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The Many Legends of
Christopher Columbus Swaney

Christopher Columbus Swaney was a giant of a man. Of this there can be no doubt. His grandfather, John Swaney had immigrated to America along with two brothers Alexander & Morgan from Kilmacrenan, County Donegal in 1798.

"Ole' Chris", as he came to be known, was born on the 6th of March, 1835 in Spring Township, Crawford County, Pennsylvania and he was baptized into the catholic faith shortly after by Rev. Mr. Crawley, his sponsors being John Fagan & Margaret Clark. In the fall of 1850 his father, John, migrated to Old Mission, Michigan from Pennsylvania. He was just 15 years old when he claimed 160 acres immediately to the north of his father's claim and 10 years later when the government actually put the land on the market he paid a mere $1.25 per acre to own it free and clear.

Perhaps there is no more colorful character in our family nor one who more stories are told of than that of "Ole' Chris". He was of great statue as is testified to by his photos (Observe the size of his head and hands compared to that of his wife's Nancy and note he is still taller than her even though the chair he is sitting on is shorter than hers!). He earned his living as a lumberjack, sailor, and farmer. He regularly would swim to out to Marion Island in the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay in Lake Michigan, a distance of over two miles. It's said if he was riding in a wagon and passed an acquaintance walking along the road he would simply lift him up by his shirt collar and set him down beside him on the seat in the wagon!

Chris's one weakness came in a bottle. He was famous for his fighting, no doubt fueled by an Irish temper and the drink. A story is told of a time he was drinking in a saloon in Traverse City and he heard of a man in Mackinaw City 100 miles away who could lick anyone, anytime. Chris slowly set his glass down and walked out the door. For two weeks no one saw or heard from Chris until one day the door of the saloon opened and in strolled "Ole Chris". He proceeded to walk up to the man who two weeks before had done all the bragging and proclaimed "Hey, you know that guy you said could lick anyone, any time- he weren't so tough!"

Chris was also known for his daring. When others would not go out on Grand Traverse Bay winter ice for fear of it being too thin, Chris could be seen crossing from Elk Raids seven miles away with a team of horses pulling a threshing machine. Another story is told of a group of men who had assembled on the beach to go fishing one day. Looking out across Lake Michigan they decided the waters were much too choppy to go out. They stood around conversing on the beach for a while until one of them looked up and low and behold here comes Ole' Chris crossing the bay in a sailboat- with a cow in it!

Christopher Columbus Swaney seems to become larger than life in a number of stories no doubt due to added relishes here and there throughout the years. One story has Chris on a boat that blows up several miles from shore. It's said the explosion was so powerful it broke both his arms and both his legs and he still swam to shore! Another tells of a ship at the Old Mission dock that needed assistance in hoisting its anchor. The anchor weighed anywhere from 500 to 2000 lbs. depending who is telling the story. It seems the captain of this vessel gathered a group of five or six men together, Chris included, giving them instructions on how to "lift" the anchor. While the captain was talking, Chris casually strolled over to the anchor chain and pulled this 500 lbs. plus anchor aboard the ship, wiped his hands on his pants and strolled away without saying a word.

On the 13th of April, 1871, he married Nancy Kitchen of Alden, Michigan. She had been born in Canada and Justice of the peace John B. Boursaw performed the ceremony as well as acted as witness along with Charlotte Helfringe. After the wedding the couple went by ox team from Old Mission to Alden to set up housekeeping, he having sold his land to his sister Rose Swaney and her husband Gardiner Dana.

Eventually, Chris's unorthodox lifestyle and heavy drinking came between him and Nancy and they ended their marriage. Their six children stayed with other Swaney families until Nancy could support them. She accomplished this by running a boarding house in Alden called "The Main House". She later remarried a man named Thomas Wheatly and had two more children. When the children were grown she moved to St. Joseph, Missouri with her youngest son by Chris, Johnnie Swaney. She died there at 88 years old.

Chris spent his final years living with his daughter Rose Swaney Boursaw. He died in his sleep of heart failure on July 30, 1903. The day before, at the age of 68, he had just finished digging a well and the strain must have proved too much for him. The next morning Rose had looked in on him and saw him resting so peacefully she decided to let him sleep in. Later when she had heard no stirring she looked in to see her young son Loren playing horsy on top of grandpa in bed. It was then she saw that Ole' Chris had gone to his final rest. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Ogdensburg Cemetery on the Old Mission peninsula.

Thanks to George Beckett

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