an hour on the ships deck, and gave them absolution, when they, with one consent, agreed to the master, crew, and priest taking the boats, and themselves to perish with the ship. One Frenchman only went into the boat, on which his wife said “will you thus leave your wife and children to perish without you.” Remorse touched him, and he returned to share their fate. The ship in a few minutes went down, and all on board perished.”

The priest’s argument for leaving the Acadians on board the failing ship and saving his own life was that he hoped to save the souls of the heretics, being the Anglican English crew, and bring them to God. The lifeboats arrived safely at a port in the west of England, with the Acadian priest and captain and crew, all alive and well, whether or not the latters’ souls were saved.

There was a letter published in the Philadelphia Gazette on September 4, 1756, said to have been written by the Acting Governor Lawrence of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawrence, dated August 6 at Halifax, that succinctly expresses Lawrence’s view of the expulsion:

“We are now forming the noble project of driving the French Neutrals out of this province. They have long been our secret enemies and have assisted the Indians. If we are able to accomplish their expulsion, it will be one of the great achievements of the English in America, for, among other considerations, the lands which they occupy are among the best in the country, and we can place good English farmers in their stead.”

Wikipedia notes that the Rev. Andrew Brown was “strongly critical of Acting Governor Charles Lawrence of Nova Scotia for his role in the Expulsion of the Acadians. Brown concluded that the expulsion was largely, if not entirely, the “brain child” of the local Council that governed Nova Scotia, which according to Brown, was dominated by Boston colonial interests that centered upon fishing and trapping fur animals. As noted before, the British development of the Northeastern America was much more intense that their endeavors in Nova Scotia.

As a footnote, the British victory in the French and Indian War resulted in France’s virtual expulsion from the North America continent, losing all of its New World possessions including Canada, except for a few small islands off the coast of Canada and in the Caribbean. This victory, however, came a great cost to England, which had incurred massive debt in fighting the war in and for the Canadian colonies, and ultimately yet greater loss to come. In order to reduce the financial loss, the English Parliament issued the infamous 1765 Stamp Act on the American colonists that taxed most printed documents in the American colonies. As a consequence, the colonists boycotted  British goods, forcing repeal of the act. However. Parliament issued the Declaratory Act, which confirmed Britain’s right to tax the colonists without their consent as Englishmen. The various tax and other acts affecting commercial activities in the colonies provided the spark that resulted in the American War of Independance.

Years later in 1783, Brook Watson become involved in another evacuation. He was then serving as Commissary General to the British army in North America, under the command of Sir Guy Carleton, now Lord Dorchester.

Sir Guy Carleton

He was charged with the evacuation of thirty-five thousand Loyalists in New York after the Treaty between the new United States and England was signed. The New York area had the highest number of Loyalists in the American colonies. As I mentioned in the first post on Brook Watson, the Loyalists population in the colonies, of course, represented a broad swath of colonial American society, but also as a group contained a higher percentage of overachievers and the wealthy. They were Americans as much as the Patriots, but simply sought to work things out with the mother country, as viewed unity with England as providing the best route to long-term prosperity.

Most accumulated wealth at the time was in land and fixed assets rather than in portable assets, such as currencies or gold. Accordingly, leaving the Americas meant leaving the bulk of their assets behind.

Loyalists being taken from their houses.

All Loyalists properties left in America was confiscated by local governments and sold at bargain prices to Patriots, some of whose descendants remained wealthy certainly to the twentieth century. As Watson writes, he had done “all in my power was done to soften the affliction of the Acadians,” and now was to “alleviate the sufferings of the loyalists who were so severely treated for endeavoring to support the union of the British empire.”

A Loyalist family disembarking on English soil

Watson’s task was to provide the Loyalists in his keep “everything necessary to their transportation and settlement with provisions for one year after their arrival. He praised the English government for considering the “case of every individual who claims to have suffered by their loyalty, and, after a ruinous war which added one hundred and twenty millions to the public debt, granted compensation for their losses and relief for their sufferings to the amount of between three or four millions, besides annuities amounting to sixty thousand pounds a year.”

A Cartoon of Loyalists petitioning Britannia to recover their losses. NB the Native American

Wow. Good for George 3!

Watson remained actively trading in the Americas and only abandoned his mercantile ventures when he went into politics in London, serving as Lord Mayor of London for one year in 1796. His political opponents, in the typically English manner, made derisive but clever comments about his early ordeal in Havana Bay. One suggested that had the shark taken Watson’s head rather than his leg, a wooden head would have served him as well as a wooden leg, as follows:

“Oh! Had the monster, who for breakfast eat That luckless limb, his noblest noodle met, The best of workmen, nor the best of wood, Had scarce supply’d him with a head so good.”

Watson became a baronet in 1803 and requested that the coat of arms to be created to reflect his ennobled state have a direct references to his Havana nightmare. Neptune, the god of the sea, sits above the shield, fending off a shark with his trident. In the upper left corner of the shield is an image of leg torn off below the ankle. The motto, Scuto Divino, translates as “Under God’s Protection.”

Book Watson’s Coat of Arms

Watson died in 1807, leaving a wife but no children.


 A third in the series of “Three Dead White Men You Should Know” will be posted next week dealing with an amazing character named James Swan.