GaspeeVirtual Archives
Captain Thomas Swan (1749-1805)

The Gaspee Days Committee at www.gaspee.COM is a civic-minded nonprofit organization that operates many community events in and around Pawtuxet Village, including the famous Gaspee Days Parade each June. These events are all designed to commemorate the 1772 burning of the hated British revenue schooner, HMS Gaspee, by Rhode Island patriots as America's 'First Blow for Freedom' TM.  Our historical research center, the Gaspee Virtual Archives at www.gaspee.ORG , has presented these research notes as an attempt to gather further information on one who has been suspected of being associated with the the burning of the Gaspee. Please e-mail your comments or further questions to
Evidence Implicating Thomas Swan:

Professor Wilfred H. Munro writing in Manual of the Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, 1893-1899, p226

The waves that closed over the charred timbers of the Gaspee swept onward gathering might across the ocean until they broke with irresistible fury against the cliffs of Great Britain  On that day when the eight long boats that had rowed down from Providence approached the doomed vessel they were joined by another boat from Bristol under command of Simeon Potter   The name of the Potter was quite as prominent as any mentioned in the official investigation of that affair   Captain Thomas Swan of the Bristol party was the author of the unique lyric which commemorated the exploit

No other person who took part in the burning of the Gaspee actually mentions Thomas Swan as having been a participant, but family traditions allude to the fact that he claimed to have been there for the action. The discussion below has been excerpted from: Tales of an Old Sea Port by Wilfred Harold Munro. Princeton University Press:  1917

The burning of the Gaspee took place on June 20, 1772.  The only "lyric" to commemorate the affair came from the pen of Captain Thomas Swan of Bristol, one of those who took part in it.  His effusion has never appeared in any history of American literature, for good and sufficient reasons, but it is printed in full in Munro's History of Bristol.

In January 1881, Bishop Smith of Kentucky, born in Bristol in 1794 and a graduate of Brown in 1816, wrote to me calling my attention to a slight difference between the "Swan Song", as I had given it in my History of Bristol, and a version pasted upon the back of a portrait of Thomas Swan's father by Thomas Swan himself.  Captain Swan was Bishop Smith's uncle.  The Bishop wrote, "I should not have troubled you on so inconsiderable point had not the tradition in our family been that the Bristol boat was manned by men in the disguise of Narragansett Indians."

When Bishop Smith penned these lines several men were living in Bristol who had heard the story from Captain Swan's own lips.  He delighted in telling it and was accustomed to give the names of Bristol participants.  Those names have unhappily escaped the memory of his auditors.

It is quite possible that Swan handwrote his copy of the poem because no printed copies were available. It could just as easily be surmised that Swan read or heard the poem, wrote it down in his own handwriting, and enjoyed reciting it at family gatherings.  Over the generations, the Swan family from Bristol undoubtedly came to believe that Captain Thomas Swan wrote the poem himself. This claim was probably passed onto Munro when he did his historical research some 88 years after the burning of the Gaspee. And note that Munro, writing in his 1860 The History of Bristol, R.I.- The Story of Mount Hope Lands, attributes Swan as the author; this is not quite as strong a connotation as saying Swan was the author. This discussion is not meant to to imply in any way that Captain Swan did not participate in the attack on the Gaspee, but only to raise the question of whether he was the actual author of the Gaspee "Song".  See more discussion on these points at: WhoWroteTheGaspeeSong.htm and Song.html. Assuming that Thomas Swan was in Bristol on the day prior to the attack on the Gaspee, he was probably in the boat from Bristol that also carried known Gaspee raiders Simeon Potter and Aaron Briggs.
Biographical information:

From the Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Database there is only one possibility:

SWAN, THOMAS  1749c - 30 JUL 1805  BR004 in Bristol, RI
Interestingly, there is also a Captain Thomas Swan listed with dates of 1782c - 15 FEB 1855, also buried in Bristol, probably his son.

No records for pension application based on RevWar service are found in HeritageQuest by that name.

Genealogical Information:

In pinging GENDEX, we come up totally blank  According to searches, the World Family Tree is negative for any Thomas Swan of the right period from either Rhode Island or Massachusetts.  We do get stuff from the Family Records section:

Thomas Swan
  Birth:     1749 in  Bristol, RI
  Death:   30 July 1805
Parents: Ebeneser Swan (1706c - 1750) & Margaret WOODBURY (prob 1725c -1793)
Spouse:  Elizabeth BOSWORTH b 25 May 1753
  Marriage Date: 17 April 1774
To avoid confusion, there was another Thomas Swan at the time in Stonington, CT, just over the border from Westerly, RI. We do find our Thomas Swan listed from Bristol County, RI in the 1777 military census, in the 1782 Rhode Island census (2-1-1-1-5), and in the 1800 census. We also find him listed in RI death records as a Thomas Swan, Esq. with next of kin listed as William H. Sumner and Grace Starlin. These two persons were also listed as the kin of a Thomas Swan who died in 1775 at the age of 13 months and who is buried in the same cemetery as our Thomas Swan. This may have been the son of our Thomas Swan who died while his father was out to sea or serving in the war. Curiously, there's no Elizabeth Swan buried in Bristol with Thomas Swan.  Of note, our Thomas Swan's father died the year after Thomas was born.

Per the RI Historical Cemeteries Database, we can identify the following additional members of the Swan family also buried in BR004, and are probably closely related to Thomas Swan of 1749:

SWAN           ELIZABETH                     1806c -  8 AUG 1811   born after Thomas' death. Died age 5
SWAN           JEREMIAH                       1793c -  OCT 1794 died age 1
SWAN           JEREMIAH O                   1786c -  1802 died age 16
SWAN           JONATHAN B                 1784c - 13 JUN 1802  died age 18
SWAN           SAMUEL, CAPT              1779c - 18 AUG 1804  died age 25
SWAN           SARAH                             1747c - 17 APR 1767  Died age 20  Prob. his sister
Since there are no other Swans present at the time of reproducing age, the first five are probably all his children, and is it likely that none of these had children of their own. This explains why the family bible may have ended up in his nephew's hands rather than in the possession of his direct offspring. We have not been able to establish the connection between Bishop Smith, who wrote the letter to Munro, and Thomas Swan.  Perhaps Bishop was his title rather than his first name.
The Gaspee Days recognizes Thomas Swan as a brave American patriot who helped burn the HMS Gaspee in 1772.
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Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 4/2003    Last Revised 4/2009    ThomasSwan.htm