"I have the most extensive and valuable collection of Indian curiosities that were ever collected on the Northwest coast." James Swan, 1875

The self-described Indianologist and Smithsonian collector James Gilchrist Swan (1818-1900) was the first dedicated Pacific Northwest buyer of Aboriginal artifacts for the U.S. National Museum. Although he lived mainly in Port Townsend and Neah Bay in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, Swan frequently visited Victoria and he fulfilled his long-held ambition to make a significant buying trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1883. He had read the observations of the Haida made by Cook, La Perouse, Portlock, Dixon and Marchand and he had concluded, "The Haida are one of the most interesting tribes I have met with on the northwest coast. Their insular position and the marked difference in their manners and customs from the Indians of the mainland give me reason to think that very interesting and valuable results in ethnology can be had by a thorough investigation among the villages of the islands." Accompanied by his translator and assistant Johnny Kit Elswa, a Haida from Tanu ("the most faithful intelligent and reliable Indian I have seen"), Swan sailed from Victoria on June 18 aboard the Hudson Bay Company's Otter, stopping to acquire artifacts from Reverend Thomas Crosby along the way. He reached Masset on June 25 and collected a substantial array of burial artifacts with the help of his assistant during their three-month tour.

Born in Massachusetts in 1818, Swan left his family and his business to explore Californa in 1950, worked briefly as an oysterman north of the Columbia River, at Shoalwater Bay, and published an account of his adventures with Harpers in 1857. After a brief return to his Boston roots, Swan was back in the Washington Territory in 1858, hoping to start a whaling operation at Port Townsend, a new town in lower Puget Sound which he promoted as a possible Pacific terminus for the Northern Pacific Railway Company. For four years he worked as a teacher at Neah Bay, during which period his wife died in 1864, but mostly Swan was a shiftless, hand-to-mouth journalist and scribe, frustrated by his dealings with the likes of Spencer F. Baird, a zoology professor, who was put in charge of collections and publications for the Smithsonian Institution. Founded by an act of Congress in 1846, the Smithsonian was designed to utilize the bequest of James Smitson to promote the increase and diffusion of knowledge. As a literate correspondent in the remote Washington Territory, Swan visited Baird in 1848 to volunteer his services in person, then returned to Port Townsend where he believed, "I can do this work as well, and probably better than anyone on the Pacific Coast."

But glory and fortune would be for others. A sensitive intellectual and a reliable observer, Swan was given to drink and self-pity, constantly frustrated by the failure of the Smithsonian to take advantage of him. His most noteworthy contribution near the outset of his career as a freelance ethnologist was the shipment of 500 objects to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. "Swan's 1875-76 work for the United States government," according to Douglas Cole in Captured Heritage, "was the first major commissioned collecting on the Northwest Coast. The shipment include a 60-foot canoe built at Nootka Sound for Maquinna (the hereditary name for a chief of the Mowachaht, not necessarily the same Maquinna who greeted Captain James Cook), who had sold it to the Nimkish chief Kla-ko-tlas. This chief, in turn, had reputedly used the canoe to pay off gambling debts. The Hudson's Bay Factor at Alert Bay, R.H. Hall, offered to have it delivered for Swan to Victoria in return for 100 blankets or $250. The other major items were three totem poles, one of which Swan commissioned to be carved by the Haida and shipped to Port Townsend by trader Charles Baronovich. Whereas a Tsimshian pole Swan also acquired at Port Simpson, with the help of Thomas Crosby, was cut in two pieces for shipment to Philadelphia, and a Kwakiutl pole from Alert Bay was cut into four pieces, Swan insisted his prized Haida pole must arrive at the Centennial Exhibition in one piece, despite enormous shipping costs.

Swan wrote some of the most readable pioneer prose about the Queen Charlotte Islands to describe his inaugural visits in 1873 and 1874, providing details of gambling practices and the cremation "or burning the bodies of any of their friends who may die while absent from their homes." Upon his enquiry, Swan was told "if they buried it in a strange land their enemies would dig it up and make charms with it to destroy the Haidah tribe." Although Swan was denigrated by the great historian Hubert Howe Bancroft in his autobiography ("Poor fellow! The demon Drink had long held him in its terrible toils."), James Swan deservedly earned praise from others for his rapport with Aboriginals, his respect for their culture, and his frequent integrity in his dealings. He provided some items for Franz Boas' display at the Chicago World's Fair in 1892-1893, but died in debt at age 82, lonely and unacclaimed. During his lifetime the Makah had named a sealing ship after him.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Almost Out of this World


Swan, James G. The Northwest Coast: Or, Three Years Residence in Washington Territory (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1957; Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1966; University of Washington Press, 1972).

Swan, James G. The Indians of Cape Flattery, at the Entrance to the Strait of Fuca, Washington Territory (Smithsonian Institution Contributions to Knowledge 16, Washington D.C.: 1869; Seattle: Shorey Publications, 1960)

Swan, James G. Almost Out of the World: Scenes from Washington Territory: The Strait of Juan de Fuca 1859-61 (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1971).


McDonald, Lucile. Swan Among the Indians: Life of James G. Swan, 1818-1900 (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1972).

[BCBW 2004] "First Nations" "QCI" "Early B.C."