James Swan, a Scots-born American officer in the Revolutionary War and a participant in the Boston Tea Party, later became one of the largest landowners in present West Virginia.
High-ranking officers and politicians had received vast grants of western land for Revolutionary service, many exceeding 50,000 acres. Officers of lower rank got smaller grants, while enlisted men got 400 acres each. Swan bought such land grants, of all sizes and in all areas of Western Virginia. His largest acquisition was a 500,000-acre tract in present Logan, McDowell, Mingo, and Wyoming counties, which had been acquired by the Philadelphia banker Robert Morris, a member of the continental congress and financier of the Revolution. Swan also acquired many tracts of 20,000 to 50,000 acres. It is estimated that he eventually owned six million acres. His dealings left him deep in debt by 1787, when he moved to France. While initially successful there, in 1808 he was imprisoned for debt in France and remained in prison until his death in 1830.
At this time the Swan lands were subdivided and assigned to various persons to sell. One of these administrators was John Peter Dumas of Paris. He employed agents such as Joseph H. Diss Debar to entice immigrants to buy and settle on Swan lands. The most successful and best-known of these ventures was in Doddridge County, now encompassing the St. Clara community and surrounding areas. Here many Germans established thriving farms.
Litigation over taxes, boundaries, ownership, and sale of the Swan lands kept courts busy for more than a century. The most important of these cases was the so-called King Case, fought to the U.S. Supreme Court between 1893 and 1910. Plaintiff Henry C. King of New York claimed title to 500,000 acres in southern West Virginia arising from the Morris-Swan claims. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled against King in 1910, saying that the land had been forfeited to the state because taxes had not been paid between 1883 and 1897. Other cases involving the Swan holdings clogged West Virginia courts as recently as 1934.
This Article was written by Kenneth L. Carvell
Last Revised on November 05, 2010
Stutler, Boyd B. Joseph H. Diss Debar - Prophet, Colonizer. West Virginia Review, (Dec. 1931).
Carvell, Kenneth L. The German Settlement at St. Clara. Wonderful West Virginia, (Apr. 2000).
Summers, George W. "Owned a Sixth of W. Va., Died in Prison for Debt," in "Pages from the Past." Comstock, Jim, ed. West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia vol. 21, 1974. .
Cite This Article
Carvell, Kenneth L. "Swan Lands." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 05 November 2010. Web. 23 February 2017.