Select Swan Miscellany

Here are some Swan stories and accounts over the years:

The Various Origins of the Name Swan

The main although not the only origin of the Swan surname is the Old Norse word svein, with its various meanings of friend, partner or servant.  Its first recording as a family name was Osgot Sveyn, dated 1045, in the Anglo Saxon will register for Cambridge.  Subsequent Swans recorded in Pipe and Assize rolls were:

Robert Suein
Hugo Suan
John Swann
Gilbert Swan
Alexander Swan
Magober Swan

The name Swan could also have an Anglo Saxon origin, from the Old English swon meaning swineherd or herdsman.  Its appeareance as a surname in the 14th century came with the French prefix Le:.

Stephen le Swan
Simon le Swayne
Thomas le Swan 

Third, less common, was Swan as locationalwith the prefix atte, describing someone who lived at a place with the sign of the swan.

Godfrey atte Swan
Thomas atte Swan

Swans and Swanns

Swann is the main variant to Swan as a surname in England and Scotland.  The table below shows the distribution of these two names by region as recorded in the 1891 census.

Surname Distribution in 1891
Swann %
North East
East Anglia
London/South East

Swan would appear to follow Viking settlement on the eastern side of the country.  Swann, meanwhile, was concentrated in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Midlands.  It does not appear in Scotland nor much in the East and West.

The Swans of Hook Place in Kent

Hook Place in Southfleet was for many centuries the seat of a family named Swan, who, as early as the reign of King Richard II, wrote themselves as gentlemen.   John Swan sat as baron for Sandwich in the late 1400's.

Sir William Swan possessed it in the reign of James I and, dying in 1612, lies buried in the parish church of St. Nicholas; as does Hester Lady Swan, his mother, who died at the beginning of that year.  On the wall of the belfry there is a brass plate inscription showing that William's sons, John, William, and Richard, together with his grandsons, Thomas and William, gave the largest bell to this structure.

Grandson Sir William Swan was likewise of Hook Place and was created a baronet in 1666.

The Sad Tale of William Swan

The following strange narrative of human suffering was to be found in the Universal Register on March 18, 1786.

"On Friday morning last was found dead in his bed, at an obscure lodging near Chiswell Street, Mr. William Swan.  He was the only surviving male heir of Thomas Swan, the alderman and mayor of Hull who had left an estate of £20,000 per annum which his family had been trying in vain to recover for more than twenty five years.

The history of this unfortunate man has been no less remarkable than that of his father.  In 1705, at the age of nine, he had been trepanned from his father's house in Newcastle and put on board the new Britannia brig.  This vessel was wrecked on the rocks of Sicily and he was subsequently taken by an Algerine vessel and sold into slavery.   He was, after four years, set at liberty by the Redeeming Friars.  But he was then taken prisoner again and sold as a slave to a planter in South Carolina. 

After a banishment of twenty years, he returned to England and was identified in Newcastle by his nurse and by his father's footman.  But he had no success in laying any claim to the family estate.  He married and settled down at North Dalton near Hull where the unfortunate William Swan was born.  He died there, it was said of a broken heart, in 1735."

Susannah Swan and the Indians

Susannah Eastman lived with her parents at Haverhill in Massachusetts, then on the edge of civilization.  In 1676 the Indians attacked the village.  According to family lore the young Susannah was captured by them and trained as a “medicine woman.” 

The clock moved onto 1693 and she was now a young woman.  The Indians returned and took Susannah again.  Eventually the General Court arranged for a ship, the Province Galley, to go to Casco Bay to deal with the Indians and to bring back anyone they could.  Susannah returned onboard after two years in captivity.

In 1699 she married John Swan.  But even then, the Indians weren’t through with her.  It was said that they came in 1708, looking especially for her as they wanted her knowledge of “medicine.”  But Susannah was not about to be captured again. When she heard of the attack, Susannah armed herself with a spit from the fireplace. As an Indian brave opened the cabin door, she grabbed the spit and ran him through. That, and possibly other efforts, seemed to have repelled the attack.

After these adventures, John and Susannah moved to safer territory in Stonington, Connecticut.   The home that John built there still survives.  Susannah lived to be 100 years old.  She was buried beside John in the Old Plains cemetery.

Susannah inspired a commemorative poem written by a grand-daughter to teach the next generation about courage, grace and honor.  This poem began as follows:

“While wintry winds are sighing around our cottage door,
And deepening snows are drifting the garden hillocks o’er,
We’ll pile the logs still higher upon the hearth’s red glow,
And tell a tale of olden time, our grandsire used to know.

How the prowling Indians came, and stole Susannah Swan away
To their lonely forest camp ground, and made her captive stay;
While hearts were sore and aching in Haverhill’s busy town.
As vainly her kinsfolk sought with runners up and down.

James Swan: The Swan That Slept

James Swan was a Revolutionary War soldier from Scotland; later a land speculator, founding Swan's Island in Maine, and became a very wealthy businessman.  He also spent the last twenty two years of his life in a French jail, falsely accused of a debt that he had the money to repay.  It is that enigmatic final period of his life that the Camden playwright Robert Manns explored in his play The Swan That Slept.

The play is set in Swan's jail cell in France where he lived from 1808 to 1830.  There are four characters: Swan himself, his jailer, his girlfriend Roseanne, and the Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette who was one of Swan's friends.

"I couldn't believe that a man would commit himself to prison for 22 years when he could pay the fine and tell the French where to go," said Manns.  "He stayed there on principle.  But he lost a beautiful wife, his children, a good dog, a shipping business, and homes in Boston and France.  It was a very expensive commitment for principle.  The question of the play is: what is the price for principle?"

Galen Turner who runs the Marine Musuem on Swan's Island has also pondered on this issue.  He believes that the biographical facts do not begin to tell Swan's story.  "What is known about him is only the tip of the iceberg.  It is obvious that he was a very complex man." 

Morven Park

Morven Park was home to two Governors - Thomas Swann, a 19th century Governor of Maryland, and Virginia's Westmoreland Davis, who served his gubernatorial term from 1918 to 1922. 

The mansion, the focal point of the estate, evolved from a fieldstone farmhouse built in 1781.  The first owner was Wilson Cary Selden.  Judge Thomas Swann acquired the property in 1808 and added the Doric portico and dependencies in the 1830s.  In 1858, Swann's son, Thomas Swann, Jr., later Governor of Maryland, engaged Baltimore architect Edmund G. Lind to remodel the house into a grand mansion. 

The plantation in the early months of the Civil War was home to Confederate troops of the 17th Mississippi Regiment.  The front lawn was used as drilling and review grounds by the Southern soldiers.  Known as "Swan's Castle" by the troops because of the Italianate style towers on the house in the 19th century, Morven Park provided living space for officers in the mansion, while more than fifty log huts housed soldiers in the woods behind the house.

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