COLUMNS

As It Were: Noah Swayne had memorable life, home in Columbus

Ed Lentz
Guest columnist

Columbus in the late 1840s was a place different from the city we know today.  

Created on a ridge with a nearby 40-foot Native American mound in 1812, the new state capital was little more than a small village literally carved by crude axes out of a frontier forest.

Ed Lentz

It was a formidable and challenging place to be. Yet because it was the state capital, a lot of people came to live in Columbus.  

Over the years, the forest was cut down, streets were laid out and several buildings were erected on Statehouse Square – a 2-story brick statehouse, a 2-story state office building and a supreme-court building. The rest of the square had been cleared of forest trees by Jarvis Pike, the first mayor of the borough of Columbus, and allotted to him on loan to do with as he had wished. He planted corn and later fenced the square to keep out wandering cows, pigs and occasional wolves. 

Noah Swayne

Pike lived to see the National Road and the Ohio and Erie Canal arrive in Columbus in the early 1830s. In short order, a town of 2,000 people expanded to 5,000. 

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By 1831, Columbus was a busy town with muddy streets and several stores and houses within a couple blocks of the Statehouse. Columbus was a place where politics and land speculation were the orders of business and has been the home of several memorable people.

Noah Swayne was one of them. 

Swayne was born in the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in 1804. His father died when he was 5, but the family was well-established and able to send him to public schools and the Mendenhall School in Waterford, Virginia. The school was operated by the Society of Friends, sometimes called Quakers. Swayne’s family was Quaker and so was he. He remains the only Quaker to ascend to the highest places in America’s judiciary. 

As a young man, Swayne studied medicine for about a year until the doctor teaching him died. He then started studying law. In those days, one “read law” while working as the indentured servant of a lawyer or two. Swayne accomplished this and was admitted to the bar. 

As a devout Quaker, Swayne was disgusted by the practice of slavery. He left Virginia in 1824 and returned only when he had to do so. Like many young men of his generation, Swayne looked to a future in Ohio. He arrived in Coshocton County and began a law practice. In 1825, he was elected county prosecutor. In 1829, he was elected to the state legislature. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson appointed him U.S. attorney for Ohio.  

With that appointment, Swayne came to Columbus. He also married Sarah Ann Wager with whom he would have eight children. The Wager family owned a lot of property in western Virginia, and the oldest standing house today in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, was theirs.  

Swayne moved on to a successful career in politics and law. He was elected to Columbus City Council in 1834 and to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1836. 

The Swaynes lived in a number of places in the 1830s. But with a growing family, the Swaynes decided that the time had come to find a permanent place to live. The place they chose was interesting. State Street – after one left Statehouse Square – was little more than a dirt path to the east. At what is now Grant Avenue, it abruptly ended because the land was swampy and a small pond stood where Grant Avenue meets Town Street today.  

But Swayne had learned an important lesson from the legendary Alfred Kelley – buy wet land cheap, drain it and it will be worth a lot. Swayne did just that and bought the high ground where State Street ended. On that lot in 1848, he built a Gothic Revival House that would be the family home until 1862, when Abraham Lincoln nominated Swayne to the Supreme Court of the United States. 

In the years that followed, Swayne's house served several times as a governor’s mansion. The house was sold in 1902 and torn down in 1903 to make way for the Columbus Public Library in 1906. With a few additions, that building still is there. 

Swayne served on the high court until 1881, the year of the death of his wife. With health problems of his own, he retired until his death in 1884 at age 79. Like several other justices of the Supreme Court, he is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery near Georgetown and Washington, D.C. 

Had that wonderful house with a few others nearby survived, they would be historic landmarks. Such is the nature of what we have lost. 

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