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Images of Exploration, Discovery, and Early Settlement in the Pacific Northwest: James Gilchrist Swan

James Gilchrist Swan

Pioneer in Washington Territory (1852 to 1900)

"Swan displayed a remarkable skill with a sketchbook, and in The Northwest Coast as in several of his monographs for the Smithsonian there are numerous examples of his work. Here and there in his newspaper writings he mentions a drawing he has made, but coast newspapers were yet to reach the technological point where such works could be reproduced." [46]

Introduction and Biography

For the young James G. Swan (1818-1900), the Pacific Northwest was a mythical land promising adventure. Enraptured by the stories from his sea-faring uncle, but tied to Massachusetts by family and work; he used the California gold rush as a pretext for escape. After working there two years and publishing two articles in the California Courier, Swan finally made it north to the Washington Territory in 1852.

Personable and welcoming, Swan established a rapport with his Native American neighbors, learning the language, recording the jargon and learning about the culture. A skilled observer with a keen interest in ethnography, Swan published The Northwest Coast; or, Three years' Residence in Washington Territory in 1857. His knowledge of the local population eventually led to his hiring as a personal secretary to Isaac I. Stevens in Washington D.C., supporting Stevens's work in crafting Indian treaties.

Returning to Washington Territory in 1859, he followed Stevens's suggestion to relocate to the thriving commercial center Port Townsend. Working with Indian agent Henry A. Webster amidst the Makah tribe in Neah Bay, Swan bolstered his knowledge of tribal legends, continued his writing, and worked as a schoolteacher on the reservation. Always gifted artistically, the Makah tribal members gave him the nickname of Cha-tic, meaning the painter.

The diversity of Swan's capabilities resulted in a multifaceted career: writer, artist, collector of Native American artifacts, and political advisor in several roles. Swan lived to the age of 82, dying in 1900 at Port Townsend.


A) Personal papers

University of Washington Libraries Special Collections is the primary repository for Swan's voluminous journals, covering a span of 41 years beginning in 1859. Found in the James Gilchrist Swan papers, 1833-1909; the online finding aid provides detailed notes about holdings at the University of Washington, as well as where to find other Swan materials.

B) Original artwork

Sketch by Swan of C.J.W. Russell's House and Indian Lodge, dated December 1852. A reproduction of this sketch appears in The Northwest Coast, as figure number 4.

A Swan drawing of coastal rocks can be found in the Willoughby archive. (Accession #4972-001, box 2)

In Swan's notebook (Accession 1703-001, box 11, folder 1) are three renderings of Native American motifs by Swan's assistant Johnny Kit Elswa. Elswa taught Swan some of his native Haida legends like Crow in the Whale's Belly. Elswa drew the legend in ink, below which Swan noted the story: "Crow dives down in ocean and enters the whale's mouth and lodges in its belly where it eats the vitals and whale swims ashore and is killed by the Indians, who in cutting it up release the crow which becomes a great Tomanawos or medicine man." Attribution to Johnny Kit Elswa is given on the back of the drawing with Swan's note that it was "drawn in my office Port Townsend, Dec. 14th 1882."

C) Publications

Special Collections holds several books by, and about, Swan.

In the holdings are original 1857 Harper & Brothers publications of The northwest coast; or, Three years' residence in Washington territory. The 1972 University of Washington Press reprint is also available. The work in its entirety can be viewed online, through the Washington Secretary of State website.

Other works by James Swan are also held, including the Smithsonian publications: The Indians of Cape Flattery, at the entrance to the Strait of Fuca, Washington Territory from 1870, which includes 44 figures of objects (tools, masks, canoes, dress, etc), and; The Haidah Indians of the Queen Charlottes Islands, British Columbia. With a brief description of their carvings, tattoo designs, etc. from 1874.

Books in Special Collections about James Swan's art include: James Swan, cha-tic of the Northwest Coast : drawings and watercolors from the Franz & Kathryn Stenzel collection of western American art ; and Early days in the Northwest. Prints, paintings; drawings by James G. Swan, which accompanied an exhibition of the Stenzels collection at the Portland Art Museum in 1959.

Special Collections also holds Swan's copy of Voyages made in the years 1788 and 1789, from China to the north west coast of America by John Meares (originally published in London, 1790). His annotations on passages relating to the Pacific Northwest coast, confirm stories Meares recorded (Swan consulted with descendants of tribal chiefs for attestation of the accuracy), correct or note the origin of jargon, and make other comments. One of Swan's annotations was on the decline of the sea otter populations, whose pelts were the purpose of Meares's journey. He wrote, "The sea otters which were so plenty in the times of Meares and other navigators have become very scarce."[47] In The Northwest Coast, Swan addressed Mearer's allegation of cannibalism by the Nootka Indians, by countering that, "those early records of voyages do not always convey the whole truth; and while we are led to believe [Native Americans] were at all times of a hostile disposition, we are carefully kept in the dark as to whether impudence or ignorance on the part of the whites did not occasion all the ill feeling." [48]

[46] James Gilchrist Swan, Almost out of the World; Scenes from Washington Territory: The Strait of Juan De Fuca, 1859-61. Edited and with Notes and an Introd. By William A. Katz (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1971), xii. In Introduction by William A. Katz.
[47] John Meares, Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789, from China to the North West Coast of America : To Which Are Prefixed, an Introductory Narrative of a Voyage Performed in 1786, from Bengal, in the Ship Nootka; Observations on the Probable Existence of a North West Passage; and Some Account of the Trade between the North West Coast of America and China; and the Latter Country and Great Britain / by John Meares, Esp, (London : Printed at the Logographic Press, 1790). Swan’s annotation on page 172.
[48] James Gilchrist Swan, The Northwest Coast; or, Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857), 214. See passage pages 213-215.