Swan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Swan Meaning

The Swan surname has a number of possible origins.

The Viking explanation looks the most likely. The Swan name was to be found in areas where the Vikings, whether they be Norwegian or Danish, settled.

The root here is the Old Norse word svein, meaning – depending on context, friend, partner or servant. Sweyn known as Forkbeard was the king of Denmark and, briefly in 1013 after he had taken London, the king of England; while another Sweyn was a notorious Viking who preyed off the Scottish coastline for many years.

Swan and Swann have been the main spelling variations in England; Swan and, at a later date, the Gaelic McSwan in Scotland. The Irish Swan may have gotten mixed up with Swayne, Swain, or Sweeny from different origins. There have been also German Schwanns becoming Swanns in England and Swedish Svensons becoming Swans (as well as Swansons) in America.

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Swan Ancestry

England.  The 1327 subsidy rolls for Wigston Magma in Leicestershire showed a Swan family as prominent among a small class of relatively well-off peasants.

Swans in the Southeast.  The Swans of Hook Place near Gravesend in Kent were an early established family, calling themselves gentlemen by the late 1300’s.

There were also Swan references in Essex in Thaxted and Saffron Waldron. One family history traced Swans from the 1500’s as yeoman farmers near Saffron Waldron, first at Ashdon and then at Radminster. Another history started in the 1730’s with a William Swann of Burrough Green in Cambridgeshire.

Swans in the Northeast.  The Swan name was also prominent in Yorkshire and the North East.  John Swan was a merchant in Hull in the early 1500’s and this Swan family remained influential in the town for the next 250 years (although the last years turned out to be tragic). A Swan family from nearby Eastrington produced early emigrants to America.

Later, the Swans of Newburn in Northumberland contributed the Swans of what was to become the Swan Hunter shipyard on Tyneside. In the 1880’s, Joseph Swan made the first electric light bulbs at a plant in the Benwell suburb of Newcastle. His son CV Swan, but universally known as “Swannie,” was a stalwart of the scouting movement for fifty years from 1910.

Scotland and Ireland. There were early references to Swan in Perth (where the raider Sweyn was said to have settled down) and possible linkages to the Gunn clan in Caithness.

The Swan name may have been in Ireland by the 14th century. But it crops up mainly in the northern counties of Ireland (Antrim and Monaghan in particular) and is more likely to have been a later English implant. Edward Swan was the high sheriff of Dublin in 1679. Hugh Swan ran a linen bleaching operation in the Muckamore area of Antrim in the 1790’s. Swans from Antrim later emigrated to Australia.

America. Swans came to New England and Swans and Swanns to Virginia.

New England.  Swans in New England started with Richard and Anne Swan and their six children who came to Rowley, Massachusetts from Yorkshire in 1636.  John Swan, a servant boy from London, arrived in Watertown, Massachusetts around 1640.

Robert Swan from Eastrington in Yorkshire was there in the 1650’s and settled in Haverhill, Massachusetts. His son John was rather upstaged by his wife Susannah Swan, a true pioneer woman who was abducted not once but twice by Indians and yet lived to be a hundred years old.

James Swan from Scotland came later in the 1770’s, just in time for the Boston Tea Party. A land speculator, he left his name to Swan’s Island in Maine.

Virginia.  A well-to-do Swan family from Gravesend in Kent became a well-to-do Swann family in Virginia.  William Swann of Jamestown was the connecting point in the 1630’s. His family
were planters at Swann’s Point along the James river, one of a small group of wealthy families whose lives there were tied together by marriage and economic interest.

Morven Park near Leesburg in Virginia, acquired in 1808, was a later home of these Swanns. Governor Thomas Swann of Maryland lived and died there. The Swanns also owned cotton and rice plantations in North Carolina. Samuel Ashe Swann from this side of the family set off for Florida in 1855 and after the Civil War became involved in the early land development there.

One Swann line migrated from South Carolina to Tennessee in the late 1700’s. Edward Swann moved from South Carolina in the 1830’s by covered wagon to Georgia and thence to Blount county, Alabama as the land there began to be opened up for settlement. He and his sons Francis and William prospered as farmers. Later Swanns moved onto Texas.

Australia. Samuel Swan was transported to Australia in 1834. The reports he sent back to Kent must have been good because four of his brothers – Richard, George, Edward and Henry – joined him there in the 1850’s. Other Swans arrived from Antrim in Ireland and from the Scottish Highlands (originally McSween or McSwan) at that time.

 

Swan Miscellany

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:

1166 Robert Suein Yorkshire
1176 Hugo Suan Suffolk
1221 John Swann Shropshire
1260 Gilbert Swan Cumberland
1273 Alexander Swan London
1379 Magober Swan Yorkshire

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

1296 Stephen le Swan Sussex
1307 Simon le Swayne Stafford
1327 Thomas le Swan Suffolk

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

1344 Godfrey atte Swan London
1364 Thomas atte Swan London

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
Swan Swann Total Swann
%
Scotland  1,750     –  1,750     –
North East  1,000    100  1,100     9%
Yorks/Lancs     650  1,300  1,950    66%
Midlands     550  1,100  1,650    63%
East Anglia     700     500  1,200    40%
London/South East  1,500     500  2,000    25%
West     350      –    350     –
Total  6,500  3,500 10,000    35%

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.”

Reader Feedback – From the Mayflower to John Swan.  My Swan family started with a servant boy John Swan from London who in 1655 married Mary Pratt in Massachusetts.

She was the daughter of Phineas Pratt who connected to Mary, the daughter of Degory Priest of the Mayflower.  Then it goes – John Swan, John Swan, Amos Swan to Polly Swan who married Zephaniah Waterman.

Mary Jane Day (martiday@yahoo.com)

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 Museum 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.

 

Swan/Swann Names
  • Sweyn Forkbeard was the Danish king who briefly became king of England in 1013.
  • James Swan from Scotland was an American patriot during the Revolutionary War who ended up in a French debtor’s prison.
  • Thomas Swann was Governor of Maryland in the 1860’s.
  • Joseph Swan from Sunderland invented the electric light bulb in 1860.
  • Henry F. Swan designed the world’s first ocean-going oil tanker at the Low Walker yard on Tyneside.
  • Donald Swann was one of the Flanders and Swann duo of comic songwriters.
  • Robert Swan is a polar explorer, the first man to have walked both the North and South Poles.

Swan/Swann Numbers Today
  • 20,000 in the UK (most numerous in Edinburgh)
  • 11,000 in America (most numerous in Maryland).
  • 16,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

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