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.



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