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Not a Zebra: Ziba Swan

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Ziba Swan was an early Birmingham settler who is perhaps best known today for donating the first ½ acre of land to make Greenwood Cemetery, but he was a lot more than just a land-donator. Ever wondered just what a battlefield doctor during the War of 1812 would have done? Come along and find out.

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It’s not every day when you realize that your community has some dead people and nowhere to bury them.  In such a time of uncertainty, you need a deeply practical person to step forward and offer some of their land for a cemetery. Ziba Swan probably never thought that his most lasting legacy would be the oldest public cemetery in Michigan (well, public cemetery with a burial, Pontiac had land set aside for a public cemetery before Birmingham was forced to create one) but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Or legacies, in this case. But there’s a lot more to him than just this-he was instrumental in many other organizations and there’s even an urban myth buried in his story as well!

                This is Birmingham Uncovered, a podcast by the Birmingham Museum, where we are exploring the diverse and compelling lives that built Birmingham Michigan into the community that it is today. First, some background on Birmingham: we are a city of approx. 20,000 people over 4.73 square miles, approximately halfway between Detroit and Pontiac in Oakland County. This area was occupied by members of the Three Fires Confederacy of Indigenous People before white settlement in the area started in the late 1810s. Birmingham became a city in 1933 and today is known as a prosperous and multi-faceted community with a thriving cultural scene.

                A quick note on the name: in some older videos and interviews you might hear staff members, mostly myself, refer to Ziba as “Zeeba” but the family corrected us as to the correct pronunciation of the name. It’s even spelled Ziba so I don’t know how that other pronunciation caught on except to say that Midwestern accents are a heck of a drug and do weird things to vowels.

                Folks in the past chose their children’s names the same way we do today: Family names that have been passed down for generations, pop culture, favorite books, etc. In the 1700s and early 1800s books were expensive but most of the fairly Christian population had read at least one book: the Bible. Ziba is a servant of King Saul mentioned in 2 Samuel. Yes, children have always been named after fandoms and there is a King Saul fandom out there and probably fanfiction too.

                But our Ziba was born in 1767 in Stonington, Connecticut, a harbor town that came to prominence in the 1790s as the home of a seal hunting fleet. But Ziba wasn’t going to sea to hunt seals, he became a doctor…eventually.

                It was a far less grueling profession to join then. Ziba wouldn’t have known what it was to go to college for an undergrad, applying to medical school, doing a residency, taking the MCATS, etc. Nor would he know what it was like to hook up with your coworkers in the break room in between surgeries (the only thing I know about the medical profession I learned watching Greys Anatomy, which somehow still makes me more of a medical professional than a doctor during Ziba’s day).

                And actually, we don’t know when or how he got the title “doctor” except that he shows up in Birmingham with it. Past historical society volunteers and museum staff spent way more time trying to figure out the names of the parents of his distant ancestor that sailed on the Mayflower than trying to figure out how and when he became a doctor. Priorities, people.

                Here’s what we know: Ziba’s father was probably a farmer. Ziba married Elizabeth Palmer in New London, CT in 1790 and by 1796 the couple had three children and were still in CT. In 1799 the family relocated to Albany, New York and the household consisted of Ziba and Elizabeth, 5 children and 2 young adults. Ziba joined the Albany Mechanics Society, one of the first crafts unions in the United States and in 1800 and 1801 purchased a grocer’s license from the city government. This would indicate that Ziba was in trade, and quite possibly owned his own grocery store. At this time, in larger cities like Albany, the population would have shopped at smaller neighborhood grocery stores instead of large chain supermarkets like many of us do today. Grocery stores usually sold dry goods though, as no refrigeration meant that meat, dairy products and the like were not able to be kept on shelves. Neighborhood butcher shops and dairy deliveries from local dairies filled that market niche.

                Ziba next shows up during the War of 1812, like most of the other men we’ve profiled so far. But unlike those other guys, Ziba was much older when he went to war. In 1813, when he joined the 147th regiment of the New York militia he was 46 years old. His son, Ziba Jr. was 19 and also joined.

                And like a lot of middle aged folks, he had some favorite furniture and he brought one of those pieces to war with him. At the museum we have the desk that, according the Swan family story, he took with him when he served as a surgeon during the War of 1812. The army didn’t provide a lot of supplies to soldiers at this time, so a lot of his fellow surgeons probably also provided their own desks as well as blankets and other necessary supplies.

                The desk, which can be seen in the Hunter House at the Birmingham Museum, is a secretary style desk in two parts and probably made of cherry wood. It’s much heavier and bulkier than a typical desk used by military doctors, which leads us to believe that it was a personal desk that Ziba brought with him. Its an example of many of the artifacts that we have here at the museum, where the significance is not in the item itself (these sorts of desks are fairly common) but in its context and association.


                And here, Ziba arrives in the historical record as a doctor. There is some overlap between the last profession we have for Ziba and a doctor of the time period though. During this period of history in the United States, there were no national pharmaceutical companies producing prescription drugs, many doctors at the time would mix their own drugs or prescribe a remedy in the form of a recipe that the patient could have mixed by somebody with access to chemical compounds- in some towns that would be your local grocer rather than a specialty pharmacist.

                The first state to actually license pharmacies and pharmacists was Louisiana in 1804, with its first licensed pharmacy opening in the 1820s. Before that, drugs and remedies was a wide open field full of natural remedies and cures that could be produced by a local person with some knowledge, cures whipped up by apothecaries who maybe completed a brief apprenticeship or patent medicine.

                Patent medicines were available over the counter, without a prescription (though your doctor might have prescribed them or sold them). Patent medicines did not have to disclose what their ingredients were, and to be clear, most of these medicines were comprised of mostly alcohol, opiates or other drugs. Got bad stomach pains? No you don’t if you both high on cocaine and super drunk.

                So Ziba might have already had a lot of experience with medicine, so why not become an army doctor? For the War of 1812, there was no structure or department of medicine within the army. There was also no way to evaluate the competency of medical staff. Today, we can check degrees and licenses, but neither existed for doctors in the early 1800s. Medicine as an academic discipline was still years away and the science was…a bit lacking.

                Medical science in the early 1800s was a mishmash of several theories. You had the humoral theory-that the body was composed of several different substances or humors:  you had your blood, phlegm, yellow bile and a fourth secret thing in black bile. These humors responded to things like body temperature, which could be raised or lowered depending on the temperature outside the body as well as the food that a patient ate and through bleeding. The humoral theory is still with us today in phrases like “phlegmatic” or “full of bile” or “bilious” or other phrases you may have come across in the Shakespeare readings you were assigned in high school.

                Another theory was “solidism” held that the strength and elasticity of the hollow tubes of your veins and arteries was all important. Blood, urine, fecal matter and, yes, your humors needed to be able to move freely through them.

                The third theory was miasma, or “bad air” being the cause of some diseases.

                Though many doctors of the time might not have read his works, the work of Galen underpinned medical knowledge of the humors. You know Galen, famous Roman dude who was born in 129 CE. He built off of Hippocrates, that oath guy who was born in 460 BCE, who advanced miasmal theory and thought that humors in the human body existed.

                Important note: different and similar theories existed in the rest of the world as to why humans got diseases and western ideas routinely were in conversation with these other ideas. The works of Galen, notably, were improved upon and refined in the medieval Muslim world. Settlers in the Americas learned and adapted the cures and therapies taught to them by Native Americans.

                Why were we still using medical theories written by guys who had never even seen a potato? Fun fact: potatoes were domesticated in South America. Rip Marcus Aurelius, you would have loved to hate the convenience of McDonald’s French fries.

                A lot of it we can lay at the feet of theological and philosophical implications of dissecting human cadavers. Even in places where cadavers, usually the unclaimed poor from workhouses, executed criminals or bodies stolen from cemeteries, could be obtained, supply was limited and not every person training to be a doctor would have access to autopsies. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, written in 1816, captured the horror many felt about using the bodies of the dead for science.

                The army did have one surprisingly modern medical treatment in it’s arsenal-vaccination. All US soldiers were required to be vaccinated against smallpox. Nowadays, smallpox is hardly on our radar as a disease but in the 1800s it killed about 3 out of every ten folks who got it and destroyed many Native American communities, who didn’t have any acquired immunity to the disease. Those who it didn’t kill, it often maimed. A woman known as “Mother Handsome” who owned an inn along the Saginaw Trail had scarring on her face from a bout of smallpox and in the portrait that we have of John Hamilton it also looks like he might have scars on his face from a battle with smallpox.

                Edward Jenner tends to get most of the credit for realizing that folks who worked with cows and got a lesser illness from them-cowpox- didn’t get smallpox and then devised a way to infect folks with cowpox. But the simple truth of the matter is that folks in other cultures had this figured out- both cowpox and vaccination with puss from smallpox infections long before Jenner. In the 1500s in Ming Dynasty China, powdered smallpox scabs were blown into the noses of healthy folks, inflicting a milder form of the disease (with a mortality rate between .5-2%) and from then on the patient was immune. In the 1700s, a British traveler in the Ottoman Empire reported on “pox parties” where parents would bring children or young adults to one place, and then older women in the community would then open up a vein in the arm of the young person and put a needle with smallpox puss in it. The children played together until a fever would develop and after that they would go home to their families and not have to worry about catching smallpox in the future. This traveler was so impressed that she had her five year old son vaccinated during her stay.

                In the United States, a man with one of the worst names in history, Cotton Mather, learned about vaccination from a man he enslaved named Onesimus who had been given a vaccination in West Africa and said that such procedures were common there. Enslaved folks who had small scars from this procedure could fetch higher prices at auction because of their immunity to the disease.

                The spread of disease has always been one of the biggest concerns for armies. Large numbers of individuals from diverse locations and backgrounds with different hygiene habits living together in close proximity are petri dishes for disease. Thankfully, the army did not have to worry about smallpox outbreaks but there were plenty of other worries. Common ones for armies of this time period were Typhus, a disease caused by bacteria that can be transmitted to humans through fleas and lice; and dysentery, an infection of the intestines; were the most common. And yes, malaria. If there has been one constant in all these podcast episodes so far its malaria. Drinking water was a problem too, with so many people often spread out over many miles and all trying to clean themselves, their clothing and bedding and well as going to the bathroom, water sources could very quickly become bacterial soups of all sorts of gross stuff.  

                It’s been estimated that about 60% of soldiers would have needed medical attention during the war. 75% of those had an illness or disease and the other 25% were battle injuries.

                Battlefield injuries could result from musket balls lodged in places, injuries from cannonballs, burns or wounds from hand to hand combat with bladed weapons like axes. Surgery at that time was largely confined to stitching injuries up and amputations. And again, germ theory was still a ways off which meant that sanitizing needles and bonesaws was not really a thing and infection was common.

                Did Ziba give smallpox vaccinations to new recruits? What did his day to day work look like? If he wrote an account we don’t have it so I cannot provide any juicy details.

                But he survived the war and next pops up in the historic record buying land in what would become Birmingham in 1821. Roughly, his land now comprises part of north side of Birmingham.

                And here, Ziba wasn’t content to just have one job or profession. Having multiple professions on the frontier was common and it wasn’t rare to find a doctor who was also a carpenter or a farmer who also had a tavern. He was a member of the first board of county commissioners, helped found the first Masonic Lodge in Oakland County, helped form the first Baptist church in Pontiac and was an associate judge of the circuit court of Oakland County from 1839-1848. The first schoolhouse in the community was on his land in a small log cabin.

 All these activities indicate that not only was Ziba a trusted member of the community, but also that he was really interested in creating a strong community. You typically don’t go out of your way to join your local government and fraternal organizations if you are a loner who hates society.

                In 1825, only four years after purchasing his land, Ziba gave away a half acre of it when the unthinkable happened. Polly and Cynthia Utter, who were Ziba’s neighbors and who he certainly knew, were murdered by Imri Fish. Feel free to listen to episode 1 to learn more about the tragedy and its aftermath. Ziba’s work in trade, as a grocer and then as an army surgeon and then on the board of commissioners speaks to a level of practicality. In 1825, Birmingham didn’t have a place to bury the dead, either a public cemetery or church graveyards and as tenant farmers, John Utter might not have been able to or wanted to bury his wife and daughter by his farm.

                According to popular legend, Ziba donated his land to provide Polly and Cynthia with a proper burial out of guilt for recommending Imri as a boarder to the Utter family. That might play a part, but it’s also likely that the Swan and Utter families were close and that Ziba, as someone who valued community, wanted to do something that would help the Utters and the tiny community in the aftermath of the crime.

                This half acre became Greenwood Cemetery, where Ziba Swan himself was buried after his death in 1847. His legacy is, yes, the cemetery itself but also in the community building he undertook. It takes a lot to turn a random piece of land with some people living on it into a community with schools, churches, laws and rules and fun secret societies, like the masons, to join.


                But we have one mystery and one urban legend attached to Ziba Swan. The mystery involves the 1820 census, the first one that the Swan family appears in for Oakland County. Everything looks like one would expect, you have Ziba and one white woman over 45 who is probably Elizabeth, and three older children. But according to the census the family had one free “colored” girl under the age of 14 living with them. She was no longer with the family in the 1830 census. Who was she? An intriguing possibility pops up as researchers at the museum explore more of Oakland County and Birmingham’s Underground Railroad network. Though we haven’t found any documentation yet connecting him directly to abolitionist activities, the church he helped found in Pontiac was among the first in Oakland County to host anti-slavery meetings.

                Could this girl have been a freedom seeker that lived with the family? Could she have been a servant? We don’t know. At this time there was at least one free Black family in the area as well as one enslaved black person so a Black girl in her early teens wasn’t a total anomaly but it still brings up questions.

                Now, onto the urban legend! You thought we were done with legends surrounding Greenwood Cemetery, but all cemeteries come equipped with more urban legends than you can shake a stick at.

                In 2022 we were asked by a member of the public why we didn’t have any material available on the “Indian Massacre” that occurred on the site which Greenwood Cemetery now sits.

                The story goes that a fur trapper named Michaud or Micheau witnessed a massacre of 1,500 Chippewas  by a hunting party from the Fox tribe. The fur trapper was able to witness it all and then later tell the story to two Birmingham guys, Orrin Poppleton and Edgar Baldwin. Oh, and this fur trapper lived to be 114 or 115.

                Couple problems with that. The French involvement in the fur trade in SE Michigan ended in the 1700s and it would have been extremely unusual for a French fur trapper to have been in the area in the first half of the 1800s. Secondly, we have no evidence in the archaeological or oral histories of the Chippewa of a community that large in that spot. Additionally neither of the tribes in question seem to remember such a large and bloody event and they would have better reason to remember it than we would.

                This sort of urban legend you find a lot around the River Rouge, the river that flows through Birmingham fairly close to the cemetery, because nobody knows exactly how the it got the name of the Red River or why it stuck. There had to be some reason why some French dudes in the area looked at the river and went, “Le riviere, c’est rouge!” and popular imagination along with some conflating of conflicts between different tribes in the general area come together and give us stories of massacres that turn rivers red with blood.

                Also, I’m fairly confident in calling shenanigans on that guy being 115.

                Join us next week for a true story of adventure, danger and survival against the odds as we explore the life of George Taylor, who fled enslavement along the Underground Railroad in 1855 through Oakland County to Canada and later became the first black property owner in Birmingham.

                To see photos and video of Ziba’s desk and other materials, check out our website, the link is in the shownotes. For questions or comments, you can reach us at museum@bhamgov.org.

                I’m Caitlin Donnelly and thank you for joining us for this episode of “Birmingham Uncovered”. Special thanks to the Birmingham Area Cable Board for PEG grant funding that made this podcast possible. Also thanks to past and present staff of the Birmingham Museum. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, feel free to rate and review us on whatever app you listen on.

Swan desk

Ziba Swan's desk
Greenwood Cemetery Map
Greenwood Cemetery Map
Greenwood Cemetery Walking Tours
Take a walk through history with our self guided Greenwood Cemetery Walking tours available on our website or app
1820 Census Record
1820 census for Oakland County, original scanned document1820 Census transcribed from ancestry