Swartwout, Samuel (1783–1856)

By: B. R. Brunson

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: January 31, 2022

Samuel Swartwout, land speculator and fund-raiser for the Texas Revolution, one of seven children of Abraham and Maria (North) Swartwout, was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on November 17, 1783. He and his brother John were closely associated with Aaron Burr at the time of Burr's duel with Alexander Hamilton and in the so-called Western Conspiracy to set up an empire in the Southwest. Swartwout carried a copy of Burr's cipher letter to Gen. James Wilkinson in the West. When Wilkinson changed his mind about cooperating, he arrested Swartwout 100 miles from New Orleans on December 12, 1806, placed him on an American warship consigned to the president, and charged him with treason. Swartwout's attorneys failed to obtain his freedom in the District of Columbia district court but succeeded in the Supreme Court. After Burr was acquitted of treason, Swartwout spent some time with him in Europe. Swartwout served briefly in the War of 1812 as the captain of a corps of light infantry known as the Iron Grays. He subsequently engaged in various enterprises, including farming and dairying, the ferryboat business, railroads, a lumber company, coal mines in Maryland, and land speculation in New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Illinois, and Texas, where he launched his most ambitious scheme. He and James Morgan helped to found the New Washington Association to purchase and develop Texas land. The organization planned to acquire land titles, some of doubtful validity, hoping that a new government would recognize them.

As one of Andrew Jackson's original supporters for the presidency, Swartwout was rewarded with an appointment as customs collector in New York City. In that position, he openly aided the Texans in their struggle for independence from Mexico. He held meetings in New York where Stephen F. Austin, Branch T. Archer, and William H. Wharton appeared in quest of funds and supplies. He also sent provisions to Texas at his own expense and saved the two-ship Texas Navy from a consignment sale by paying for repairs to the vessels. Swartwout left office in 1837 admitting that he retained $201,096.40 with which to pay pending claims against him. He then made the mistake of going to England to raise money on his coal property before his account at the customhouse was closed. After he left the country, or perhaps before, his account was generously "adjusted" by a subordinate and possibly by his successor, through the instigation of the new president, Martin Van Buren, a political enemy. It was then alleged that Swartwout had embezzled $1,225,705.69 and fled. One of his assistants was indicted in 1841 for embezzling $609,525.71 of the sum, and, according to Swartwout's trustee, a federal court further reduced the amount by $435,052.21, leaving the approximate amount Swartwout claimed he owed. Swartwout forfeited his personal property to meet the deficit and returned to the United States in 1841 after federal officials assured him that they would not prosecute him. He married Alice Ann Cooper in 1814; they had two children. Swartwout died on November 21, 1856, in New York City.

Feris A. Bass, Jr., and B. R. Brunson, eds., Fragile Empires: The Texas Correspondence of Samuel Swartwout and James Morgan, 1836–1856 (Austin: Shoal Creek, 1978). B. R. Brunson, The Adventures of Samuel Swartwout in the Age of Jefferson and Jackson (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

B. R. Brunson, “Swartwout, Samuel,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 09, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/swartwout-samuel.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 31, 2022