John M. Swan: Olympia’s Eastside Pioneer

olympia wa history
View of Olympia and Mount Rainier, 1894. For years John M. Swan lived in Olympia, working at various times as a shipbuilder and horticulturist. Photo courtesy Washington State Archives, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990.


By Drew Crooks

lucky eagleMany interesting people have left a significant impact on Olympia since its founding in 1850. One such person was John M. Swan.  This individual was born on April 17, 1823 in Greenock, Scotland. When a child, John and his family moved to Skye, one of the Hebrides Islands. Later, in 1837, the Swan family relocated to the Scottish industrial city of Glasgow. In Glasgow John M. Swan started to learn the machinist and mechanical engineering trade, but did not like it.

olympia wa history
John M. Swan (1823-1904) lived a full life, and left a legacy in both Walla Walla and Olympia. Photo courtesy private collection.

Instead, he worked as an apprentice in shipbuilding and repairing for five years in Finniston, a suburb of Glasgow which bordered on the Clyde River. After completing his apprenticeship, Swan emigrated in 1843 on the ship Yorkshire across the Atlantic Ocean to Nova Scotia. He worked at his shipbuilding/repairing trade for a time on Prince Edward Island. In 1845 he moved first to Halifax, then to St. John’s, New Brunswick.

“Being animated with a desire for adventure and to visit distant lands,” as an 1893 biographical sketch put it, Swan joined the ship Athol as a carpenter for a three year whaling cruise. “In January, 1846,” the same account noted, “the ship rounded Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean, and after cruising for a few months in the South Pacific, the ship went into the port of San Carlos, in the island of Chiloe, adjoining the coast of Chili.” At this point Swan deserted the Athol.

After a short stay in San Carlos, Swan moved to Valparaiso, Chile. For a time he worked for the South Pacific Mail Steamship Company.  In early 1849 John M. Swan left South America for the gold fields of California, but he was not lucky in the gold rush. Discouraged by poor health and limited earnings, Swan sought a way out from California.

On November 2, 1849 he sailed as a passenger on the brig Orbit for the Pacific Northwest. Originally Swan wanted to settle on Vancouver Island, but upon arriving at the British colony he was disappointed by the local land law. Consequently, John M. Swan continued on the Orbit to its destination of South Puget Sound. Arriving at the spot that became Olympia, he was one of the site’s earliest Euro-American pioneers.

Swan officially declared his intention to become an American citizen on February 5, 1850.  Like other early inhabitants of Olympia, he received two town lots from community founder Edmund Sylvester. In 1851 John M. Swan took a donation land claim of 317.50 acres. This claim adjoined the town site of Olympia. In time it evolved into Eastside Olympia.

olympia wa history
View of Olympia and Mount Rainier, 1894. For years John M. Swan lived in Olympia, working at various times as a shipbuilder and horticulturist. Photo courtesy Washington State Archives, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990.

Indeed, Swan became a major real estate developer of the Olympia area. He cleared thirty acres of his donation land claim and platted them in early 1859 as “Swan’s Addition To The Town Of Olympia.” Swan went on to sell lots in his addition which extended from Cherry/Jefferson up the hill beyond Eastside Street, and from First Street south beyond Pacific Avenue. This area, which became known as Swantown, was separated from downtown Olympia by tidal mudflats until filling operations were completed in the early 20th century. The mudflats, called the Swantown Slough, extended at one time as far south as Union Avenue.

During much of the 1860s John M. Swan lived away from Olympia, staying in San Francisco, Vancouver (Washington), and Portland. For part of this time, in 1865 and 1866, he served as Assessor of Internal Revenue in the southern district of Washington Territory. In 1870 Swan returned to Olympia where he lived for the next twenty-seven years.

He worked in the city at various occupations, including shipbuilding and horticulture.  Swan never married, but he did not live a solitary life. Though not especially active in politics, he served as a Thurston County Commissioner from 1876 to 1882. Even greater was his involvement in the fraternal organization of the Odd Fellows. In time Swan served in that group as the first Grand Master of Washington Territory (1878-1880), Grand Secretary (1880-1882), and Grand Representative (1885-1887).

In the 1880s Swan began pushing the idea of an Odd Fellows-sponsored Home in Washington State “for the aged brothers and the orphans of deceased members.” After years of discussion, the Home concept was finally approved by the fraternal group. Though Swan hoped to have the Odd Fellows Home established in Olympia, the organization decided to place it in Walla Walla. Swan became the institution’s first superintendent in 1897.

olympia wa history
San Francisco served as the financial center of Gold Rush California where Swan found no riches. He left the area in 1849 for the Pacific Northwest. Photo courtesy private collection.

For a time Swan oversaw the Washington Odd Fellows Home. Then, because of declining heath, he became an honored guest of the institution for the remaining years of his life. On February 18, 1904, at the age of 81, John M. Swan died at the Odd Fellows Home. Three days later he was buried in the Odd Fellows section of the Mountain View Cemetery in Walla Walla.

Swan left a legacy in both Walla Walla and Olympia. The Washington Odd Fellows Home still provides a place of residence for seniors in Walla Walla. In Olympia “Swan’s Addition” plat led directly to the development of Swantown or Eastside Olympia, while his nursery business brought many plants to the area. The name of East Bay Marina was changed in 1997 by the Port of Olympia to Swantown Marina and Boatworks. This action has given new life to the historic place name which honors Swan, an early pioneer of Olympia.

Further Reading:

“History of the Odd Fellows Home,” in Washington Odd Fellows Home Centennial Celebration Program, June 22, 1997.

“John M. Swan,” in H.K. Hines, An Illustrated History Of The State Of Washington (Chicago, IL: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1893), pages 804-805.

“John M. Swan Passes Away,” Morning Olympian (Olympia, WA), February 20, 1904.


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