of Swift and Filson
By Joe Nickell
Part I: The Legend
For nearly two centuries a legend has persisted in eastern Kentucky concerning the
"lost silver mines" of one "Jonathan Swift." Inhis alleged Journal, Swift relates how he and
a company of men preceded Daniel Boone intoKentucky, making annual trips from
Alexandria, VA to mine silver. From June 21, 1760 until late 1769, they "carried in supplies and took our silver bars and minted coins"which Swift used to buy vessels for his "shipping interests." Plagued by Indians, a mutiny of his workmen, and other troubles, and after a pious change of heart, Swift
discontinued his venture, walled up his mine and a cave full of treasure, and headed for "England or France" to "get a party interested in...working the mines on a large scale." When he returned after a fifteen-year delay (he says he was imprisoned in England), Swift had become blind - unable to find his fabulous treasure! (1) Many have undoubtedly accepted the
legend at face value. J. H. Kidwell says: "Men, hoary with age and gray haired, half insane on
the subject of the Swift mines ranged the mountains and the likely places, and die din the
belief that they were very near the source of the mines as outlined in the Swift Journal..."
(2) To some, a treasury warrant of 1788 whereby John Filson (the early Kentucky
mapmaker and historian) recorded 1,000 acres alleged to contain Swift s mine, has lent
credence to the legend. (3) (Part III of this article explores the "Filson connection.")
Skeptical geologists and historians have advanced quite another theory which has
also achieved a legendary status. (4) This theory supposes that Swift concocted the tale
of silver mining as a cover for piracy and counterfeiting. Although the theory has
persuaded many, it raises more questions than it answers: Why make the arduous and
extremely dangerous journey to Kentucky in order to melt silver when the backwoods near
Alexandria would do? (5) For that matter, thecoinage could have been minted on board ship.
And why go to all the trouble of producing a spurious journal? Such literary ability -
employing phrases like "deeming it imprudent" - is indeed remarkable for one who went to sea
"when a boy." What, then, is the answer? Before attempting to reach a solution it will be
necessary for the reader to suspend judgment and begin to focus critically on the details of
the evidence. The scientific evidence seems to preclude fabulous silver treasure being mined
in Kentucky. Geologists as well as park naturalists, rangers, and other knowledgeable
officials I interviewed expressed skepticism of the Swift bonanza. Mr. Warren H. Anderson
of the Kentucky Geological Survey responded in writing to my query:
Silver occurs in a variety of geologic environments, is generally associated with
certain minerals and is found throughout the geologic time scale. From a geologic
standpoint it is possible for silver to occur in sandstones in eastern Kentucky, but this does
not mean that silver actually exists in economic quantities. Some silver has been reported in the
western Kentucky fluorspar district (Hall and Heyl, 1968, Economic Geology, V. 63, No. 6,
p. 655-70) as well as trace amounts in the central Kentucky mineral district (Jolly and
Heyl, 1964, Kentucky Geological Survey, Series X, Reprint 15). As these reports indicate
silver does occur in small amounts in Kentucky. (6)
Note that the precious metal exists only in trace amounts and in parts of Kentucky
beyond the eastern section. How this contrasts with Swift s
purported find! He states he had two "workings," with his company "divided into
two parties...My party has four places where we obtained silver ore that were later
connected by trails of "Tomahawk" (sic) paths." He also alleges that Frenchmen who
"worked mines to the south" had no less than two furnaces in operation. (7)
Swift claims he found several "veins" of silver! Such abundance - when two hundred
years of highway construction, excavation, andstrip mining, not to mention cave exploration
and treasure hunting, have failed to unearth even a single "vein" of silver. Yet Swift alleges
a wounded bear had led to the discovery of a cave containing "a very rich vein of silver ore."
In researching the Swift story (and doing a little prospecting myself), I came
across reports of "silver nuggets" from the Wolfe Co. area. My cousin, John May, was
able to coax one sample from its owner and gave it to me to test. It was pyrite - "fool s
gold." Or in this case, "fool s silver." (Only afterward did John reveal that he had
previously shown the "nugget" to three geologists and obtained the same opinion.)
Similarly a U. S. Forest Service official told me he had tested samples of ore brought in to a Wolfe Co. ranger station and found them to be "iron sulfides" - that is, pyrite. He stated he also had found samples of
lead sulfide (galena), which the lay person could easily mistake for silver.
A parks official confided that about two or three years ago, an attempt was made to
sell the State of Kentucky a tract of land - alleged to contain Swift s mine - for
approximately a million dollars. Another official, he said, agreed to be taken,
blindfolded, to a prospector s pit. The "silver" actually glittered: it was mica.
A friend recounted another incident. He was exploring in the rugged Red River
Canyon, popularly assumed to be the generallocation of the mines, with a companion who
got excited by a "silver vein" in a rock face along the river. My friend recognized it for
what it really was: a scrapping from an aluminum canoe. Sometime later he preyed on
his companion s gullibility by "salting" anarea with some filings of "silver". And old
"John Swift" had - with a wink - claimed another victim. Clearly the geologic evidence demands
that we closely scrutinize the Swift Journal, or rather, journals, since numerous versions
compete in the claim for authenticity. (8) These differ in varying degrees. One, headed
"John Swift s Manuscript Journal," begins, "I was born October 3, 1712, in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, my ancestors first came to America in 1637." (9) Another, from
Tennessee, commences: "I, George William Swift, was born at Salisbury, England in the
year of 1689, A. D., a son of William Swift, who was a miner of copper, silver, and lead."
(10) Even versions with some distinct similarities contain discrepancies in the dates
and number of the excursions as well as the directions for finding the mines.
Probably the most detailed version is reproduced in Michael Paul Henson s JOHN
SWIFT S LOST SILVER MINES. (11) But it demands skepticism: A journal which begins,
"I was born..." is immediately suspect. This version does agree substantially with quoted
fragments from Connelley and Coulter s HISTORY OF KENTUCKY. (12) But portions of the text - wherein Swift is alternately paraphrased and quoted - seem to have been "lifted" by the unknown compiler of
this particular version of the Journal. Some of the paraphrased portions are recorded word for word in the Journal. Further, the latter work carelessly preserves one quoted excerpt in quotation marks with the
untenable result of having Swift begin quoting himself in mid-sentence! (13) Another
discrepancy involves the ending of the Journal - allegedly penned by Swift after his return
from England, although in it he states that he has become completely blind and therefore would have been unable to write. (14) We might explain that away by suggesting Swift dictated the portion. But what
of the statement "...that treasure will lie in that cave for eternity," written (if the Journal can be believed) during 1765? (15) Why would Swift pen such a hopelessly defeatist remark - one anticipating events not to be realized for twenty years - while he was still making excursions to the mines? Other seriously
questionable aspects of the Journal will be discussed presently (and still others will be treated later).
Was there really a John or Jonathan Swift?
Well, of course, there was the famous English satirist by that name who wrote the
allegorical TRAVELS INTO SEVERAL REMOTE NATIONS OF THE WORLD
(better known as "Gulliver s Travels"). Like "Swift," "Gulliver" was a ship s captain and
the title of "his" work is echoed in a phrase from Swift s Journal stating that the smelting
furnace was "in a very remote place in the west." (16) But that Jonathan Swift died in
1745. It would seem that, at best, he could only have unwittingly inspired the creation of
a Swift legend. At the end of the Journal in Henson s book is added a 'cut signature (as collectors
of autograph materials say of "Jonathan Swift." Henson says he placed it there "to lend
a touch of authenticity to the document. This is an exact reproduction of Swift s signature that
appears on an old land grant I obtained from an attorney in Kentucky." (17) But Mr. Henson is in error.
I researched the matter, finally tracking down the entire deed from which the
actual signature in question was reproduced. (18) I carefully compared the signatures and
found them to be identical, stroke for stroke. The document does substantiate that there
really was a bona-fide Jonathan Swift and that he was from Alexandria, VA, as the Journal
alleges, and further that he was a "merchant (which at that port could mean that he had
shipping interests as claimed). Unfortunately, further research proved Mr. Swift re-acquired the land and deeded it a second time in 1809 (19) - nine years after "Swift s" reputed death. (20) The documents
also enabled me to establish that the "signature" on the first deed was not actually
by Mr. Swift s own hand, but was - like the entire document - in the handwriting of the recorded who had copied it into the deed book! This real Mr. Jonathan Swift could not have been the Swift of silver-mine mythology as will be clear from his biography. It informs us that he "was born at Milton, near Boston,
Mass., and became a resident of Alexandria prior to 1785; was an importing merchant and
prominent citizen during the forty years of his residence..." He married and had "several
children." He died in 1824 and "was buried with Masonic honors..." (21) Clearly Mr.
Swift was not the supposed blind pirate, nor is it likely he reached the remarkable age of one
hundred and twelve years. The genealogical data of some versions of the Journal must be discounted.
Not journals - but brazen attempts to perpetrate fraud - begin so. (Some details even
appear to have been copied - usually carelessly and quite late - from Swift genealogies. (22))
Indeed the earliest documented references to the legend mention only "a Certain man named
Swift," (23) "one Swift," (24) "Swift," (25) and "said Swift." (26) (And the Tennessee
version cited previously gives an entirely different first name.)
There were numerous Swifts. Some were actually named John or Jonathan, which
is, after all, a common first name. But there is no proof that there was an actual person
named "Swift" - whether "Jonathan" or not - who early mined silver in Kentucky. To the
contrary, there are indications that versions of the Journal have been tampered with. And not
all such tampering can be explained awaysimply by copyists errors.
We turn now to the seemingly-exact directions for locating the mines which make
up the latter part of the Journal and which have inspired thousands of searches. But just
how exact are they? We can take a cue from the coy statement therein that the furnace is "in
a very remote place in the west." Landmarks are liberally given together with some
directions and distances. Naturally these vary from version to version.
Although Swift maps have been widely reputed to exist, they are scarce in
relation to copies of the Journal. (A couple of imperfect ones are reproduced in books, (27)
and I have another in my collection.) So, with the help of my father, Wendell Nickell - who
has often acted as a guide in the Red River area and who reads maps at his leisure - I
constructed a hypothetical map of the mines and buried treasure. I based it primarily on the
rather detailed version of the Journal in Henson s book. It was immediately apparent
that great flexibility of interpretation was required, pointing up the true vagueness of the
description. But Swift actually gives the latitude and longitude of the mines:
The richest ore is to be found in Latitude 37 degrees 56 minutes north (some
versions read "57 minutes"). The ore vein of little value is in Latitude of 38 degrees 2
minutes north. By astronomical observations and calculations, we found both veins to be
just a little west of the longitude of 83 degrees. (28)
While this is seemingly specific, exactly how far is "just a little" west?
Taken literally, the latitude and longitude of "the richest ore" pinpoint a
location in Morgan Co. near Relief, KY. Alas, neither the proper configurations nor the mine
is to be found there. Despite all this, several factors conspire to fuel the search: Errors in
"Swift s" calculations are reasonably assumed; partial configurations are located or
"interpreted" as necessary; new maps andalleged copies of the Journal are drafted;
newspaper editors experience weeks in which no man bites a dog; and skeptics are shunned
by a public eager to believe. And so virtually every county in eastern Kentucky lays claim to the silver
mines. The legend persists as well in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina; and presumably it is everywhere good for business. A "Monument Rock" here, a "Balanced Rock" there, is often enough to set metal detectors and spades - even heavy equipment - in motion.
Not long ago Job Corpsmen at the Frenchburg Job Corps conservation Center
located on Tarr Ridge in Menifee Co. searched (according to the Menifee County Journal) "an
area from Sky Bridge and Rock Bridge westward along the Red River to Raven Rock,
Court House Rock and Indian Creek where they have found several of the landmarks..."
(29) A "mining and exploring" company is searching in Wolfe Co. There and elsewhere
other groups and individuals are pursuing the myth and finding their treasure in the form of publicity.
Years ago, the Swift mania cost one man his health, and after his death his widow
returned to the search, squandering her fortune and her remaining years in futile pursuit of the
treasure.(30) The legend of "John Swift" had struck again.
The Treasure of Ophir
If, as the geological evidence indicates, Swift found no great veins of silver, it follows
that the Journal is a fabrication. Putting aside the "cover-for-piracy" theory (which is a very
leaky boat), we come to another. In Silver Fleece, Kidwell states: "...thousands of
transactions in real estate have hinged around the probability that it abounded with the
abundant source of the Swift mines." (31) Isn t it conceivable the document was created for
use in land schemes? It does appear it was later used for such a purpose. But, as I intend
to demonstrate, there is a further possibility. Swift says he marked a tree with "the
symbols of a compass (some versions read compasses), trowel and square." (32) These
symbols are meaningless in any but a single context: A combined compass (a drawing
compass, or 'pair of compasses ) and square compose the emblem of the 'secret society,
Freemasonry. The trowel is the symbol of the Freeman s craft.
Freemasonry, or Masonry, is a benevolent society. It is not, Masons state, a
'secret society but a 'society with secrets . First carried to America in the early 18th
century, it has been defined as 'a peculiar system of morality veiled in allegory and
illustrated by symbols." (33) Swift says he marked various trees and rocks with symbols which he referred to as "curious marks" and again as "peculiar marks." He identified one location of buried
treasure with "a symbol of a triangle." Not just a triangle, but a symbol - one important in
masonry. Another Masonic symbol is the "Broad Arrow," also represented in the
Journal; and there are many others.(34)In the Masonic ritual of the Entered
Apprentice, or First Degree, is the statement that there is "nothing more fervent than heated
charcoal, it will melt the most obduratemetals." (35) Similarly, in the Journal Swift
states, "We were able to make charcoal in large quantities, for our use in smelting the ore." (36)
The Journal continues in this vein (no pun intended): As part of the allegory, Swift
claims that - when he left the "richest mine"for the last time - he "walled it up with
masonry form." (37) Otherwise an unlikely expression, we need only capitalize "masonry"
to see that this says, in effect, that the meaning has been concealed or 'veiled in Masonic
fashion. It may b read with a knowing wink. Now, among the essential elements of
any true Masonic group are these: "a legend or allegory relating to the building of King
Solomon s Temple" and "symbolism based on the stonemason s trade." (38) Masonry
incorporates many legends of King Solomon, his masons, and the building of the temple.
Indeed, the Masonic Lodge is held to represent some part of Solomon s Temple. (39) The
lodge is oriented east and west, with east regarded as the most sacred of the cardinal
points.(40) Thus it is that our allegorist, "Swift," places his furnace in a "rockhouse that faces
the east." From the rock house, he says, "facing the east you can see two monument
rocks" (two tall rock pillars). (41) These are coincident with the Masonic/Solomonic "two
great pillars" symbolizing Strength and Establishment. (42) The remote and fabled mines, the fleet
of ships (which supposedly bore Swift s silver to the "trade of the seas"), even the corral for
horses - all tally with Solomon, his fabled mines (in "Ophir"), his great fleet, trade, and
stables. Just as Swift refers to his "occupation as a silver-smith," Masons extol Solomon s
Master Mason (whom they called Hiram Abif) - a smith, a craftsman in precious metals. And,
like Swift who supposedly found so much silver he could not transport all of it, Solomon
"made silver to be in Jerusalem as stone..." (43)
The Swift story admirably teaches its moral about the futility of 'laying up
treasures." It is not a true story but a parable in the form of a legend "veiled in allegory." In
the Journal, Swift states the story s moral in a philosophical monologue: He says, in part, that
"the works of man are always unfinished and unsatisfactory: and that "the life of man should
be at some period turned about for reflection on God..."(44)
Let us unveil a bit more. When Swift allegedly returned, years later, his blindness
prevented him from re-locating his treasure. This is the punch-line of the allegory. In
Masonry - which has been called the "Great Light" - light symbolizes enlightenment. (Swift
says that from the "richest mine" you could "see a hole through the cliff and see the sky
beyond." He called this formation "The Lighthouse." (45) In contrast, applicants for
the Degrees of Masonry are first required to enter the lodge - like Swift - in complete
blindness. (46) The "all-seeing" eye (depicted, for example, on the back of a dollar bill) is a
prime Masonic symbol. (47) Not only Swift s furnace but his "richest mine" was in a cave. He and his men
camped in another. And he had rich stores of silver (walled up with "masonry form")
"hidden in the great cavern...which fact was known to no one living soul beyond our
company." (48) (Like Masons, the members of Swift s "company" were "sworn to secrecy.")
To this end, we should note that caves of "Clefts of the Rocks" figure prominently in
Masonic symbolism. Too, there is the Masonic legend of the "Secret Vault," Solomon s
subterranean depository of certain great secrets. (49)
The Masonic rites of the Third Degree feature a quest after such vague secrets
(specifically "that which is lost") which, I the end, remain lost. (50) That, precisely, is the
simple plot of the Swift legend. A "sea captain" figures in that Degree; and it will
come as no surprise to learn that Swift states, "I became captain of a ship."
The parallels go on and on. Swift s landmarks include a "Lookout Rock,"
"Hanging Rock," "Remarkable Rocks," etc., including the two pillars or "Monument Rocks" previously noted. In Masonry, "Landmarks" -originally stone pillars for boundaries - are symbols distinguishing
Masons from others. (51) Various directions from the furnace are given in distances of "three miles." (For
example, "We carried the ore three miles to the furnace."; Furnace Creek forks "about three
miles below the furnace"; again, "North of the furnace about three miles is a large hill..."). In
Masonry, three miles represents a "Cable Tow s Length" which is "symbolic of the
scope of a man s reasonable ability." (52) Numerous times Swift employs the number
three - a number with definite significance in Freemasonry.
The preceding only begins the possibilities. Such Masonic terms as "The
Conclusion of the Whole Matter," "The Camp," "The Contention Among Brethren,"
"The Left Hand," "The Right Hand," "Treasure Room," "Royal Arch," "Cardinal
Points" (of the Compass), "The Broken Column," "Degrees," "The Winding Stairs,"
"Covenant of Masonry," "Darkness to Light," "Circumambulation," "Weary Sojourners,"
"Foreign Country," "The Lost Word," "Distressed Worthy Brother," "the Rejected
Stone," etc., etc., all seem to have definite counterparts in the allegorical Swift Journal.
So do such symbols as the crescent moon, grapevine, laurel, crown, and others. (53)
There are historically dubious points in the Journal which are probably directly
attributable to allegory. Arthur Edward Waite points out that "the significance is in the
allegory and not in any point of history which may lie behind it." (54)
At least one dubious historical point is instructive. Swift refers to Indians "called
Meccas." (Note the qualification that they were "called" that.) Although there was no such
tribe, Henson guesses that "Meccas" or "Macces" may be a corruption of
Mequechakes, a tribe of Shawnees. (55) On the other hand, in Masonic lore a copyist error
appears with reference to "Maacha" (which is part of the Solomonic legend); Masons were
referred to in the early charges and laws as "Maccones"; and the heroic Jewish family of
Macabees also figures in Masonry. (56) I had a hunch that the allegorist might
attempt to play games with numbers, especially since Masons make symbolic use of
them. Swift s phrase, "reflection on God," suggested a look in the Bible. In four chapters
of Isaiah - 37, 56, 38, 2, indicated by the degrees and minutes of latitude - are to be
found an amazing number of passages paralleling the Swift story. IN Isaiah 2, for
example, is this: "...Their land also is full of silver and gold (Swift lists both silver and gold
as part of his treasure), neither is there any end of their treasures..." (Isa. 2:7) IN this one
chapter alone are allusions to Solomon, ships, idols cast of silver (Swift cast coins and silver
bars), plus a phrase (adopted by Masons!): "Clefts of the Rocks." (Isa. 2:13, 16, 20-21).
In Isaiah 37 the reader will learn why the Swift allegorist created a duel with swords,
resulting in the death of one man; why he uses the strange expression, "The Drying Ground";
and why he says that, in searching for the mine, he and his guide "wandered around all
day. That night we came back to the place we started from." (Isa. 37: 7, 25, 34).
The following chapter reveals why Swift claims that for fifteen years he was
prevented from finding his treasure. (Isa. 38:5) also from this chapter: "Behold, I will bring
again the shadow of the degrees..." (Isa. 38:8) Of the few references to "degrees" in the Bible,
how very striking it is that we find the phrase in a passage we were directed to by a cryptic
reference to degrees! (It is worth noting that in Masonry the various grades are known as "Degrees.")
In the same chapter is the question, "What is the sign...?" (Isa. 38:22) We may ask
another: Is the sign in the Swift allegory? Well, Swift refers to "myrtle" which is a biblical
tree. One of the very few biblical passages mentioning it has special meaning; and it
immediately prefaces the designated chapter 56. It reads: "...and instead of the brier shall
come up the myrtle tree; and it shall be to the LORD for a name, an everlasting sign that
shall not be cut off." (Isa. 55:13) Here is how this "myrtle," this "sign that shall not be cut
off," is represented by "Swift"; "Munday (his guide) said, 'I see the myrtle thicket. I know
the way from here! " (57) Chapter 56 refers again to this sign, as
well as to "the sons of the stranger," to greed, and blindness. (Isa. 56:6, 10-11) Chapter 38
elaborates on the latter point: "Mine age is departed...mine eyes fail...(remember Swift
became blind in his later years) O LORD, I am oppressed; undertake for me (blind, Swift
became "dependent upon others")...they that go down into the pit (the mine) cannot hope for
thy truth..." (Isa. 38: 12, 14, 18) So many parallels with the Swift
allegory! Reading and understanding these passages from Isaiah (containing symbolism
adopted by Freemasonry) help us to understand the moral of the Swift allegory.
After almost two hundred years, the key to the 'cipher has been broken.
One of the problems allegories present is that of interpretation. It has not been my
intent to twist facts to fit a theory. I can only repeat that the Journal itself demands
comparison with Freemasonry since so many Masonic symbols are expressly given therein.
Clearly these elements - compasses, square, and trowel - refer to Masonry to the exclusion
of any other meaning. This does not mean "Swift" was a Mason, of course, since his very existence is
doubtful. Nor does it necessarily mean that the original version of the Journal (long lost!)
contained such symbolism - although ever indication is that it did. In the forthcoming
section I will detail evidence which strongly suggests the author s intent as well as
indications of who he was and when the allegory was drafted. As we shall see, John
Filson is conspicuously present in the Swift affair.
John Filson - John Swift
The earliest documented reference to Swift s silver mines is this land record of May 17, 1788:
Robert Breckinridge and John Filson as Tenants in Common Enters (sic) 1000 acres
of land upon the balance of a Treasury Warrant No. 10,117 about sixty or seventy
miles North Eastwardly from Martins Cabbins in Powells Valley to include a silver mine
which was Improved about 17 years ago by a Certain man named Swift at said mine,
wherein the said Swift Reports he has extracted from the oar (sic) a Considerable
quantity of Silver some of which he made into Dollars and left at or near the mine, together
with the apparatus for making the same, the Land to be in a Square and the lines to run at
the Cardinal Points of the Compass including the mine in the Centre as near as may be. (58)
Filson is of course the famous Kentuckian who produced the first map of the
state together with the first history, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of
Kentucke (1784) in which he wrote: "Iron ore and lead are found in abundance, but we do not
hear of any silver or gold mines as yet discovered." (59)
Now Filson s book, and the statements in it, contained endorsement by "Daniel Boon,
Levi Todd, James Harrod." The opinions of these exceedingly knowledgeable men should
have been the best obtainable; and they hadn t even heard, in all their travels, an allegation of
silver mines. Yet in four years the name "Swift" had come to light; his mine had been
located; and it was Filson who had gotten lucky. Weigh the odds.
There is, in fact, absolutely no evidence of the "Swift Mines" legend prior to
the 1788 Filson document. It would be interesting if we could ask John Filson how he
had located the mine. But since we cannot, we can look at the man and his activities in hopes
of clues. They are forthcoming. Consider this portrait of Filson by
William Masterson of Rice University:
His was a strange personality. Fiercely acquisitive, he secured, on paper at least, over
12,000 acres of land. For gain he plunged into arduous schemes, sued and was sued, and
endured all the hardships of an incredibly savage frontier. For gain, despite pious
explanations to the contrary, he wrote his book and drew his map, the products of hours and
days of interviews, travel, and technical skill. He was not friendly and was possessed of a
deadly quality of impatience and pompousness. Like his map he lacked perspective - the map
at the eastern and western ends, the man in any direction that touched upon personal standing
and relationships. Except for the map and book he was in all his endeavors, including his one
known courtship, almost ludicrously unsuccessful. He died penniless..." (60)
Masterson adds: "Yet Filson s very energy attracts." His frontier travels were extensive.
He taught at Transylvania, studied medicine and untold other subjects, conducted countless
interviews, surveyed roads, wrote poetry and created sundry documents at the request of
others, helped to found a city, and attempted to found a seminary (tuition: "one half cash the
other property" (61)). If the reader suspects I am about to
'accuse Filson of perpetrating the Swift hoax, he is partly right: I wish to suggest that there
are numerous indications - if not conclusive evidence - that he did so. Let us examine the indications.
First, there are Masonic symbols and allusions in the text of Filson s land record;
but we cannot be certain they are not purely coincidental. For example, "Cardinal Points of
the Compass" is a definite Masonic term, while on the other hand nothing precludes a non-
Mason s innocent use of the expression in a deed. Too, the "Square" may just be meant
literally. In Masonry it can refer either to the four-sided figure which symbolizes morality
(or duty), or to the trying square, which, with the compass, composes the Masonic emblem.
(The serious student may wish to look up in Masonic texts and glossaries the following:
"North-East Corner," "Working Tools," "Legend," "The Lost Word," "Quest,"
"Alchemy," and even "Circumambulation,") But I belabor my point; presently we shall look
at Filson s Masonic ties; first, let us consider other evidence.
In that pioneer era of Kentucky, Filson was one of the very, very few who could have
met all the necessary requirements for drafting the Journal. His scholarship, his ability to
write and to create maps would obviously have been necessary talents together with his
excellent knowledge of Kentucky. There was nothing in his mixed character to preclude a
motive - and several motives present themselves.
Putting words into "Swift s" mouth would have been child s play for Filson; for
after all, he had given these words to Daniel Boone in a ghostwritten account of the hero s exploits:
The aspect of these cliffs is so wild and horrid, that it is impossible to behold them without
terror. The spectator is apt to imagine that nature had formerly suffered some violent
convulsion; and that these are the dismembered remains of the dreadful shock: the ruins, not of
Persepolis or Palmyra, but of the world! (62)
Exclamation mark indeed! Anyone who could bestow upon a backwoodsman such an instant
education would have no trouble saddling an untutored "sea captain" with a phrase like
"deeming it imprudent."Filson occasionally sounds like the surveyor he was, with a string of "thences":
"...thence down the same to the mouth; thence up the Ohio..." (63) as if he were drafting a
deed of land. Swift writes: "We...came to Leesburg, thence to Winchester, thence to
Littles, thence to Fort Pitt..." (64) "Swift s" division of his manuscript
into sections - "Description of the Mines and Country," "Ore South of the Furnace," etc. -
parallels Filson s treatment of his book: "Situation and Boundaries," "Soil and
Produce," etc. Filson evidently patterned his miscellany after Jefferson s Notes on the State
of Virginia, manuscript copies of which were in circulation after 1781. (65) (Let us hope no
one suggests Jefferson copied "Swift!") After relating some of the early history
of exploration, Filson (following Jefferson s approach) described the boundaries. He began:
"Kentucke is situated, in its central part, near the latitude of 38 degrees north and 85 degrees
west longitude, and lying within the fifth climate...Is bounded on the north by great
Sandy-creek..." (66) And "Swift," after recounting his comings and goings, gives his
"Description of the Mines and Country," including, as previously noted, the latitude and
longitude. He says the furnace is on "a long rocky branch." (67)
Let us compare style. In Filson s little book we find this:
The lands below the mouth of Elkhorn, up Eagle Creek, and towards the Ohio, are
hilly and poor, except those contained in a great bend of the Ohio, opposite Great Miami,
cut off, as appears in the map, by the Big-bone and Bank-lick creeks, interlocking and running
separate courses. Here we find a great deal of good land, but something hilly. (68)
And here for comparison is "Swift":
Mots of the mountains have but little timber and are poor and barren. North of the furnace about three miles is a large hill, seven or eight miles long, upon which there is good
timber of different kinds, where we were able to make charcoal in large quantities for use in
smelting the ore. South of the furnace there is little timber worth notice." (69)
In such passages there is a similarity of both style and outlook. But did Filson have the particularly
literary (and not just journalistic) turn of mind necessary to contrive a complex allegory
replete with clever symbolism? The answer is emphatically yes. He was, for one thing, a
poet. But an example of his genius for cleverness is found in the name he proposed
for the city he helped to found. He called it "Losantiville." As he explained: "L for Licking
River; os, Latin for mouth; anti, Greek for opposite; and ville, French for city." Read
backward, it translates as 'city opposite the mouth of the Licking ! Although later the
name was changed to Cincinnati, some Filson notes have survived to reveal his pedantic
virtuosity. (70) Filson may well have been a Freemason; certainly some of his closest
associates and contemporaries were. One was Levi Todd, an endorser of his book. (71)
Humphrey Marshall - controversial Tory, historian, surveyor, and Mason (72) - is
presumed a Filson friend; although speculation that Marshall wrote, or helped write, Kentucke
is based on too-meager evidence. (73) Filson almost surely came in contact with such
Freemasons as Samuel January, an early settler of Lexington, who later opened an
establishment at Limestone (Maysville) with the Masonic name of "Sign of the Square and
Compass." (Two taverns in Lexington also bore Masonic names - "Sheaf of Wheat" and
"Sign of Cross-Keys.") (74) Insofar as is known Filson never met George Washington
(America s most famous Freemason), but it was to him that Filson publicly dedicated his map.
IN 1788 (the year in which the Journal was probably created, or at least
finished), Filson was actually living in the home of a prominent Mason, Colonel Robert
Patterson (75) - soon to be a Filson partner in founding "Losantiville." It was in this
significant year of 1788, on November 17, that the "first lodge west of the Alleghenies,"
Masonic Lodge No. 25 at Lexington, was issued a charter. (76) The date of the
application for the charter is unknown, but surely it was some time (weeks or even
months) before. (Prior to that time, Kentucky s Freemasons had to make the difficult,
dangerous trip to the Grand Lodge in Richmond, VA.) Unfortunately, the names of
the charter members of Lodge No. 25 are irretrievably lost; (77) but it does seem that
while plans were being made to establish the lodge, Filson - living in Patterson s home - was
close at hand. And it is very likely that, with his extraordinary curiosity and his admiration
for Masons, he sought membership in the society.
While there is no direct proof the "Swift Silver Mines" allegory was adopted for
actual use by Masons, Freemasonry is, after all, a "society with secrets." Further, many
appendant orders of the brotherhood have flourished briefly before passing into
obscurity. If Filson had written the allegory (say at the request of Patterson), it might
simply have suffered the same fate as "Losantiville." Or possibly another fate, which
I will touch on presently. Filson s talents frequently earned him
requests to write documents for others. for example, it was he who drafted the petition to
Congress on behalf of the families at Post St. Vincent pleading for military protection (and
for the establishment of a "permanent land office here, for the purpose of obtaining valid
rights to lands... (78) Land was a Filson obsession, and he dwells on explaining how to
acquire it in his book.) He also wrote the announcement for a proposed Lexington
seminary (a "bizarre" document, as his biographer admits) (79) as well as the
prospectus for the proposed settlement of "Losantiville." It was at the request of
Colonel Patterson that Filson set to the task of conjuring up that 'veiled name. (80)
In mid-1788 Filson wrote to his brother - who was being harassed by Filson s
creditors - a letter most revealing of his character. He said, in part:
I have supported a good credit here (Lexington), and have enough to support me.
I resumed my studies last winter...and this spring have begun to study Physic with Doctor
Slater...two years I study, as soon as my study is finished. I am to be married, which will be
greatly to our advantage. Stand it out 2 years my dear brother, you shall have Negroes to wait on you. (81)
The letter was written just ten days after Filson recorded his supposed discovery of the silver
mine, yet he makes no reference to it! Did he know the mine was only legendary?
He did not travel to the mine. Instead he headed in the opposite direction. A month
later, at Beargrass (near Louisville), he composed a poem, indicating he had been
spurned in love and threatening suicide. (82) By September 23, Filson had arrived
at "Losantiville" with his two partners: Colonel Patterson, and Matthias Denman of
New Jersey (who had obtained the land). After a preliminary survey, Filson disappeared. He
was rumored killed by Indians, although his body was never found; and another surveyor,
Israel Ludlow, took his place in the partnership. John Walton, Filson s biographer,
states: "Years later, sworn testimony was given that these men ransacked Filson s trunk
and destroyed his papers in order to defraud his heirs. (83) Could the Swift allegory have
been among the papers in the ransacked trunk? A great deal of circumstantial evidence
connects Filson with the "Swift" manuscript. Someone certainly contrived it, and at every
turn, Filson is suspiciously present. Wherever we find Filson in the Swift
matter, Colonel Robert Patterson is not far behind. After Filson s death, the records are
silent as to "Swift s Mine" for more than two years. Then there is this entry:
April 1791. Eli Cleveland withdraws his entry of 200 acres made January 5, 1791
on Warrent No. 15132. Eli Cleveland and John Morton enters (sic) 1483 acres of land on two
Treasury Warrants No. 15132 and 12128 on a branch of Red River to Include an Old Camp
in the Center where there is some old troughs at said Camp by the branch side. The said
Camp is a place difficult of access Supposed to be Swift s Old Camp and others including a
mine said to be occupied formerly by said Swift and others. (84)
John Morton (who later became a banker) was a Mason, (85) and his partner, Eli Cleveland,
may have been. Cleveland was closely linked with Colonel Patterson since they were (at
roughly this time) fellow magistrates of Fayette Co. (86)
In two more years these county lawmen were to learn of a bizarre and tragic
episode in the "Swift" saga. Colonel James Harrod, prominent as the founder of
Harrodsburg, was reported murdered after being lured on a search for the mines (87) by a
man named Bridges - a man with whom Harrod "had a lawsuit about property." (88) In
his little book, Filson had called Colonel Harrod "a gentleman of veracity." (89)
Several years later, in 1815, Colonel William McMillan of Clark Co., with eleven
other men, formed a "company" (90) to search for the Swift mines. McMillan possessed, at
least according to later legend, the "original" Journal and map. As to the latters: "From
notes relating to it, it must have been in cipher, for finding the place appeared to depend upon
the phases of the moon or signs of the zodiac or some mysterious combination of
circumstances, perhaps never revealed." (91) Had the map survived, only then might we do
more than guess that the "cipher" was composed of Masonic symbols.
I did succeed in establishing that "William McMillin" (sic) was active in Clark Co., (92) and that a "William McMillan" was at "Losantiville" in 1788! He arrived with a
party brought by Colonel Patterson shortly fter Filson s reported death...(93) This much
is clear: Any further clues concerning "Swift s Mines" will be unearthed - not in the soil of
Kentucky - but in the neglected dust of archives.
1. Except as otherwise noted, all quotes from Swift s Journal are taken from
the version reproduced in Michael Paul Henson s John Swift s Lost Silver Mines (Louisville; privately printed, 1975), pp. 8-25.
2. J. H. Kidwell, Silver Fleece (New York: Avondale Press, 1927), vii. (This is a
novel based on the Swift legend. The quote is from Kidwell s introduction.)
3. Lincoln Co. No. 10117, issued May 17, 1788 and filed in the Land Office at
Richmond, VA. Copy available from the Land Office in Frankfort, KY. Reproduced by Henson, p. 37.
4. Thomas S. Watson. "John Swift s
Lost Silver Mines - A Joke?", The State Journal (Frankfort, KY), February 22, 1976, p. 25
5. Ibid. citing opinion of Dr. Thomas D. Clark, Kentucky Historian.
6. Letter to author, September 26, 1978
7. Journal, pp. 11, 19
8. In addition to versions cited, there are these: Kidwell, pp 1-8; Henson, Lost Silver
Mines and Buried Treasure of Kentucky, private printed, Louisville, 1972, pp. 6-13; et
al. There are also numerous unpublished versions.
9. Henson, p. 8. Henson believes Swift died in Tennessee in 1800 and that the Journal
was taken to Pennsylvania and later to Louisville. (See Henson, pp. 7, 40-41.) But if the Journal was not circulated until after 1800, how do we explain Filson s treasury warrant of 1788 containing wording which implies Filson possessed a copy?
10. Arthur Hardie Dougherty, "The Legends of the Swifts and Monday Mine" (sic), undated typescript in the McClung Collection. Lawson McGhee Library, Knoxville. Unpaginated. (Dougherty says his
brother "procured a very old and faded document from an old man in Virginia by the
name of Boatwright," from which the text was transcribed.)
11. Op. Cit.
12. William Elsey Connelley and E. Merton Coulter, History of Kentucky
(Chicago: The American Historical Society, 1922), pp. 130-33.
13. Journal (Henson), p. 15 (cf. Connelley and Coulter, p. 132)
14. Ibid., pp. 24-25.
15. Ibid., p. 14
16. Journal (Henson), p. 17. Jonathan Swift, the allegorist, was known to early
Kentuckians. A creek named "Lulbegrud" (from "Gulliver s Travels) appears on Filson s 1784 map.
17. Henson, p. 25
18. Court of Appeals Deed Book A, p.
307. August 1, 1795. Kentucky Land Office, Frankfort.
19. Court of Appeals Deed Book N. p.
142. November 4, 1809. Kentucky Land Office, Frankfort.
20. Henson, pp. 7, 27.
21. Franklin Longdon Brockett, The
Lodge of Washington (Alexandria, VA: 1899), pp. 127-28.
22. e. g., William Swift of Sandwitch and Some of his Descendants, 1637-1899,
compiled by George H. Swift (Millbrook, NY: Round Table Press, 1900).
23. 1788. (Filson s treasury warrant.) See Footnote 3.
24. 1823. (Judge John Haywood s History of Tennessee, p. 33, 34. Cited by Connelley and Coulter, 115.)
25. 1791. (Fayette Co., VA, Entry Book, p. 333, in the Kentucky Land Office. Full text of this document is given below.
26. 1791. (Ibid)
27. Henson, pp. 88-89
28. Journal, (Henson), p. 18.
29. Undated clipping (obtained from Mr. Henson).
30. Early and Modern History of Wolfe Co. (Campton, KY: Wolfe Co.
Woman s Club, 1958), pp. 13-14. See also, Licking Valley Courier (West Liberty), October 19, 1978.
31. Op. Cit., p. vii
32. Journal (Henson), p. 16. The version in Silver Fleece (Kidwell, p. 4) reads "compass square and trowel" (sic)).
33. Masonic Heirloom Edition Holy Bible (Wichita, KS: Heirloom Bible Publishers, 1964), p. 26. (Before proceeding further, let me state that I requested no Mason to compromise himself by revealing society secrets. Data on Masonic symbols and other matters revealed in the following pages is
found in encyclopedias and books on Masonry sold to the general public. If I have
inadvertently revealed any treasured secrets, that has not been my motive, nor do I intend
criticism of Freemasonry in any of my statements.)
34. Journal (Henson), pp. 11, 12, 17.
Cf. Masonic Bible, pp. 16, 24. Albert G. Mackey, Symbolism of Freemasonry
(Chicago: Charles F. Powner Co., 1975), p. 122 states that Freemasonry is "a science of symbolism."
35. Look to the East!, revised edition, edited by Ralph P. Lester (Chicago: Ezra A.
Cook Publications, 1977), p. 60.
36. Journal (Henson), p. 18.
37. Ibid., p. 22
38. Collier s Encyclopedia (1978), "Freemasonry." Mackey (p. 315) explains that
an allegory is "a discourse or narrative, in which there is a literal and figurative sense, a
patent and a concealed meaning; the literal or patient sense being intended by analogy or
comparison to indicate the figurative or concealed one." (Curiously, one of Swift s men was name"Guise.")
39. Masonic Bible, p. 10.
40. Ibid., p. 26
41. Journal (Henson), p. 17
42. Look to the East!, p. 123.
43. I Kings 10:27.
44. Journal (Henson), p. 16.
45. Ibid., p. 22.
46. Look to the East! p. 26.
47. Mackey, p. 190ff.
48. Journal (Henson), p. 16.
49. Masonic Bible, p. 12, 37, 63.
50. Look to the East!, p. 150ff.
51. Masonic Bible, p. 48.
52. Ibid., p. 36.
53. Masonic Bible, pp. 1-63. See also Arthur Edward Waite, A New Encyclopedia of
Freemasonry (New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), I, xiii ff; Mackey, p. 313 ff.
54. Waite, I, 367.
55. Henson, Lost Silver Mines and Buried Treasure of Kentucky, p. 31.
56. Masonic Bible, p. 50.
57. Journal (Henson), p. 19; Mackey, p. 260, 347.
58. See note 3
59. Revised edition, New York: Corinth Books, 1962, p. 25.
60. From Masterson s introduction to Kentucke, 1962 Corinth edition, vi.
61. Kentucky Gazette, January 19, 1787; John Walton, John Filson of Kentucke (Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 1956), p. 100.
62. Kentucke, 1962 Corinth edition, p. 58.
63. Ibid., p. 9.
64. Journal (Henson), p. 11.
65. Walton, p. 31.
66. Kentucke, 1962 Corinth edition, p. 11.
67. Journal (Henson), p. 17.
68. Kentucke, 1962 Corinth edition, p. 18.
69. Journal (Henson), p. 18.
70. Walton, p. 113.
71. J. Winston Coleman, Masonry in the Bluegrass (Lexington: Transylvania Press, 1933), p. 31.
72. Ibid,, p. 93.
73. Walton, p. 48.
74. Coleman, Masonry, p. 28; Coleman, Stage-Coach Days in the Bluegrass (Louisville: Standard Press, 1935), p. 54; Charles R. Staples, The History of Pioneer Lexington (KY.): 1179-1806 (Lexington: Transylvania Press, 1939), pp. 11-12. Masonry was obviously in a vigorous phase.
75. Walton, p. 109; Coleman, Masonry, p. 31.
76. Coleman, Masonry, p. 30.
78. Walton, pp. 85-86.
79. Ibid., p. 98
80. John Bach McMaster, A History of the People of the United States (8 vols.; New York: D. Appleton, 1883-1913), I, 516.
81. Walton, pp. 105-106. The letter was written May 27, 1788.
82. Ibid., pp. 107-108.
83. Walton, pp. 119-20.
84. Fayette Co., VA, Entry Book, p. 333, in the Kentucky Land Office, Frankfort.
85. Coleman, Masonry, p. 82.
86. Staples, Pioneer Lexington, p. 78.
87. Conneley and Coulter, p. 113.
89. Kentucke, 1962 Corinth edition, p. 24.
90. "Swift" also termed his group a "company". In the Journal (see Henson, p. 10)
he actually places the word in quotation marks. According to Encyclopedia Britannica (1960:
"Freemasonry"): the Freemason was "understood to be a mason who was free in the
sense of being a member of a guild or 'company" (my italics).
91. From a typescript, "Clark County Chronicles," in the files of the Kentucky Historical Society.
92. Williard Rouse Jillson, Early Clark County Kentucky: A History (1674- 1824) (Frankfort: Roberts Printing Company, 1966), p. 65.
93. Beverly W. Bond, Jr. (ed.), "Dr. Daniel Drake s Memoir of the Miami Country,
1779-1794," Quarterly Publication of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, XVIII (1923), p. 57.
From The Filson Club History Quarterly, Vol. 54, October, 1980, No. 4, page 325-345.
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