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George B. Swan - Adam Bolt's Research

301 Swan Street, Potsdam, NY

By: Adam Bollt

Distinction Despite Disadvantage: The Story of George B. Swan 


George Brown Swan was a prominent man in Potsdam in 1865. He was a charter member of the Potsdam Fire Department, a Village Trustee, and a respected entrepreneur, owning eight properties in Potsdam and employing dozens of workers in his businesses. However, for most of his life, he had a secret he kept from the public eye. Swan, this successful Potsdam businessman and influential community member, was of mixed race. Later, with changing attitudes following the Civil War, Swan felt comfortable enough to finally admit the truth of his heritage. Yet, as Potsdam proceeded on into the 1870s, Swan was more successful than ever. By observing Potsdam’s action of tolerance towards one of its residents, and peering through the eyes of that resident, an insight can be gained into the Potsdam in which he lived.

George B. Swan was born on November 5th, 1830 in Northfield, Massachusetts to Calvin T. Swan and Rhoda Swan, remarkable for being an esteemed and prosperous interracial couple in the early 19th century. George grew up on his father’s farm on Crag Mountain, near the Connecticut River. His father, though African American, was an established farmer and carpenter. Unfortunately, he made a large real estate investment in 1835, just before the Panic of 1837. Although, like everyone else, the Swans lost lots of money, Calvin Swan was hardy enough to survive the depression, still retaining most of the farm and the carpentry business. Faced with financial troubles (and personal tragedy, too), Calvin was still able to find the time to both help the local school and be the secretary for the local section of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Due to Calvin’s involvement, George and his siblings (of those who lived long enough) were allowed to attend school with all of the other local children.

As a child, George would have been tragically acquainted with death, as it took his brothers one by one. Calvin H. Swan died at six years old in 1832, probably before George’s memory. Then, Calvin T. Swan Jr. died at the age of one in 1836, and Frederic W. Swan, who lived long enough to become a jeweler, died at 21 on George’s 19th birthday. The death of each of his three brothers must have weighed heavily on George when he moved for unclear reasons from Massachusetts to Potsdam in 1852. Further bad news followed him. In 1853, George’s mother died at 58 years old, and, in 1854, his sister, Cornelia Swan, died at 28. Only his father (who soon remarried to another white woman, Sarah Knight), and his sister, H. Adeline Swan, who became an artist in Boston, survived from his original family.

When he arrived in Potsdam, George, passing as white, got a job as an ordinary laborer at Rich Elderkin and Ellis’s small sash, door, and blind factory. Within two years, he had bought one-eighth interest in the business. In only another two years, thus in 1856, George Swan acquired sole ownership.

He immediately began expanding his business ventures. By early 1861, his sash and door establishment was the most extensive in St. Lawrence County, employing 30 men and manufacturing, impressively, 20,000 doors, 6,000 blinds, and 12,000 windows of sash each year. Soon, George had broadened beyond the production of sash, doors, and blinds. A business empire developed rapidly under George’s leadership. In the early 1860s, he added a livery stable, lumber yard, and planing mill. His livery stable, in addition to providing riding horses and carriages for customers, furnished him with draft horses. He could haul lumber to his lumber yard and deliver finished products to his customers with his horses from his livery business. George’s planing mill could then take that lumber, and saw and plane it to need. The processed lumber could be sold separately, or could provide the finished wood required for the sash, door, and blind factory. Thus, George had created three mutually supporting businesses that could also operate individually. This ingenious system optimized his profits and consolidation of control over his companies, while diversifying his assets into three (if need be) independent enterprises. His business, apparently the largest of its kind in all of Northern New York even as early as 1862, was still expanding. Much of George’s success can be attributed to his reputation by customers and employees alike of professionalism and kindness.

He was, at this time, also involved in the community: in 1857, the Potsdam Fire Department was established, George being a charter member. Also, he became a Freemason and a Potsdam Village Trustee. When the Civil War began, with George’s business approaching the peak of its growth, despite his avowed patriotism, George did not join the military. However, using his business, he did construct the barracks at Camp Union, from which the 92nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the “Potsdam Regiment”, was organized and trained. Also, it is known George at least corresponded with some of the soldiers at the front, exemplified by a letter sent to him reflecting on the war from the trenches of Petersburg on July 9th, 1864.

Later that year, on October 18th, 1864, George married 26-year old Frances W. Newby, daughter of an English couple, and, by that time, distinguished local family, at the Newby home in Lisbon. On June 22nd, 1866, she gave birth to Jennie Ann Swan. In 1865, George had eight properties, whose land was valued at $8,730 in the Town Tax Rolls; it was far above the average. With the Civil War ended, George’s life was good, and it was still on the rise. Against all of the odds, he, a mixed race person who had come to Potsdam with nothing, achieved great success, and had started a family. Prospects for the future were tremendous.

Here, with all well in his life, in the 1870 Census, George stated Jennie was “mulatto”, the contemporary term for “mixed race”. Considering Jennie’s white mother, that could only mean he was admitting his own heritage as well (in the 1880 Census, George confirmed this assertion by marking himself as mulatto as well). In the 1800s, as is widely remembered, people of mixed race were given few opportunities and their triumphs were often taken from them almost everywhere. To announce the truth of his background when he did not have to do so, having successfully masqueraded as white since he arrived in Potsdam, George must have felt Potsdam had changed. George must have known the consequences if the community would suddenly no longer include him, so, by putting his and his family’s livelihoods on the line simply for the sake of truth, he must have been confident Potsdam had transformed into a tolerant place.

On July 4th, 1870, George’s second child was born. Sadly, though, George Brown Swan Jr. died very young, on February 26th, 1871. Then, on September 30th, 1872, Frederic Tyndall Swan was born. George named his second son after his dead brother, who, in turn, had been named after Calvin Swan’s half-brother.

At this time, George’s empire spread across 25 properties in Potsdam, the land of which was worth $14,580 total. Due to Reconstruction Era deflation, this was far more than what he had in 1865. In 1876, George’s now 23 properties were valued at $18,550. As such, it seems the Panic of 1873 did not affect him. When one compares the valuation of his properties to that of the totals of Potsdam, one sees that, though George experienced growth much larger than Potsdam as a whole did during this period, Potsdam also appears unaffected by the national depression: in 1865, Potsdam’s aggregate value was $1,804,185, while in both 1872 and 1876, it was about $1,600,000 (again, with nation-wide deflation, that was most likely actually growth). An article written soon after George’s death said that George had made a large investment before “the” depression, which nearly ruined him, but that he was eventually able to recover some of what he had lost. The details of when the aforementioned economic crisis might have been, and affecting what area, if not referring to the Panic of 1873, are still a mystery.

George involved himself in the 1876 presidential election on a local level. There is a speech made (presumably) by him which survives. This is of interest because it allows a glimpse at George’s politics, and therefore the way he saw the world. As he talks of past events and people, leading to the situation the country found itself in during 1876, George describes Democrat 15th President James Buchanan as an “imbecile”, first Republican presidential candidate John Fremont as “gallant”, notable Radical Republican Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner as a “column of honesty”, Liberal Republican (an anti-Grant coalition) presidential candidate Horace Greeley as “pure in his life as the falling snow”, Republican 18th President Ulysses Grant as “invincible”, and Abraham Lincoln as “immortal”. This shows that George was mostly Republican. As such, he argues that Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden would only further worsen the national economic crisis, as opposed to Republican candidate Rutherford Hayes, whom George believed could end the depression. It is notable here that George mentions in the speech the country’s financial woes, because, as established earlier, it appears the Panic of 1873 did not affect Potsdam; why, then, would he use as one of his main arguments an issue that did not directly concern his audience?

George’s opinion on the issues of the day go further in their extremity than probably most of his fellow citizens. For example, in that 1876 speech, he insists the Democratic Party was founded to represent the interests of the South, always has, and continued to do so in 1876. George said that Northerners should not support the Democratic Party because a vote for them was a vote for the South, contrasted to the Republican Party, which he believed had the interests of the entire nation in mind. He cites examples of voter suppression and hate crimes against the freedmen in the South by white Southern Democrats in regions in which Reconstruction had already been declared completed as proof that the Democratic Party was the same one that had seceded in 1860-1861. Effectively, George told his audience that the book was not closed on the Civil War; it still hung in the balance, the Democratic Party remaining the very Confederacy the turpitude of which people had lost so many loved ones fighting.

Also in 1876, George’s father died at age 77. Apparently, George was bequeathed a cow and one-third of Calvin’s library, though it is unknown what George did with these. Still, George seems to have reached his greatest wealth somewhere around this time. One of his newer businesses, it is known, was a general store, which he incorporated into his wider dominion. Over the years, he had come to command almost every step in the commerce surrounding various types of finished wood. At his zenith, George had between 75 and 100 employees. Yet, even in this period, which, with all of his businesses and two children to govern, must have been hectic, George found the time to try to help out a friend. In 1878, George sent a letter of recommendation on behalf of a Mr. Palmer to General Edwin Merritt, a longtime Potsdam resident, at the time port surveyor of New York City.

In 1884, George’s life came crashing down. By this time, George only had between 40 and 60 employees, so his wealth must have been reduced at some point. Then, on February 19th, his beloved daughter Jennie died at seventeen from, as so many in the Swan family had died, consumption of the bowels (usually associated with tuberculosis). He himself fell ill, and hardly moved outside his room subsequent to his daughter’s death. Finally, after a remarkable life, the sorrow from his many familial tragedies that had followed him ever since little Calvin H. Swan had died in 1832 bettered him. On April 14th, George Brown Swan died, 53 years old. He, too, died of consumption of the bowels.

For George’s funeral, nearly all the businesses in town closed. Tributes were published in all of the local newspapers. Firemen, freemasons, and former employees alike honored the great man. There could have been no better accolade for him than what occurred: the public celebration of the life of a person of mixed race in the 19th century simply for the man he was. Swan’s swan song was sung.

His surviving son, Frederic, went on to great success as well. He left Potsdam, acquired a PhD at Michigan University, then later returned. He, too, became an influential personage. He owned a local newspaper for half a century, was awarded the Potsdam High School Alumni Citation for outstanding contributions to education in the community, and even somehow convinced former president William Taft to visit Potsdam in 1915. Frederic died in 1957. George’s widow died in 1913.

Despite the great influence the Swans exerted for a century of Potsdam’s history, the only conspicuous trace of their presence is the apartment complex, Swan’s Landing, the former heartland of George B. Swan’s self-made Northern New York empire.

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Swan folder, Sumner-Tucker Box #38, Potsdam Public Museum, Potsdam, NY;
Potsdam Town Tax Rolls, Potsdam Public Museum, Potsdam, NY;;
Slavery/Antislavery in New England, The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings 2003;
US Federal Census Records,