Guide to the Collection

Collection Summary


This collection consists of the papers of U.S. Navy surgeon William Swift, including correspondence and diaries documenting his naval and medical careers, as well as his commissions, passport, and appointment as acting U.S. consul at Tunis, Tunisia.

Biographical Sketch

William Swift was born in Dorchester, Mass. on 11 Sep. 1779 and graduated from Harvard College in 1809. He was an instructor at the Latin Grammar School in Lancaster, Mass. from 1809-1810 and graduated from the Harvard Medical School in 1812. In that same year, he entered the United States Navy as a volunteer and sailed to the coast of Africa on board the ship Chesapeake and was commissioned by President Madison as a naval surgeon upon the ship's return to the U.S. He was also on board the Chesapeake during its engagement with the British man-o'-war Shannon in Boston Harbor in June 1813. He was sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, as a prisoner and was returned to the U.S. with the wounded.

Dr. Swift was a naval surgeon for the remainder of his medical career. He served aboard the brig Syren on her voyage to Africa, at which time (1814) he was made a prisoner for six months on the Cape of Good Hope. In 1820, he served on the U.S.S. Ontario on its voyage to the Barbary Coast, and in 1821 he was commissioned as acting U.S. consul at Tunis, Tunisia. He held this position for sixteen months, at which time he returned to service in the Ontario. He also served aboard the frigate Erie in 1827 and on the Constellation in 1829 on her voyage to England, France, and the Mediterranean.

Dr. Swift was stationed at the Naval Hospital in New York from 1833-1836 and witnessed the cholera epidemic there. Upon his return from his voyages in 1839, he was stationed at the naval bases in New York, Boston, and Newport, R.I. In 1850, he married Martha Elizabeth Phelps and had three sons, William Jonathan, John Baker, and George Montague. He retired in 1862 and lived the remainder of his life at Brooklyn, N.Y., his residence of several years. He died on 30 Dec. 1864.

Collection Description

This collection consists of the papers of U.S. Navy surgeon William Swift, including his commissions, passport, and appointment as acting U.S. consul at Tunis, Tunisia. Topics covered in his letters, primarily written to his brother Nathaniel Swift, and diaries include his lifelong career as a naval surgeon and subsequent voyages, including one during the War of 1812 in the brig Chesapeake, which was defeated by the British ship Shannon in June 1813 outside of Boston Harbor; Swift's subsequent imprisonment at Halifax, Nova Scotia; a voyage in the brig Syren in 1814, which was defeated by the British ship Medway; and his subsequent temporary prison term on the Cape of Good Hope. Swift's diary (1821-1823) includes entries on his term as U.S. consul at Tunis and sailing along the Barbary Coast of Africa in the U.S.S. Ontario; and brief diary entries of his services in Boston and other ports (1845-1864). The collection also contains a notebook kept from 1819-1859 recording geological and other natural observations.

Acquisition Information

The collection was donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society by Mrs. Julian DeF. Hills of Albany, New York, September 1989. William Swift's commission as surgeon's mate from James Madison, 14 May 1813, was a gift of Elizabeth Swift, February 2018.

Detailed Description of the Collection

I. Loose papers, 1794-1858

Loose papers consist primarily of letters from William Swift to his brother, Dr. Nathaniel Swift, of Andover, Mass. Included are letters written from Cambridge, Mass. while Swift was a student at Harvard (1809); letters from Lancaster, Mass. where he was an instructor at the Latin Grammar School (1809-1810) and regarding his plans for possibly studying medicine; a letter from the U.S. frigate Chesapeake in Boston Harbor (20 May 1813); and letters about recent and upcoming voyages as a naval surgeon, including on the brig Syren, which resulted in his capture at the Cape of Good Hope (1814).

Other loose papers include recommendations for him to become the surgeon for the privateer Thrasher and the brig Syren; a letter from Swift to John Baker from Halifax, N.S. while Swift was a prisoner and regarding the battle between the Chesapeake and the Shannon; and a letter from the crew of the brig Syren to Rev. George Thom, thanking him for the hospitality shown to them while prisoners at the Cape of Good Hope.

Box 1

II. Bound volumes, 1819-1864

Box 1
Notebook, 1819-1859

This volume contains geological notes and sightings of flora, fauna, and fish.

Box 1
Diary, 1821-1823

This volume was kept while Swift was acting U.S. consul at Tunis until 1822 and during his return to the U.S.S. Ontario cruising the Barbary Coast of Africa until 1823.

Box 1
Diary, 1831-1832

This volume contains brief entries of geographic coordinates and weather while sailing along the northern coast of South America.

Box 1
Diary, 1839, 1845-1850, 1851-1864

This volume notes Swift's daily activities while he was stationed at U.S. naval bases at New York, Boston, and Newport, R.I.

III. Oversize materials, 1795-1823

Included is a list of cargo on board the sloop Iris on a voyage from Martinique (1795); Swift's commissions as a U.S. naval surgeon signed by James Madison (1813-1814) and appointment as chargé d'affaires of the U.S. at Tunis until the return of the present U.S. consul (1821); and his passport (1823).

OS Folder 1
Papers, 1795-1823
OS Folder 2
Commissions to William Swift, 1813-1814

Preferred Citation

William Swift papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Access Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Researchers desiring materials about related persons, organizations, or subjects should search the catalog using these headings.


Swift, Nathaniel.


Chesapeake (Frigate).
Medway (Ship).
Ontario (Ship).
Shannon (Frigate).
Syren (Brig).
United States. Navy--Officers.
United States. Navy--Surgeons.


Africa, North--Description and travel.
Diplomatic and consular service, American--Tunisia.
Ocean travel.
Political prisoners.
Tunis (Tunisia)--Description and travel.
United States--History--War of 1812--Medical care.
United States--History--War of 1812--Naval operations.
Voyages and travels.

Materials Removed from the Collection

Two photographs have been removed from this collection:

Carte-de-visite of Dr. William Swift (1779-1864). J. Gurney & Son, N.Y. Moved to carte-de-visite collection.

Photograph of Mary and Sarah Swift, sisters of Dr. William Smith. Moved to Portraits small.