home discoveries genealogy resources about GAC
Back to Port Tobacco Home    

Swann House


Port Tobacco Logo


As a freed slave, James A. Swann worked as an oysterman and fisherman after his manumission in 1820. He appears in the federal censuses sometimes as a mulatto, sometimes as white, but always with a black wife and children. He bought two lots in the southwest corner of town in 1843, the sale confirmed in 1846. The dwelling may have served as the Swanns' oyster-house restaurant and stood well into the 20th century.

Site map

The location of Swann House in Port Tobacco. Click for larger view.

Swann House is an important site because it was an African American owned and operated restaurant during the years before and immediately after the Civil War, presumably serving a multiracial clientele. There simply weren't enough free Africans in the area during the 1850s to support an African American business restricted to an African American clientele. The Swann's operation becomes an interesting point of intersection where whites and blacks of that period came together, participating in a cash economy.

Moreover, although the 1850 census described James Swann as a mulatto and that of 1870 listed him as white, this isn't a simple matter of 'passing,' if the matter of passing for a white person can be considered simple. Race relations on the eve of vigorous state-supported racism (passage and enforcement of 'Jim Crow' laws beginning in the 1880s and 1890s, and the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896) clearly were much more complicated, at least in Port Tobacco. The oysterhouse may not have survived the Jim Crow (racial segregation) laws of the 1880s and later even if Swann had survived.

James Swann died in 1871. In 1875, The Port Tobacco Times (November 19, 1875, Vol. XXXII. No. 28) reported that the property of James A Swann, deceased, was to be sold. The property included a lot in Port Tobacco, "so long used by said Swann as an Oyster House and Restaurant," and a small 12-acre farm known as part of "Mayday". The 1888 Page survey of Port Tobacco and the 1942 Barbour map (Figure 6-1) depict a structure in the southwest corner of town at "the Point," a bit of land bordered on the north and west sides by Port Tobacco Creek. The dwelling and (likely) oyster-house stood well into the 20th century. Two photographs of the Swann House (Figure 6-2) show the house in decay with close-up views of the front porch and chimney. The chimney is of a type typical in Port Tobacco (e.g., Burch house) and throughout the region, the mason having left a space between the chimney and the gable, probably to reduce the hazard of fire.

Swann House appears to have been razed and the cellar and surrounding area covered with domestic refuse and derelict automobiles in the 1960s.

Chimney excavation

Anne Hayward exposes a chimney closet (below).

We were given some clues that would help us understand a little more about Swann House before we even began excavations. The Maryland Inventory of Historical Places, which visited Port Tobacco in the late 1970s, collected two photographs of a structure in this area. They also describe two possible listings for the Swann House, only the second of which was mapped (CH-205 and CH-261):

CH-205: Of frame construction, this small two-story structure was three bays in length and contained two ground-floor rooms. At one end stood an exterior chimney flanked by one-story brick pents. A later shed-roofed extension was made to the rear wall. The structure was built on foundation walls of dressed stone (believed to be from Virginia's Aquia Creek quarries), enclosing a full cellar.

CH-261: This small but architecturally intriguing frame dwelling with quarried stone foundations faced north and was of one-story height. The three-bay façade featured a centered door, and a single exterior chimney with flanking pents stood at the west end. Of brick construction, the chimney and pents extended the full width of that elevation. The raised foundations enclosed a full cellar. A later shed addition stood on the south side.

Morgan Jones sherds

While the photographs told us what the building looked like, the maps provided only an approximation on where we might find the remains of the building; at the south end of the heavily overgrown hedgerow through which extended the dividing line between the Compton and Jamieson lands. Even before digging here, surface reconnaissance of the densely vegetated hedgerow revealed a rubble pile of building stone with brick, oyster shell, and ceramic inclusions. Surface collection of the nearby Edelen North field in 2008 suggested a late historic site in the vicinity, but the material was not clustered (Gibb and Beisaw 2008).

Site map

Site plan for Swann House. Click for larger view.

A stone foundation of the house was revealed in testing of the hedgerow around the Swann House. The field crew exposed the foundation in its entirety, including the chimney base with two apparent closets flanking the hearth. The northern of the two closets had a burned oyster shell 'floor.' Brick rubble in the middle of the east foundation suggests a second heat source. The crew also revealed what might be a possible stove chimney at the east end. The artifacts from this excavation point to a construction date sometime in the first quarter of the 19th century indicating the time when Swann purchased the building and, possibly, associated outbuildings with the land. The artifacts also suggest an earlier, 18th-century component. Meanwhile, an earthfast dwelling may have preceded the Swann House. Seven 5 ft by 5 ft excavation units yielded concentrations of oyster shells and other domestic refuse related to the occupation of the building. The single unit inside the foundation encountered only rubble fill from the 1960s. A larger, deeper test unit is required to determine whether floor deposits survive in the cellar beneath redeposited gravel.

European and American manufactured ceramics account for 50% of the historic artifact assemblage, excluding architectural debris and food remains. Creamware and whiteware comprise 61% (501 out of 816) of the ceramics. Mid to late 19th-century ceramics are well represented; although, as with the other loci in Port Tobacco, so are earlier ceramics such as white salt-glazed stoneware and tin-glazed earthenware. Since these ceramics are largely recovered from plowzone the dating of strata and the site is particularly difficult. Pipe stems were too few to use as a tool for dating in this locus. Along with the ceramics were several utensils including a small, crudely engraved bone handle (Figure 6-4) and a large amount of vessel glass. The engraving appears to be the initials CB.

The preponderance of creamware (n=215) and whiteware (n=286), but relatively few pearlware sherds (n=81), suggests two distinct occupations separated by a brief hiatus around 1800, or continuous occupation, but changing fortunes; the household occupying the site during the last decade of the 18th century and first decade of the 19th century might have been expected to have acquired more pearlware, but hard times are known to have shadowed the town after the American Revolution and the ceramic pattern may reflect that. Pearlwares, however, are present in large numbers throughout the rest of the town. The numbers become even more compelling when the analyst considers the splitting and spalling character of pearlware (like creamware) that tends to over-represent this ware type in archaeological assemblages. An occupational hiatus raises the possibility that an earlier dwelling existed at the site and was replaced in the second quarter of the 19th century.

Morgan Jones sherds

Engraved bone handle from a utensil likely associated with Swann's oysterhouse. The scratched initals read "CB".