The James G. Swan Collection, 1876-1900

Overview of the Collection

Swan, James G., 1818-1900
The James G. Swan Collection
1876-1900 (inclusive)
1 box, (.3 cubic feet)
Collection Number
A selection of letters sent to James G. Swan, Indian agent and ethnologist, when he was living on the Olympic peninsula.
Lewis & Clark College, Special Collections and Archives

Aubrey R. Watzek Library
615 S. Palatine Hill Rd.
Portland, OR
Telephone: 5037687758
Fax: 5037687282
Access Restrictions

This collection has no restrictions and is open for research.


Biographical NoteReturn to Top

The following biographical note was taken from the finding aid for the James Gilchrist Swan papers at the University of Washington,

James Gilchrist Swan -- anthropologist, judge, political advisor, artist, schoolteacher, and promoter of Port Townsend (to mention just a few of his occupations) -- was one of the most colorful personalities of Washington State's territorial period (1853-1889). Swan was born in Massachusetts in 1818 and married Mathilda Loning in 1841. He left his wife and two children in 1850, heading to gold rush San Francisco. In 1852 Swan departed for Shoalwater Bay (now called Grays Harbor). He learned the Chinook jargon, and this knowledge led Washington Governor Isaac Stevens to pick Swan as one of several translators for treaty negotiations with the Indians of Western Washington during 1854 and 1855. Swan then returned east and wrote a book, The Northwest Coast; or, Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory. He later worked as Isaac Stevens's personal secretary when Stevens served his first term as the Washington Territory's delegate to the U.S. Congress in 1857 and 1858.

When Congress adjourned, Swan returned to Washington. He spent the next three years shuttling back and forth between Port Townsend and the Makah Indian Reservation at Neah Bay, supporting himself by writing for a variety of newspapers. In 1862 the local U.S. Indian agent appointed Swan the first schoolteacher at the Makah Reservation. Swan supervised construction of the school while convincing Makah parents to send their children there. Believing in acculturation yet still valuing native ways, Swan taught English, farming, and sewing in his school. He was well liked and respected by the Makah. Swan, who was probably the first white person to learn the Makah language, spent his spare time writing an ethnography of the Makah, later published by the Smithsonian Institution. Under criticism for failing to teach Christianity to the Makah, Swan resigned in 1866 and moved to Port Townsend.

Swan was admitted to the bar in 1867 and began practicing admiralty law. The following year he was appointed to the Pilotage Commission of Puget Sound, the agency which examined sea pilots and issued licenses. In 1882 he became a U.S. commissioner (district court judge). He also took the postition of Hawaiian consul to the United States at Port Townsend in 1882. Swan held these jobs for the rest of his life, but he was not particularly fond of them. They paid poorly, and Swan frequently took leaves of absence to go in search of adventure. He worked as a special agent for the Northern Pacific Railway from 1867 to 1871, surveying potential terminuses. (Not surprisingly, he recommended Port Townsend). The Smithsonian Institution hired Swan to collect Indian artifacts for the 1876 world's fair in Philadelphia, the 1884 fair in London, and the 1893 exposition in Chicago. The Smithsonian thus funded Swan's collecting trips to British Columbia and Southeast Alaska in 1875 and 1883. Swan published two articles on the Haida Indians from the notes he took on these trips. An appointment as deputy customs collector for Neah Bay allowed Swan to live at the Makah reservation from 1878 to 1881. The U.S. Fish Commission asked Swan to write a series of reports on the fish and fisheries of the northern Pacific, permitting him to visit Neah Bay intermittently between 1882 and 1891. Swan spent the rest of his life in Port Townsend, dying there in 1900.

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

Includes letters sent to James Swan.

Use of the CollectionReturn to Top

Restrictions on Use

Permission to publish, exhibit, broadcast, or quote from materials in the Watzek Library Archives & Special Collections requires written permission of the Head of Archives & Special Collections.

Preferred Citation

The James G. Swan Collection (OLPb153SWA), Lewis & Clark College Aubrey Watzek Library Archives & Special Collections, Portland, Oregon.

Administrative InformationReturn to Top


Arranged in a single series of items alphabetized by correspondent last name.

Location of Collection

Special Collections

Acquisition Information

Purchased by Lewis & Clark College.

Processing Note

Processed in 2013.

Related Materials

See also, the James G. Swan / Samuel Parker Correspondence March 24, 1887-June 15, 1887

Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top

The following section contains a detailed listing of the materials in the collection.

Container(s) Description Dates
1a Transcriptions of James Swan letters
1b From: J. S. Sewman
Re: Indian basketry and clam bake
January 28, 1900
2 From: J. L. McMurray
Re: "Bill for Red Men's History"
March 15, 1900
3 From: Allen Weir
Re: trip to Boston and Swan's son
May 25, 1891
4 From: P. R. Whittou
Re: Smithsonian Institution
June 2, 1891
5 From: W. R. Shultz
Re: invoices
November 20, 1899
6 From: Franklin Tucker
Re: receipt for dues paid to Indians
July 20, 1891
7 From: J.F. Kendall
Re: Jefferson Co.
October 10, 1898
8 From: John W. Snay?
Re: proof of article
November 2, 1891
9 From: W. F. Fogier?
Re: request for information
October 25, 1899
10 From: G. E. Fuller
re: personal meetings
November 6, 1891
11 From: J. J. Winant
re: personal meetings
August 23, 1891
12 From: Etie Tolucie?
re: personal visit
August 31, 1891
13 From: Mrs. F. Hensley
re: Mrs. Hensley's son
October 31, 1899
14 From: J. J. Winant
re: article, freight, Indians
August 16, 1891
15 From: J. Brown
re: Thomas Gold Co.
August 23, 1900
16 From: E. K. Worthinglore
re: invitation for 4th of July
June 9, 1891
17 From: W. H. Benedict
re: private postage stamp collection
July 16, 1891
18 From: Chad J. Brown
re: Stewart lot at Port Townsend
July 30, 1891
19 From: Thomas R. Brown
re: paying witness
July 6, 1891
20 From: Allen Weir
re: Puget Sound News Bureau
May 7, 1891
21 From: Emma M. Williams
re: daughter Amy's death
March 11, 1891
22 From: Richardson?
re: Bulletin no. 1, Geographic Names
December 27, 1890
23 From: D. W. Wicklean
re: personal visit
July 20, 1985
24 From: Watson C. Squire
re: article on a fish
October 4, 1884
25 From: Watson C. Squire
re: Puget Sound fish
September 30, 1884
26 From: Allen ?
re: payment and shipment
June 17, 1884
27 From: Treasury Dept.
re: account audit
September 17, 1882
28 From: Rob D. Attridge
re: Thomas J. Johns bond
January 5, 1884
29 From: Buskirk Smith
re: William Warren, Jefferson County
April 7, 1884
30 From: ? Swan's nephew
re: Fort Townsend School bonds
January 2, 1900
31 From: M. S. Carringon
re: Helen F. Chase
April 4, 1900
32 From: D. W. Wicklean
re: property prices
August 21, 1895
33 From: various
re: signed testimony
March 24, 1880
34 From: various
legal document
August 19, 1876
35 From: unsigned
monthly report for Neah Bay INdian School
March 31, 1876

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

Subject Terms

  • Frontier and pioneer life--Washington (State)
  • Indians of North America--Northwest, Pacific
  • Makah Indians

Personal Names

  • Swan, James G., 1818-1900--Archives

Geographical Names

  • Neah Bay (Wash.)