Swanton House, Decatur, Georgia

The Swanton House in Decatur, Georgia

National Register of Historic Places, The Swanton House, Decatur, Georgia

National Register of Historic Places, The Swanton House, Decatur, Georgia

This is the Swanton House. Beside it is a post which has the grand honor of having its own brick plaza and being hedged about with plants. The post has a ring atop it so my guess is that maybe people used to tie their horses to this post. But why a hitching post would have its own plaza and garden, I don’t know. So, maybe I’m wrong.

If I’m not wrong, maybe it’s the oldest known hitching post in Georgia and that is why it has its own plaza and garden.

There are probably stories about who hitched their horse to that post.

If it is, indeed, a hitching post.

There are stories that a Union soldier was held captive in the Swanton House. In a closet. We shall hope that they didn’t hang the Union soldier from the ring on that hitching post, and that this is the reason for which it has its own honorary plaza and garden.

Shame on me for saying that. But then I live next to the site of a famous hanging of a Union spy, and the story is that in their revenge he was hung so low that his feet drug the ground and slowly perished by torturous asphyxiation.

The origin story of the Swanton House is that it seems to be the oldest place in Decatur, and Dekalb County (which is in the Metro Atlanta area, for those who don’t live here). It’s named for Benjamin Franklin Swanton, but it wasn’t built by him. It was built in 1825 (or in 1830, or in 1835, or in 1840, depending on source) by Ammi Williams, who sold it to Swanton in 1852. At that time it was a log cabin and Swanton converted it into a “Plantation Plain Style House” with Federal style interior woodwork. So though it was built by Ammi, it’s named for Swanton. And it didn’t used to be located on West Trinity Place, where it is now, it was instead on Atlanta Avenue in Decatur, but was moved in 1968 in a preservation effort and is part of the Dekalb County History Center Complex. In the Swanton House, somewhere, is the hand print (figurative) of Ammi Williams. Where, I don’t know, because the center was closed when I was able to make it by to photograph the complex. I will have to (maybe) make it by one day when the center is open and learn what remains of Ammi’s handiwork.

Benjamin Swanton was brought down to Georgia, from his native Maine, by the Dahlonega Gold Rush, the one that helped purge Georgia of its indigenous nations (Trail of Tears, 1838). He sold mining machinery. But he also did other things, like tanning. That is the occupation he would give in the census, that he was a tanner.

A history of DeKalb County reports that Swanton was the only one in Decatur to make money off the gold rush, and that when he purchased the house from Williams it was the nicest in Decatur. The date for the purchase in “Historic Dekalb County” by Vivian Price is 1844, which couldn’t be, as Swanton was still in Newton County.

The 1850 census shows Ammi Williams in Decatur. He was called Andrew, was 69, born about 1781 in Connecticut. He was married to a Larua A. Loomis, also of Connecticut, and they lived in 1820 in Richmond, Virginia. But back to 1850. Laura is 53, son Frederick is 32, Charles M. is 8, Laura A. is 6 and Mary A. is 4.

In 1860, Benjamin Swanton is at household 329 in Decatur, 52, worth 1200 dollars in real estate and 600 in personal. He’s listed with is wife, Sarah, 52, daughter Sarah E. 19, born in South Carolina, son John B., 16, born in Georgia, and a girl of 14 named A. E. Fosyth.

Though Swanton had purchased the “cabin” from Williams, Williams was only four households removed, at 333. He was 75. His occupation is “afflicting” or something like that, whatever that means. I don’t have a clue. His real estate value was 96,000 and his personal value was 50,000, so to say he was quite wealthy is a grand understatement. His wife, Laura, was 69, their granddaughter Laura S. was 16, and another granddaughter is Mariah, 14, both given as daughters of Frederick on an ancestry site.

In 1850, Ammi had 7 slaves, a 50 year old female, 27 year old female, 11 year old male, 6 year old male, 3 year old female, 14 year old female, and 16 year old female.

In 1850, B. F. Swanton had one slave, a 14 year old girl.

I don’t know about 1860.

Ammi Williams died in 1864.

In the 1870 census, Benjamin is 63 and living with his wife Sarah, F., daughter Sarah E., 39, Son John B., 25, daughter-in-law Josephine F., 24, granddaughter Sallie E. who was 7 months, and an 18 year old Ellen Latimer who was black and their servant. So he had one black slave before the war and one black servant living in after, so it doesn’t sound as though things changed too much for the Swanton household. The town of Decatur “commenced” with them on the census. His worth in real estate was 2500 and his personal was 975.

In 1880, Ben, still a tanner, was again living with his wife, daughter Sarah, 47, who was a florist, his son John B. who was a machinist, and his family of wife Sallie, 7 year old daughter Aria, 4 year old daughter Estil, and 6 month old son Albert.

Swanton’s son, John, stayed in the south during the Civil War and fought, but Swanton, I read, returned to Maine.

Though literature says that Swanton and his wife and daughter were in Maine and that a widow and ten girls lived in the house during the war, the historic marker outside reads the Swanton family was there in 1864 when the Federal Army of “the Tennessee” occupied Decatur. Mary Gay in her book, Life in Dixie During the War, names the Swantons among the “refugees” who returned after the war. Having moved to Maine, did they side with the Union?–though Gay gives them as refugees? Confusing.

Being from the northwest originally, and my family lines 99.9 percent northerners, I’ve no personal interest in the Civil War but here I am in the south and much of the history around here is tied up in the Civil War. So, there you are.

Oh, wait. Widow with ten girls lives in the Swanton house during the war and the other big story is of a Union soldier held captive in the closet. This begins to have all the makings of “The Beguiled”, doesn’t it?

It’s odd that histories for the Swanton House don’t hint at the importance of Ammi Williams in respect of the area. When one reads “log cabin” built by early settler Ammi Williams, the impression given is of a rough hewn dwelling, not the nicest house in Decatur, and that Williams was likely a scratchy old denizen of not much significance rather than being very wealthy and a founder and a relation of other founders.

Colonel Lemuel Pratt Grant, the founder of Grant Park–for which he donated one hundred acres in 1883–in 1843, in Decatur, married Laura L. Williams, a daughter of Ammi.

Nothing of interest happened while I was taking photos. Adair Park (I guess it’s Adair Park) which this complex of historic sites is next to (and I took pictures of the other places and will post them later) is a dog walking park, not very large, rather pretty. I stepped in something which I didn’t trek back to the car. I saw a squirrel but it quickly disappeared. A couple of people came by and walked their dogs. Oh, and I met a sweet, pretty dog which eagerly attracted my attention to it within its fenced yard. I hadn’t noticed it and then there it was behind me with beseeching eyes and making the kind of sounds and doing the kind of things dogs do when they want you to be friends and play with them. “Person! Person! Hi! Hi!”

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

One thought on “Swanton House, Decatur, Georgia”

  1. I have a theory that I am trying to research to find out if I am related to one of the slaves that were in this location. To my understanding, the property was divided up among the slaves. Part of which much later became Ebster Park. I am a decendent of the Ebsters.

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