This ancestor, Reverend William Swift, is one of my favorites because I have been able to conduct so much original research on his life and family. After spending so much time with William (even visiting England for research and to see places associated with his life), I feel as though I know him fairly well! Or as well as I possibly can without actually meeting him.
William’s life was a quite interesting one, even though it was short. He sadly only lived to be 39 years old. His grandfather and father were both gentlemen of some means from southern England. William was the middle son, and as such, he did not inherit the leases held by his father. Instead, he was slated for a career. At the age of 15, he was sent to London to attend the Merchant Taylors School. It was a famous public school that by the early 18th century was competitive to enter as it almost guaranteed the pupils would attend a university after their training was complete. William was one of the 33 fortunate boys to matriculate on 7 March 1710/11 under the guidance of Headmaster Thomas Parsell. As William was not from London, he boarded at the school while it was in session.
After finishing school, he was accepted to Emmanuel College at Cambridge University as a sizar on 16 June 1714. This meant that he was essentially a scholarship student. He likely assisted wealthier students in some way or performed other jobs around the college as a way to pay for his education. William studied divinity, and he graduated with a BA in 1718.
He received his deacons order on 8 June 1718 from Bishop Francis Atterbury, a Jacobite who openly supported Bonnie Prince Charlie over the Hanoverian rulers. Atterbury later examined William for his ordination on 5 December 1719.
William passed his examination, and 15 days later, he was ordained a priest by Bishop John Robinson at the newly rebuilt St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
William accepted a curate position in Kent, which he held for several years until he accepted a ministerial role on the island of Bermuda as the rector of the Southampton, Sandys, Warwick, and Paget parishes. After living in Cambridge and London for many years, Bermuda would prove to be a huge challenge for William. On 8 May 1722, he received the King’s bounty of 20 pounds for his appointment in Bermuda. Two months later, on 6 July 1722, he married Dinah Hodgkins at the St. Dunstans in the West Church in London. William and Dinah likely sailed for Bermuda soon after their marriage. William and Dinah traveled 3,447 miles to Bermuda.
William and Dinah were first mentioned in public records in Bermuda on 7 January 1723/4, where it was recorded that he was paid for his services in the parish of Southampton. In September of 1726, it was recorded in the minutes that William had still not taken the oath of allegiance to King George I, and on 2 April 1728, he was allowed to carry a pistol to the Devonshire Church.
Living conditions were not very good on the island, and William was being paid very little. He and Dianh became unhappy with their situation after just four years in Bermuda. To make matters more difficult, William and Dinah’s oldest children, William and Thomas, were both born in Bermuda. Sometime in 1726, William requested to be transferred to a new parish somewhere other than Bermuda. The Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, granted his request, and he was supposed to wait in Bermuda until his replacement arrived. But by May 1728, William was no longer willing to wait, and he and his young family sailed from Bermuda to Virginia. This was a journey of 759 miles.
His arrival in Virginia was reported by Governor William Gooch to Bishop Gibson in a letter written on May 26, 1728 from Williamsburg:
“The last week came in hither the Revd: Mr: Wm Swift from Bermudas: He shew’d me his orders, and a Letter from your Lordship…Upon which I told him that I was sorry to find he had not complied with your Lordship Instructions. He is much esteem’d by Those that are acquainted with him, and appears from the little knowledge I have of him, to be a Gentleman very deserving. I must confess from the general Character of that Place (Bermuda), where all sorts of Provisions are very scarce, and consequently dear, and the allowance to Ministers but small, how he could stay there so long as he did, which he said was wholly owing to your Lordship’s letter, that abated both my wonder & resentment, especially as he had a Family to provide for. I hope therefore your Lordship will not blame me, if to relieve a man from such circumstances, I immediately sent him to a Parish in this Country St. Martin’s in Hanover County, where I am confident he will be very easie, and faithfully discharge his duty in the care of souls.”
Reverend James Blair, the minister of the James City Parish in Williamsburg and founder and president of William and Mary College, also wrote to Bishop Gibson of William’s arrival and character:
“Williamsburgh in Virginia, June 8, 1728
There is lately come into this Colony from Bermudas a Clergyman, who seems to promiss well. He has a wife and three children, I have a good character of him from some Gentleman that knew him in that Country. He gives a good description of the … straits to which he was reduced in it. His name is William Swift. His deacons orders are June. 8. 1718. from the late Bp of Rochester and his Presbyters orders Dec. 20. 1719 from Bp John Robinson. I find by a letter of your Lordship to him about two years ago, you was acquainted with his design of removing out of that Countrey; but but he had not then your Lops positive permission. I thought it my duty to acquaint your Lop of this.”
William and his family settled into the new parish, which had just been created that year in Hanover County. Throughout 1728 and 1729, William also ministered at the King William Parish in Goochland County, where he purchased 2000 acres of land in 1730. A few years later, he purchased an additional 800 acres, and sold off a few smaller portions.
Sadly, William did not enjoy his life in Virginia for very long. William died between 1 April 1734, his final land transaction date, and 11 August 1734, when his death was reported to the Bishop of London. Reverend James Blair wrote:
We have lately lost two Ministers, the first Mr Swift, who came some years ago from Bermuda with a wife and several children, whom he has left in very poor circumstances.”
Although William died when he was still young, he traveled an impressive 4,206 miles, from London to Bermuda to Virginia during his life, plus travel between his home town and London, and Cambridge and his home town, and his travels throughout Virginia. He and his wife died very far away from the places of their births, and due to the struggles they endured during their marriage, I wonder if they thought traveling so far from home was worth it in the end.