James Gilchrist Swan papers, 1833-1909

Overview of the Collection

Swan, James G., 1818-1900
James Gilchrist Swan papers
1833-1909 (inclusive)
3.42 cubic feet (13 boxes, 1 vertical file)
Collection Number
Diaries, letters, writings, and other records of a Washington pioneer, lawyer, historian, and authority on Northwest Indians
University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections
Special Collections
University of Washington Libraries
Box 352900
Seattle, WA
Telephone: 2065431929
Fax: 2065431931
Access Restrictions

Open to all users.

Funding for encoding this finding aid was partially provided through a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities

Biographical NoteReturn to Top

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

The collection consists of diaries (1859-1898), correspondence, business records, reports, family genealogical material and correspondence, financial records, and historical and cultural writings relating to Swan's experiences as a pioneer in Washington, authority on Pacific Northwest Indians, and Indian artifact collector on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution. Includes papers on his appointment as a teacher at the Makah Indian Reservation in 1862, and his trips to Alaska, Great Britain, and the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia, to procure Haida Indian artifacts for the Smithsonian Institution.

Use of the CollectionReturn to Top

Restrictions on Use

Some restrictions exist on copying, quotation, or publication. Contact the Special Collections division, University of Washington Libraries for details.

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation: James Gilchrist Swan Papers. Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington.

Administrative InformationReturn to Top


Organized into 2 accessions.

  • Accession No. 1703-001, James G. Swan papers, 1841-1909
  • Accession No. 1703-003, James G. Swan papers, 1833-1900


Lucile Saunders McDonald, Swan Among the Indians: Life of James G. Swan, 1818-1900; Based Upon Swan's Hitherto Unpublished Diaries and Journals (Portland, Or.: Binfords & Mort, 1972). This volume provides a detailed biography.

Ivan Doig, Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980). This biography offers a an interesting, but less detailed interpretation of Swan's life.

James Gilchrist Swan, Almost Out of the World: Scenes from Washington Territory: the Strait of Juan de Fuca, 1859-61, ed. by William A. Katz (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1971). This book reprints many of Swan's newspaper articles and contains a list of all of Swan's publications.

James Gilchrist Swan, The Northwest Coast; or, Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972). Reprint of the 1857 edition (New York, Harper & Brothers).

James Gilchrist Swan, The Indians of Cape Flattery, at the Entrance to the Strait of Fuca, Washington Territory (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1870). Vol. 16 in the series: Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge.

James Gilchrist Swan, The Haidah Indians of the Queen Charlottes Islands, British Columbia (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1874). Vol. 21 in the series: Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge.

Franz Stenzel, Early Days in the Northwest: Prints, Paintings; Drawings by James G. Swan (Portland: Portland Art Museum, 1959). Reprints of some of Swan's drawings.

Related Materials

A large collection of Swan's correspondence and case files, 1852 to 1907, is held by the University of British Columbia Library, Rare Books and Special Collections division, under the title the James Gilchrist Swan Papers. This material is available on microfilm in the University of Washington Libraries Microform and Newspaper Collections, microfilm no. A8576 (9 reels). A copy of the finding aid for the UBC collection is available in the repository and online .

Swan's address to the legislature of British Columbia and his report to the Smithsonian Institution, both dated 1884 and both regarding the Haida Indians and the Queen Charlotte Islands, is available on microfiche in the University of Washington Libraries Microform and Newspaper Collections. Originals are held by the British Columbia Provincial Archives.

Swan's correspondence with the Smithsonian Institution concerning his Indian artifact collecting activities, 1860s-1890s, is held by the National Archives, Washington, D.C.; one reel of microfilm is available in the University of Washington Libraries Microform and Newspaper Collections, microfilm no. A2923.

The Museum of History and Industry in Seattle has five of Swan's letterpress copybooks, 1883 to 1891, containing outgoing letters relating to his government positions, as well as personal correspondence, 1890 to 1896.

The Seattle branch of the National Archives holds a volume entitled, Docket and Record of James G. Swan, U.S. Commissioner, Pt. Townsend, 1892-1897.

The Eastern Washington Historical Society in Spokane has copies of Isaac Stevens's correspondence with Swan.

The Jefferson County Historical Society in Port Townsend has approximately a dozen Swan letters, as well as a series of newspaper clippings about him.

Artwork by Swan, as well as several boxes of correspondence and materials about Swan, are available in the Franz R. and Kathryn M. Stenzel Collection of Western American Art (WA MSS S-2368), and their collection of Research Files on Western American Art (WA MSS S-2369), held by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Many of Swan's drawings, as well as his diaries from 1898 to 1900, are in private hands and are therefore currently inaccessible to researchers.

Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top


Accession No. 1703-001: James G. Swan papers, 1841-1909Return to Top

3 cubic feet

Scope and Content: Accession no. 1703-1 is composed primarily of 63 volumes of Swan's diaries. The diaries run from 1859 to 1898, although Swan occasionally went many weeks without making an entry. This accession also contains typed transcripts of diary volumes #1-10 (January 1859-October 1866) and volume #33 (May-September 1883) prepared by Lucile McDonald in the course of research for her book, Swan Among the Indians. These transcripts are easier to read than Swan's often cramped handwriting.

A much earlier diary, entitled Journal of a Voyage to Liverpool and Notes of a Journey Through Great Britain in 1841, may be found in box 9, folder 7, along with a transcription prepared by Swan scholar Richard Berg in 1987.

In addition to the diaries, the Swan papers contain drafts of his articles on the Makah and Haida, as well as drafts of some of his fisheries reports and newspaper articles. The collection includes an apparently unpublished manuscript written in 1881: "History of the Commencement of the Makah Indian Agency at Neah Bay, Washington Territory." Also present are a sketch and notebook dealing with Haida mythology and art (box 11, folder 1), a handful of Swan's correspondence (1869-1900), financial records of Swan's collecting for the Smithsonian (1875-1876), and business records of the Hawaiian consulate (1884-1889).

Digital Content/Other Formats: Diaries no. 20, Journal of Cruise of U.S. Revenue Steamer Wolcott, and no. 33, Journal of Trip to Queen Charlotte Islands, are available in the division on microfilm as James Swan Accession no. 1925-1.

View selections from this collection in digital format.

Restrictions on Access: Diaries are to be used one volume at a time.

Restrictions on Use: The creator's literary rights have not been transferred to the University of Washington Libraries. Contact the repository for details.

Custodial History: The bulk of this accession was given to University of Washington professor Edmond S. Meany by Hamilton Platt, an executor of Swan's will.

Acquisition Info: Gift of Edmond S. Meany, 1927; Lucile McDonald (6 items), 1971; and Richard Berg (transcript of 1841 journal of visit to England), 1987.

Processing Info: Accession no. 1703-1 was reprocessed in 2000.

Processing Info: Swan's annotated copy of John Mears's Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789, from China to the North West Coast of America, 1790, is available in the division's rare book collections.

Container(s) Description Dates
Personal Papers
Box/Folder Accession
1/1 1703-001
#1 Daily Journal
1/2 1703-001
#2 Daily Journal
1/3 1703-001
#3 Daily Journal
1/4 1703-001
#4 Daily Journal
1/5 1703-001
#5 Daily Journal
5/1 1703-001
#6 Daily Journal
1/6 1703-001
#7 Daily Journal
5/2 1703-001
#8 Daily Journal
5/3 1703-001
#9 Daily Journal
6/1 1703-001
#10 Daily Journal, Invoices, Letters and "General Descrition of Country West of Hoods Canal"
6/2 1703-001
Enclosures from Dairy #10
1861, 1880, undated
1/7 1703-001
#11 Daily Journal
1/8 1703-001
#12 Daily Journal
1/9 1703-001
#13 Daily Journal
1/10 1703-001
#14 Daily Journal
1/11 1703-001
#15 Daily Journal
1/12 1703-001
#16 Daily Journal
1/13 1703-001
#17 Daily Journal
1/14 1703-001
#18 Daily Journal
1/15 1703-001
#19 Daily Journal
6/3 1703-001
#20 Account Book [and] Journal of Cruise on U.S. Revenue Steamer Wolcott
1867-1869, 1875
2/1 1703-001
#21 Daily Journal
2/2 1703-001
#22 Daily Journal
4/1 1703-001 1878-1879
2/3 1703-001 1879
7/1 1703-001
#25 Daily Journal
2/4 1703-001
#26 Daily Journal
2/5 1703-001
#27 Daily Journal
2/6 1703-001
#28 Daily Journal
7/2 1703-001
#29 Daily Journal
2/7 1703-001
#30 Daily Journal
2/8 1703-001
#31 Daily Journal
2/9 1703-001
#32 Daily Journal
4/2 1703-001
#33 Journal of Trip to Queen Charlotte Islands
4/3 1703-001
Enclosures from Diary #33
Enclosure from Diary #33
VF:oversize Accession
OSVF 156 1703-001
"Statement of the Sealing Business at Neah Bay"
Box/Folder Accession
2/10 1703-001
#34 Daily Journal
2/11 1703-001
#35 Daily Journal
2/12 1703-001
#36 Daily Journal
2/13 1703-001
#37 Daily Journal
2/14 1703-001
#38 Daily Journal
2/15 1703-001
#39 Daily Journal
2/16 1703-001
#40 Daily Journal
2/17 1703-001
#41 Daily Journal
2/18 1703-001
#43 Daily Journal
3/1 1703-001
#44 Daily Journal
3/2 1703-001
#45 Daily Journal
3/3 1703-001
#46 Daily Journal
3/4 1703-001
#47 Daily Journal
3/5 1703-001
#48 Daily Journal
3/6 1703-001
#49 Weather Data
3/7 1703-001
#50 Daily Journal
3/8 1703-001
#51 Daily Journal
3/9 1703-001
#52 Daily Journal
3/10 1703-001
#53 Daily Journal
3/11 1703-001
#54 Meteorological Record
3/12 1703-001
#55 Daily Journal
3/13 1703-001
#56 Daily Journal
3/14 1703-001
#57 Daily Journal
3/15 1703-001
#58 Daily Journal
3/16 1703-001
#59 Daily Journal
3/17 1703-001
#60 Daily Journal
3/18 1703-001
#61 Daily Journal
3/19 1703-001
#62 Daily Journal
3/20 1703-001
#63 Daily Journal
3/21 1703-001
#64 Daily Journal
1890, 1898
Diary Transcripts
Box/Folder Accession
8/1 1703-001
Table of Contents
8/2-12 1703-001
Transcript of Diaries 1-6, 8-10 (by Lucile McDonald)
9/1 1703-001
Extract from Diary of Cruise to Queen Charlotte Islands, BC. for Smithsonian
Box/Folder Accession
9/2 1703-001
Swan Family Histories
Incoming Letters
Box/Folder Accession
9/3 1703-001
Holden, Luther L.
9/3 1703-001
McKeon, W. J.
9/3 1703-001
Newman, H. W.
9/3 1703-001
Washington World's Fair Commission (Blalock, Nelson G.)
Outgoing Letters to
Box/Folder Accession
9/4 1703-001
Blinn, Marshall
9/4 1703-001
Race, H.
9/4 1703-001
Swift, Emily
9/4 1703-001
Swift, J. H.
9/4 1703-001
Tolmie, William F.
Scope and Content: Transcript.
9/5 1703-001
Swan, Ellen M.
Scope and Content: Transcript and photocopies.
1893-1894, 1897
General Correspondence
Box/Folder Accession
9/6 1703-001
H. Race to Lucile McDonald, Re: Family History
Box/Folder Accession
9/7 1703-001
"Journal of a Voyage to Liverpool & Notes of a Journey Through Great Britain in 1841," manuscript and transcript by R.W. Berg
9/8 1703-001
"History of the Commencement of the Makah Indian Agency at Neah Bay"
9/9 1703-001
Trepang Fisheries
9/10 1703-001
"The Haidah Indians of Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C."
9/10 1703-001
"Tattoo Marks of the Haidah Indians of Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C."
9/11 1703-001
Index to Haidah Indian Memoirs
9/12 1703-001
"Reminicence of a Pipe"
9/12 1703-001
Miscellaneous Fragments
Box/Folder Accession
10/1 1703-001
The Eulachon or Candle Fish
Financial Records
Box/Folder Accession
10/2 1703-001
Swan's Collections for 1876 World's Fair
10/3 1703-001
Expense of Propagation of Food Fishes
10/4 1703-001
Rent Book (#42)
10/5 1703-001
Miscellaneous Accounts, Including: U.S. Fish Commission, U.S. National Museum, and New Orleans Centennial Exposition
VF:oversize Accession
OSVF 156 1703-001
Land Certificates
Box/Folder Accession
10/6 1703-001
California Courier
Scope and Content: Photostats.
Box/Folder Accession
11/1 1703-001
Sketch and Notebook
Hawaiian Consul, Port Townsend, Washington
Box/Folder Accession
11/2 1703-001
Business Records
11/3 1703-001
Cash Book
11/4 1703-001
List of Hawaiian books or pamphlets formerly of the James G. Swan Estate
Seavey, James
Incoming Letters Re: Swan Estate
Box/Folder Accession
11/5 1703-001
Swan, Charles F.
11/6 1703-001
Swan, Charles H.
1900-1903, 1909
11/7 1703-001
Swan, Ellen M.
1900, 1902-1903
Box/Folder Accession
11/8 1703-001
Outgoing Letters Re: Swan Estate
1901-1902,1909, undated

Accession No. 1703-003: James G. Swan papers, 1833-1900Return to Top

.42 cubic feet

Scope and Content: Accession no. 1703-3 consists primarily of correspondence between Swan and members of his family. James Gilchrist Swan was young when his father died. Swan's uncles were very involved in his upbringing, and his uncle Caleb Swan assisted James financially throughout his life. Most of the letters they exchanged in the 1840s pertain to business and financial matters. Also in these papers are several letters written by James's mother, Peggy Swan, to Caleb in the 1840s, expressing gratitude for Caleb's financial assistance as well as her concern over James's apparent inability to provide for himself and his family.

By the 1850s James was living on the West Coast, and his letters describe many of his trips around the Northwest. Caleb Swan died in 1874, and some legal documents regarding his estate and James's inheritance are included in the accession. From 1874 until his death in 1900, James wrote letters to his cousin Edward which are full of family news as well as details of his experiences in the Northwest. Those letters from the last years of his life reflect some of his concerns and regrets regarding his choice to live so far from friends and family.

Additional letters are from members of the Swan family and are written to either James, Caleb, or James's brother, Benjamin. The genealogy included in this collection helps to identify correspondents and their relationship to James Swan.

While the bulk of the letters written by James Swan are in fair condition, those written by Caleb are, for the most part, very difficult to read due to deterioration. In some cases, letters from James and Caleb are pasted together. In those cases, the letters have been filed with James Swan's outgoing letters to Caleb. Some of the letters include annotations on the outside by Caleb Swan.

Restrictions on Access: No restrictions on access.

Restrictions on Use: The creator's literary rights have been transferred to the University of Washington Libraries.

Custodial History: The letters were held by the family in New England until their donation to the University of Washington Libraries.

Acquisition Info: Gift of Gillian Moss (great-granddaughter of Edward Swan), 2004.

Processing Info: Processed by Lily Rajan in 2004.

Processing Info: One portrait photograph of James Gilchrist Swan, 1899, was relocated to the James Gilchrist Swan Photograph Collection, photo accession no. 2004-010, in the division in 2004.

Container(s) Description Dates
Personal Papers
Box/Folder Accession
1/1 1703-003
Genealogical Notes
Incoming Letters
Box/Folder Accession
1/2 1703-003
Stevens, Isaac
1/3-4 1703-003
Swan, Caleb
Outgoing Letters to
Box/Folder Accession
1/5-9 1703-003
Swan, Caleb
2/1-6 1703-003
Swan, Caleb
2/7-12 1703-003
Swan, Edward H.
Box/Folder Accession
2/13 1703-003
Power of Attorney
Swan, Benjamin
Incoming Letters
Box/Folder Accession
2/14 1703-003
Swan, Charles
Swan, Caleb
Incoming Letters
Box/Folder Accession
2/15 1703-003
Cushing, William
2/16 1703-003
Hovey, George O.
2/17 1703-003
Swan, Daniel
2/18 1703-003
Swan, Hannah
2/19 1703-003
Swan, Joseph
2/20-22 1703-003
Swan, Peggy
Box/Folder Accession
2/23 1703-003
Outgoing Letters
2/24 1703-003
Financial Records

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

Subject Terms

  • Frontier and pioneer life--Washington (State)
  • Haida Indians
  • Indian reservations--Washington (State)
  • Indians of North America--Antiquities
  • Indians of North America--British Columbia
  • Indians of North America--Northwest, Pacific
  • Indians of North America--Washington (State)
  • Lawyers--Washington (State)
  • Makah Indians
  • Personal Papers/Corporate Records (University of Washington)
  • Pioneers--Washington (State)
  • Teachers--Washington (State)

Personal Names

  • Swan family--Correspondence
  • Swan, Caleb, 1790-1872
  • Swan, James G., 1818-1900--Archives
  • Swan, Peggy, 1790-1863

Corporate Names

  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Wolcott (Ship)

Geographical Names

  • Alaska--Description and travel
  • Great Britain--Description and travel
  • Liverpool (England)--Description and travel
  • Makah Indian Reservation (Wash.)
  • Neah Bay (Wash.)
  • Queen Charlotte Islands (B.C.)--Description and travel