The Swain Migration Chronology, Part I: Origins

In the next few posts, I’m going to present what I know, or really, what I think I know, about our branch of the Swain family in America.

There are people out there, today, who have done really good research on this family, and they know a lot more than I’ll be able to present here.

Perhaps at the end of this series, I’ll put up links to some of their work which I have yet to sift through: titles of books I’d like to read, web pages I’d like to spend some time with; if only to point you in the right direction.

I should also add, along similar lines, that what is here is not iron clad. It’s decent research that occasionally involves some conjecture, best guesses, educated hunches, and the like. Please take it all with a pinch of salt.

But…to use an old phrase that the original Nantucket Swains might have recognized, “It’s true in the main.”


Part I: Origins

The following is excerpted from The Swains of Nantucket: Tales and Trails, by Robert H. Swain, 1990, 1994; pp.1-13.  As near as I can tell the book is now out of print, but a digital copy is available for reading, here. There is also a page for it on Amazon, here, but that says the book is unavailable.

The author begins by examining what is known about the founder of our line of Swains in America, one Richard Swayn….


Christened as Richard Swayn on 21 September 1595, Berkshire, England, [he used] the name Richard Swayne…until he moved to Nantucket from the mainland. Other spellings of the name in England during the period 1500-1600’s show Swaine, Swayn, Swain, in addition to Swayne. His children, Francis, Nicholas, Grace, Richard and John, are listed in christening records as either Swaine or Swayne. One son, the first, Richard, Jr., died as an infant in England.

In most instances the name Swayne or Swain(e) is derived from the Old Norse word sveinn which meant “boy, servant, [or] peasant” depending on its use in the sentence. It came to England with Danes and Norwegians and was altered there to suein, suen, swan, etc. Sveinn was first used as a descriptive term before becoming a surname. Burke’s Armory describes the Coat-Of-Arms for one Swain, one Swain or Swaine, one Swaine and four Swaynes… each of them different. According to some authorities Richard Swayne of St. Albans, England who came to America in 1635, living first at Rowley, Massachusetts Bay in 1635, and, then at Hampton in New Hampshire, was in line with William Swayne of Salisbury, England, granted the Coat-Of-Arms, 20 June 1444, later confirmed by a descendant of the same name, of London, in 1612. This is the same Coat-Of-Arms found in Scotland in 1100, but without the Motto.

A record of the births of four of the children of Richard Swayne are found in Easthampstead County, England: Nicholas, Grace, Richard, and John Swayne. After Richard Swayne took his family to America in 1635, there seems to be no other family of that name living in Easthampstead for nearly 60 years. St. Albans, England is northeast of London.

Of those using the name Swayne, Swain or Swaine, who came to New England early were: William, mentioned by Savage as “William Swain, Gentleman”, born 1585, came to Watertown, Massachusetts in 1635: was afterward one of a commission sent to govern the colony of Connecticut. A William Swain was in Branford after 1636. Jeremiah Swain was at Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1638 and one of the first settlers of Reading, Massachusetts. The third was Richard Swayne who came to Rowley, Massachusetts in 1635. It is not known if there was any relationship between these three early settlers of New England.

In Virginia, the following headrights in county land grants were made to Stephen Swaine in Surry County in 1635. Some genealogical research­ers have confused him with Stephen Swain of Nantucket who went to Chowan County, North Carolina about 1690. A Thomas Swain(e) and his wife were in James City in 1638 and another Thomas Swain was in New Kent in 1682.

In North Carolina, 32 families of Swains were property taxpayers in the period 1717—1779. The 1790 United States Census lists one or more of the spellings, Swain, Swaine, and Swains in Connecticut, Georgia (Re-constructed), Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North and South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia. The 1790 Census lists Swaims and Swains in the same counties so it would appear that Swaims were once Swains. The fact that the name Sveyn appears in England in 1045 and in Scotland in 1250 would reinforce the priority of Swain.

Richard Swayne/ Swain sent his wife Elizabeth and the children to New England in April 1635 and he followed in September of that same year. It is known that Elizabeth and the children did not arrive on the same ship, the older children on one vessel and the mother and younger children on another. An early historian states that the children who sailed separately from their mother were with friends on the ship Rebecca. These were sons, William and Francis; and Nicholas, Grace and John came with their mother on the ship Planter. Some records state a daughter named Elizabeth was a passenger on the ship Susan and Ellen. This was not the daughter of Richard Swain since his daughter was not born until he settled at Hampton, New Hampshire.

Richard Swain arrived in America in 1635 as stated above, and he and the family first lived in the small town of Rowley, Massachusetts, then known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Later he moved to Hampton [NH] where be is listed among the first settlers. That was in the autumn of 1638 and the settlement was called Winnacunnett according to the History of Hampton. Later the Reverend Steven Bachelor (Bachiler), one of the early petitioners, requested the name be changed to Hampton.

Included in the History of Hampton are many references to Richard Swain and his role as a leading citizen of the town. His wife was referred to as “Basselle” but this name is not found in any of the records from England. On a following page is an early map of the town of Hampton, New Hampshire, and you will note the names of some of the children of Richard-Swain. Also shown are names of many of the early settlers, some remaining in Hampton and others migrating to Nantucket after its purchase from Thomas Mayhew.

It was at Hampton that the last child of Richard and Elizabeth Swain was born in 1636, Elizabeth Swain. It was here also where his wife, Elizabeth died in 1657. In 1658 he married a widow, Jane Godfrey Bunker, whose husband, George Bunker, had died at sea leaving her with five small children. The oldest son of Richard Swain, William, also died in 1657, having lost his life at sea on a voyage from Hampton to Boston. In 1659 the problems for Quakers increased and many of the in­habitants began to search for a haven of safety where they could live and worship in peace. By 1660 Richard Swain had turned his property over to his daughters and moved with sons John and Richard, Jr., his new wife and step-children, to the Island of Nantucket. In 1659 he and his son, John Swain, were two of the ten original purchasers of Nantucket island from Thomas Mayhew for thirty pounds silver and two “Beaver Hatts.”…


William Swain, b. 1618, England, was the oldest son of Richard and Elizabeth Swain (Swayne). He did not go to Nantucket with his father but remained in Hampton, N.H. where the family had settled. Many of his descendants were sailors, either as sea captains or owners of vessels that were registered in the records of Newburyport, Mass. William Swain is shown as an oar maker. He lost his life when the ship he was on went down off the coast of Hampton on 20 October 1657. The event is described in the History of Hampton by Dow in the following manner:

“In the autumn of 1657 an event occurred, which brought mourning and sorrow into several families in the town and cast a gloom over the whole community. A vessel sailed from our river, Oct. 20, .bound to Boston, having on board four men, two women and. two children..—eight persons in all belonging to Hampton. From some cause not now known, the vessel, soon after leaving the harbor, either. foundered, or was capsized and all on board perished. The persons lost were these: Robert Reed, Serg. William Swaine, Emanuel Hilliard, John Phillbrick and his wife Ann, and their daughter Sarah; Alice the wife of Moses Cox and John Cox their son and as is supposed their only child.”

This entry is thus quaintly made on the town records:

“The sad hand of God upon eight psons goeing in a vessell by sea from Hampton to Boston, who were all swallowed up in the ocean soon after they were out of the Harbour.”

In 1864, John Greenleaf Whittier penned a poem entitled “The Wreck of Rivermouth”, in which he described the river as it entered the sea and the wreck of the vessel which carried William Swain and the other passengers to a watery grave. The following verse is quoted from that poem:

“Solemn it was that old day

In Hampton town and its log-built church,

Where side by side the coffins lay

And the mourners stood in aisle and porch.

In the singing-seats young eyes were dim,

The voices faltered that raised the hymn,

And Father Dalton, grave and stern,

Sobbed through his prayer and wept in turn.”

William Swain left a widow, Prudence (Marston) Swain and eight (8) children. Prudence was the daughter of Captain William Marston, b. 1592, Parish Great Ormsby-Norfolk, England. He was granted land in New England when he brought his family to the Salem, Newbury- Hampton area. According to the History of New Hampshire, Prudence was the 4th born child of William Marston and his second wife, Sabina Page. Capt. Marston came to Hampton about 1640. After the death of William Swain, Prudence married Moses Cox(e), whose wife and son were on the vessel with William Swain. These families were neighbors therefore knew each other well before the tragedy. Moses Coxe and Prudence Swain were married on 16 June 1658 and it is said they had only one daughter, Leah. Moses Coxe lived to the ripe old age of  93, he died 28 May 1687.

William Swain served on the jury in 1650 and 1653, was a Selectman in. 1651 and 1654. He was a Sergeant in the Militia. His estate was appraised on 10 Nov. 1657 and attested by his widow on 12 April 1658. William Swain, b. 1618, England, d. 20 Oct. 1657. Mar. Prudence Marston, dau. of Capt. William Marston, Hampton, N.H.

9 thoughts on “The Swain Migration Chronology, Part I: Origins

  1. Tina Moje August 17, 2019 / 4:35 pm

    Where did the Swain family of Chowan North Carolina originate?

    • LSL August 17, 2019 / 6:08 pm

      Sorry, I don’t know anything about them. Good luck in your research, though.

    • Patti McLendon September 13, 2020 / 12:07 am

      The “Swains of Nantucket” document notes that Stephen Swain (son of John Swain & grandson of Richard Swain — original purchasers of Nantucket) died in Chowan County, NC in 1712. I followed my line of the family which moved on down to Georgia & Florida, but I believe the document would note the other children of Stephen Swain and where they may have migrated or if they stayed in North Carolina.

    • T. Zwinak April 19, 2021 / 12:19 pm

      Stephen Swaine, the grandson of Richard Swayne, spoken of in the blog, arrived in the Albemarle region in 1712. He and his father migrated south from Nantucket. Go to Familysearch ID # MMWT-9Q2 to find out more about the Swayen journey from England to the New England Confederacy and then down to North Carolina.

  2. Roberto D Perez-Swain March 5, 2021 / 10:35 pm

    Hello my name is roberto D Perez-Swain/Robert Swain II and firstly I’d like to thank you for some insight on how there came to be swains in America and the level of detail you have given.
    my grandfather is Kenneth C Swain we live in Wales in the UK, my grandfathers family once lived in Norfolk but due to his farther passing while he was young he and his siblings haven’t ever had chance to learn about our ancestors and living relatives. Once the world is back to normal me and my sister are meant to travel to America, hopefully one day I wiil meet some of the many swains living in america. I hope that you are doing well and again thank you for the great research you are a true journalist.

    • LSL April 1, 2021 / 9:06 am

      Great. Thank you!

  3. Ken Green April 1, 2021 / 1:14 am

    Stephen Swain, son of John Swain [of Nantucket] and Mary Wyer [John of course being the son of Richard Swayne and Basille Sauners] emigrated to North Carolina between 1680 – 1690. Stephen married Patience Parris in North Carolina, and had several children. Stephen’s brother John stayed in Nantucket, and in 1730 John’s son William sent Stephen’s son John a Bible, inscribed “1730 ye 3rd mo William Swain of Nantuckett gave this Bible to John Swain of North Carolina.” John of North Carolina is further proven the son of Stephen by a deed wherein he states, regarding the land he’s selling, “… the land and plantation bought by my father Stephen Swain.”

  4. Ken Green April 1, 2021 / 1:19 am

    The Bible, by the way, is in the North Carolina State Archives. It’s called the “Nantucket Bible”, and the relevant pages are online. Google “John Swain Nantucket Bible.”

    • LSL April 1, 2021 / 9:08 am

      Several of the folks stopping by here have an interest in the N.C. Swains. My guess is this will be helpful for them. Thank you!

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