Skip to main content
COLLECTION Identifier: MC 873

Papers of the Swanton family, 1759-1991 (inclusive), 1826-1926 (bulk)


Diaries, commonplace books, and correspondence of the Byram, Gay, Swanton, and Worcester families of Maine and Massachusetts.


  • Creation: 1759-1991
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1826-1926

Language of Materials

Materials in English.


Access. Collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by the Swanton family is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


4.38 linear feet ((10 + 1/2 file boxes) plus 2 folio folders, 1 photograph folder)

The Swanton family papers contain commonplace books, diaries, correspondence, etc., of the Gay, Worcester, Swanton, and Byram families. The majority of the material documents the home, family, and religious lives of several generations of Swedenborgians (members of the General Church of the New Jerusalem, or the "New Church"), primarily in Gardiner, Maine, during the course of the 19th century. It also includes phrenological readings for two young children, documentation of a school for girls in New York City in the late 1840s, and diaries and letters describing anthropologist and ethnographer John Reed Swanton's work in the early 20th century with indigenous tribes in southeastern Alaska and the southwest United States.

Many family members represented in the collection suffered from ill health; there is much discussion of symptoms, treatments, and possible cures, affording a window into medical concerns and care in the mid-nineteenth century. A number of women in the family experienced the death of their husbands while pregnant; several generations of children were raised fatherless, with assistance from grandmothers and aunts.

Margaret (Lewis) Gay's commonplace book (ca.1759), which includes answers to questions such as, "What are the Duties of Wives to their Husbands?," is the oldest document in the collection. The papers of her grandchildren present a view of life in Gardiner, Maine, and Boston during the first half of the nineteenth century, and also include letters Laura (Gay) Davis wrote to her father and siblings while in Portugal between 1822 and 1824. Gay family members were involved in the founding of a Swedenborgian New Church congregation in Maine (they often use the abbreviation "N.C." in diaries and letters), and much of their correspondence tracks New Church services, sermons, meetings, Conventions, and idealogical splits among congregations. Gay family correspondence provides a picture of domestic, medical, and economic concerns; Rufus Marble Gay's letters to his sister Olive (Gay) Worcester (#10.8-10.10) are especially detailed with descriptions of products shipped between Boston and Maine, financial dealings, politics, and struggles with his health.

Olive (Gay) Worcester's diaries span half a century, and reveal her financial and emotional difficulties in raising two young children as a widow. She provides a detailed recording of the children's health, moral development, school experiences, as well as her concerns for her children's religious lives. Other Worcester family correspondence reveals the intellectual relationship between Swedenborgian minister Henry Aiken Worcester (also much interested in astronomy) and his older brother, lexicographer Joseph Emerson Worcester.

Swanton family papers primarily date from the middle of the 19th century into the early 20th. Earlier material includes a diary and an autograph book of Catharine (Swanton) Haseltine, who attended Abbott's Institution, a school for girls run by Jacob and John S.C. Abbott in New York City. The diary includes notes, drawings, and also commentary by her teacher Jacob Abbott. Catharine and her brother Henry Worcester Swanton sat for phrenological studies as children, the subsequent reports on their character are included (#3.11, 4.15). Most of the Swanton family material is correspondence, diaries, commonplace books of Mary Olivia (Worcester) Swanton, her son, John Reed Swanton, and his wife Alice (Barnard) Swanton. Mary Olivia (Worcester) Swanton's numerous letters to her youngest son, John Reed Swanton, record the Swedenborgian faith and strong moral precepts that guided her and her children. John Reed Swanton's letters (primarily to his mother) and Alice Barnard Swanton's journals record some of the professional and personal satisfactions and hardships of their life on America's frontiers in the 1900s and 1910s while John Reed Swanton was learning indigenous languages and studying culture of various Native American tribes. At times, when care of their children kept Alice (Barnard) Swanton from accompanying John Reed Swanton on his field trips, she wrote daily letters to him about life at home (#6.1-6.4).

Typed transcripts created mainly by descendant and donor Dorothy Swanton Brown exist for much of the material in the collection. Each transcript includes a genealogy of the family represented. One transcript (#2.15) exists for a diary which is housed at the Gardiner Public Library in Gardiner, Maine; another (#4.14) for a diary and letters housed at the Bath Historical Society in Bath, Maine.

Previously, two groupings of Swanton family papers held by the Schlesinger Library were described in preliminary inventories with the call numbers 85-M68--85-M128 and 85-M267--87-M167. In 2016, these two groups of material were combined with several later donations to create MC 873. Copies of the previous inventories with original folder numbers can be found at the beginning of Box 1 for cross reference purposes. The papers are arranged alphabetically by individual, or by family surname. Women are listed with their full first name, middle name (if known), maiden name in parentheses to trace the family lineage, and then married surname.


The families represented in this collection can be traced matrilineally through six generations to Margaret Lewis, who married William Gay in May 1759, in Dedham, Massachusetts. The Gay family eventually settled in Maine, where many of their descendants continued to live. Margaret and William Gay had six children: Salomen, Seth, Margaret (1764-1858), Joel, Rufus (1770-1852), and Olive. The Gay family history is marked by many early deaths and a constant struggle against illness.

Margaret and William Gay's daughter Margaret (1764-1858) married Ebenezer Byram (1754-1833) of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in 1789. They had eight children born between 1790 and 1805: Harriet (1790-1887), Charles Lewis, William Henry, Ebenezer Gay, James Rufus, William Henry II, Mary Augusta (1803-1886), and Samuel Haskell. Mary Augusta Byram, youngest daughter of Margaret Gay and Ebenezer Byram, was a resident of Gardiner, Maine, for most of her life, and died in Brookline, Massachusetts. Mary Augusta Byram was a devoted member of the Swedenborgian church, as were most of her relatives.

Margaret and William Gay's son Rufus Gay (1770-1852) married Mary Marble (1771-1839). They had four children: Laura Matilda (1800-1834), Dorcas Parker (1802-1890), Olive (1804-1881), and Rufus Marble (1806-1855). Rufus Gay owned a store and post office in Gardiner, Maine. Mary (Marble) Gay was the daughter of Dorcas Osgood (1752-1829) and Isaac Marble (1750-ca.1779). After the death of Isaac Marble, Dorcas (Osgood) Marble married General Henry Dearborn (1751-1829). Mary (Marble) Gay's sister Dorcas (1773-1863) married Dr. James Parker (1768-1837), who owned a drug store in Gardiner.

In 1822, Henry Dearborn, a former United States Secretary of War, was sent to Portugal as a special envoy/minister of President James Monroe. He was accompanied by his wife Dorcas, and their granddaughter Laura Matilda Gay. Laura Gay sometimes served as a secretary to her grandfather, as well as a companion for her grandmother until their return to the United States in 1824. In 1826, Laura Gay married Dr. John Brazier Davis (1798-1832) of Boston. Their son John was born in the summer of 1832; his father died four months later. Baby John died the following summer 1833, Laura was inconsolable at the loss of her husband and son within eight months of each other. Her family sent her to an asylum in Charlestown, Massachusetts, when they feared her mind was affected by the two losses; she drowned herself in the Charles River in May of 1834.

Dorcas Parker Gay lived in Gardiner, Maine, and served as a family caretaker: she tended to her parents, and then to her brother Rufus and to her sister Olive's children and grandchildren. Rufus Marble Gay lived in Boston for a time, working at the Custom House. He was quite ill for most of his life, walked with crutches for some years, and eventually returned to Gardiner, Maine, to be cared for by his sisters.

Olive Gay's marriage to Henry Aiken Worcester (1802-1841) linked the Gay family with the Worcesters of New Hampshire. Henry Aiken Worcester was one of 15 children born to Sarah Parker (1762-1847) and Jesse Worcester (1761-1834) of Hollis, New Hampshire. His older brother Joseph Emerson Worcester (1784-1865) was a noted lexicographer (and competitor of Noah Webster) who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A Swedenborgian minister, Henry Aiken Worcester traveled and preached in Massachusetts and Maine before his early death left his wife to raise their son, Henry Parker (1839-1882), and daughter Mary Olivia (1841-1923) (born several months after his death) alone. Olive (Gay) Worcester resided in Gardiner, Maine, with her sister Dorcas, and periodically traveled to visit Worcester or other relatives in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Mary Olivia Worcester married Walter Scott Swanton (1839-1872) in 1868; they had three sons: Walter Irving (1869-1943), Henry "Harry" Aiken (1870-1944) and John Reed (1873-1958), born after his father's death. The Swantons lived in St. Joseph, Missouri, where Walter Scott Swanton worked for the local newspaper. After her husband's death, Mary Olivia (Worcester) Swanton returned to Gardiner, Maine, to raise her children with assistance from her mother Olive (Gay) Worcester and great aunt Dorcas Parker Gay. Mary Olivia (Worcester) Swanton spent her later years living in Boston with her friend Ednah Silver.

John Reed Swanton graduated from Harvard College in 1896, and earned a Ph.D. in anthropology, also from Harvard, in 1900. He worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution. He married Alice Barnard in December 1903, and the newlywed couple immediately set off on a journey to Sitka, Alaska, where John Reed Swanton studied the language and culture of a number of indigenous tribes. He returned to Alaska throughout his career, and also participated in studies of Native American tribes and cultures in Oklahoma and the Southwest. Alice and John Reed Swanton had three children: Mary Alice (1906-1982), John, Jr. (1909-2000), and Henry Allen (1915-1995).

Walter Scott Swanton was one of six children of Catherine Wood Reed (1804-1898) and John B. Swanton: Catharine Reed (1829-1864), Henry Worcester (1833-1904), Ann Eliza Rogiers (1836-1853), Walter Scott (1839-1872), Mary Augusta (1842-1920), and Josephine (b.1848). Eldest daughter Catharine Reed Swanton attended a school for girls run by Jacob and John S.C. Abbott in New York City between 1846 and 1848. She married William Byram Haseltine (1816-1895) in 1855, and had three children: William Byram (1856-1895), Edith Augusta (1860-1929), and John Hastings (b.1863). The Haseltines lived in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 85-M68, 85-M128, 85-M267, 86-M59, 87-M167, 91-M52, 98-M26, 98-M157, 2005-M26, 2006-M151

The papers of the Swanton family, which include papers of the Gay, Worcester, and Byram families, were given to the Schlesinger Library by Dorothy Swanton Brown between June 1985 and August 2006.

Digitization Funding

Collections and items have been digitized with the generous support of The Polonsky Foundation.

Processing Information

Processed: August 2016

By: Jenny Gotwals

Swanton family. Papers of the Swanton family, 1759-1991 (inclusive), 1826-1926 (bulk): A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description
Processing of this collection was made possible by gifts from the Alice Jeannette Ward Fund and the Class of 1968 Archival Processing Fund.

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

3 James St.
Cambridge MA 02138 USA