OPINION

As it Were: Despite being related and taking similar paths, Swans were quite different

Ed Lentz
Guest Columnist
Ed Lentz

Because they shared the same last name, practiced in the same profession and spent most of their adult lives in Columbus, Gustavus Swan and Joseph Swan often were mistaken by people unacquainted with them. 

Columbus in the 1800s was a relatively small town, and most people living in it knew each other reasonably well. And to residents, it was clear that the Swans were two very different men. 

Gustavus was the older, the more gregarious and certainly the more colorful of the two.  

Born in Sharon, New Hampshire, in 1787, he attended local public and private schools, trading bookkeeping services in return for room and board. He found a job working at a local bank and studied law at night.  

Gustavus Swan

In 1810, like so many young men of his generation just after the American Revolution, Gustavus Swan went west to seek his fortune. He ended up in Marietta where he worked in a law office until he was admitted to the bar in 1811. Learning that the Ohio General Assembly had been seeking a new home in central Ohio, he moved to the village of Franklinton in the hopes it would become the new capital city.  

It was a rather grimly rough sort of place as he later remembered.  

“When I opened my office in Franklinton in 1811, there was neither church, nor schoolhouse, not pleasure carriage in the county, nor was there a bridge over any stream within the compass of 100 miles. The roads at all seasons were nearly impassable. Goods were imported, principally from Philadelphia, in wagons, and our exports, consisting horses, cattle and hogs carried themselves to market. The mails were brought to us once a week on horseback, if not prevented by high water.” 

After brief service in a militia regiment in the War of 1812, Gustavus Swan returned to central Ohio and promptly moved to the new capital city of Columbus, population 700, just across the Scioto River from Franklinton.  

Over the next several years, he established himself as an attorney who could handle the conflicting claims over land grants in central Ohio. He served one-year terms in the Ohio House from 1812 to 1817. He was prosecuting attorney for Franklin County from 1821 to 1823.  

In 1823, he was appointed by Gov. Jeremiah Morrow to be president judge of the Sixth Circuit Court of Common Pleas and served in that role until 1829, when he served for several months as an interim replacement justice on the Ohio Supreme Court. Leaving the court in 1830, he returned to the private practice until he retired in 1844.  

Leaving law behind, he became a banker, first at the Franklin Bank in Columbus and then as the first president of the State Bank of Ohio until 1854.  

Gustavus Swan married Amelia Aldritch of Hillsboro, New Hampshire, in 1819, and they raised a family with four children. 

He also had welcomed his nephew – Joseph Swan – to the practice of law in Columbus. 

Joseph Rockwell Swan was born in Oneida County, New York, in 1802. He studied at an academy in Aurora, New York, where he began the study of law. In 1824, he arrived in Columbus and completed his study in the office of his uncle and soon was admitted to the bar.  

Joseph Swan

In 1830, Joseph Swan became prosecuting attorney for Franklin County. In 1834, he became a circuit judge of common pleas with a circuit that took him to Franklin, Madison, Clark, Champaign, Logan, Union and Delaware counties.  

He worked on this grueling circuit until 1845, when he resigned and formed a partnership with John Andrews to practice law in central Ohio. In 1854, he won a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court. He served on the court until 1859, when his decision in a controversial case cost his reelection. He never sought public office or practiced law again. Instead, he became a railroad executive.  

Joseph Swan became president of the Columbus and Xenia Railroad, the first railroad in Columbus. In 1869, he was appointed to be the general solicitor of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis Railroad and served in that role until 1879. 

In 1833, Joseph Swan married Hannah Andrews, and they had three sons and two daughters.  

Joseph Swan still found time to research and write. And it is for these writings that he came to be best known. “A Treatise on the Law Relating to the Powers and Duties of Justices of the Peace” in 1836 went through 12 editions. It later was called “the most useful book ever published in Ohio.” 

Gustavus Swan died in 1860, and Joseph Swan died in 1884. Both men are buried in Green Lawn Cemetery. 

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.