William Sweger, Bedford County, Pennsylvania gunsmithing apprentice

Introduction: A gun collecting-related book indicates that an individual named William Sweger apprenticed with a Bedford County Defibaugh gunsmith in 1829. There were Sweger families in Bedford County, but I don't know which (if any) the apprentice William Sweger may have been related to. There was a major gunsmith named William Sweger in Perry County, and he was about the right age to have been the apprentice.

Although it is reported that the gunsmith William Sweger was raised in Perry County, I made a list of the early Swegers in Bedford County, wondering if long distance family relationships may have helped a Perry County youth obtain a Bedford County apprenticeship. Please do not misinterpret such musings as facts.

Roy Chandler's book on Perry County gunsmiths includes a biography of William Sweger, but I have not had the opportunity to read it.

1815: A web page about the Perry County gunsmith William Sweger says he was born February 3, 1815 in Perry County, Pennsylvania. The author of the William Sweger biographical material on that web page did not know who William Sweger apprenticed with. I suspect that he is the individual who is said to have apprenticed with a Defibaugh gunsmith in 1829. If William Sweger was born February 3, 1815, then he would have turned age 14 in 1829.

1820: The web page about the Perry County Gunmith William Sweger indicates that William's father was Johanas Schweiger. In a transcript of the 1820 census of Saville Township, Perry County, Pennsylvania the John Sweager household has one male and one female in the 26 to 45 age group, two males and one female in the 10 to 16 age group, and three males and three females in the up to ten age group. One individual in the household was engaged in agriculture. There were also Henry and George Sweager households in Saville Township, and a Jacob Sweger household in Rye Township.

1829: The Whiskers' 2017 book "Gunsmiths of Bedford County, Pennsylvania" states that William Sweger, at 12 years of age, commenced an apprenticeship with William Defibaugh in 1829. The book also indicates that William Defibaugh was born November 15, 1814. Together, these statements seem either implausible or remarkable, considering that William Defibaugh wouldn't have turned age 15 until November 15, 1829. I wish the source of the apprenticeship information had been described in the 2017 book, so it could be scrutinized. I wonder if the reported 1829 date of the apprenticeship or the reported name or birth year of the sponsoring Bedford County gunsmith is a typographical error. I don't know that a mistake has been made, but having written several books, I do know how easy it is to make mistakes, and how hard it is to catch them before publication.

1836: The 1850 census suggests that William Sweger had a son named Lewis who was born circa 1837. The following excerpt is from Volume 2 of the 1897 book "Commemorative Biographical Encyclopedia of the Juniata Valley, Comprising the Counties of Huntingdon, Mifflin, Juniata, and Perry, Pennsylvania":

1838: The aforementioned web page about William Sweger indicates that he made a gun as early as 1838.

Circa 1838-1839: The 1850 and 1860 censuses suggest that William Sweger had a son named Joshua who was born circa 1838-1839. The above excerpt from the 1897 book confirms that William Sweger had a son named Joshua who was living at the time of publication.

1840: The aforementioned web page about William Sweger indicates that he appears in the 1840 census as a gunsmith.

Circa 1840-1841: The 1850 and 1860 censuses suggest that William Sweger had a son named Absalom who was born circa 1840-1841. The above excerpt from the 1897 book confirms that William Sweger had a son named Absalom who had died before the book was published.

Circa 1842-1843: The 1850 and 1860 censuses suggest that William Sweger had a son named Elkanah who was born circa 1842-1843. Elkanah Sweger died sometime in April of 1902 at the age of 60 and is buried at the Eshcol Cemetery in Perry County, Pennsylvania.

Circa 1844: The 1850 and 1860 censuses suggest that William Sweger had a daughter named Sarah who was born circa 1844. The above excerpt from the 1897 book confirms that William Sweger had a daughter named Sarah who had died before the book was published.

Circa 1846: The 1850 and 1860 censuses suggest that William Sweger had a daughter named Mary E. who was born circa 1846. I suspect this may be the individual referred to as Ellen in the above excerpt from the 1897 book.

Circa 1848: The 1850 and 1860 censuses suggest that William Sweger had a son named William who was born circa 1848. The above excerpt from the 1897 book confirms that William Sweger had a son named William H. who had died before the book was published.

Circa 1849-1851: The 1850 census suggests that William Sweger had a daughter named Emily who was born circa 1849. I The 1860 census suggests that William Sweger had a daughter named Emelin(e) who was born circa 1851. I suspect these may both be references to the daughter named Emma who is mentioned in the above excerpt from the 1897 book.

1850-1861: Sellers' 2008 compendium "American Gunsmiths" lists a gunsmith named William Sweigert, puts him in Elliotsburg, Pennsylvania, and indicates he was active in the 1850 to 1861 timeframe based on an 1850 census record and an 1861 directory. Elliotsburg is 69 miles east-northeast from Bedford in a straight line (88 road miles) in Perry County, and ten miles west-northwest of Harrisburg in a straight line. The gunsmith William Sweger lived 1.3 road miles (1.14 air miles) north-northeast of Elliotsburg in Saville Township, and probably had an Elliotsburg post office address.

1850: The following excerpt from the 1850 federal census identifies William Sweger as a 35-year-old gunsmith in Saville Township, Perry County, Pennsylvania.
Excerpt from 1850 census identifies William Sweger as a gunsmith in Saville Township, Perry County, Pennsylvania.

Circa 1855: The 1860 census suggests that William Sweger had son named John C. who was born circa 1855. Volume 2 of the 1897 book "Commemorative Biographical Encyclopedia of the Juniata Valley, Comprising the Counties of Huntingdon, Mifflin, Juniata, and Perry, Pennsylvania" contains the following biography: "John C. Sweger, Marysville, Perry County, Pa., was born in Saville Township, Perry County, May 12, 1851 (sic). He is a son of the late William and Mary (Bousman) Sweger. Both parents were natives of Perry County, and were of Pennsylvania German ancestry. William Sweger was a gunsmith, which occupation he followed, and also cultivated a small farm in Saville Township. ..."

Circa 1856: The 1860 census suggests that William Sweger had a daughter named Matilda J. who was born circa 1856. The above excerpt from the 1897 book indicates that William Sweger had a daughter named Tillie who was living at the time of publication.

1857: The 1860 and 1880 censuses suggest that William Sweger had a son named George W. who was born circa 1858. The above excerpt from the 1897 book confirms that William Sweger had a son named George W. who was living at the time of publication. George W. Sweger is buried at the Messiah Lutheran Church Cemetery at Elliottsburg, in Perry County, Pennsylvania, where his tombstone indicates he was born in 1857 and died in 1930.

1860: The following excerpt from the 1860 federal census identifies William Sweger as a 45-year-old farmer in Saville Township, Perry County, Ohio.

1861-1864: I suspect that the following service record pertains to William Sweger's son Absalom. It is from the 1873 book "History of Perry County, in Pennsylvania" and relates to the famous original Bucktails Regiment.

1861-1865: The following excerpt from the 1873 book "History of Perry County, in Pennsylvania" summarizes the Civil War service of William Sweger's son Elkanah.

1862-1863: The following excerpt from the 1873 book "History of Perry County, in Pennsylvania" describes one of the Civil War enlistments of William Sweger's son Lewis, who also served in the 28th Pennsylvania Volunteers from January 9, 1865 to July 18, 1865.

1863: The following excerpt from the January 1, 1863 map "Map of the counties of Perry, Juniata and Mifflin, Pennsylvania..." shows the gun shop of the gunsmith William Sweger in Saville Township, Perry County, Pennsylvania.
An 1863 map shows the gun shop of the gunsmith William Sweger in Saville Township, Perry County, Pennsylvania.

1864: Volume 2, page 1343 of the aforementioned 1897 book indicates that Sarah Sweger, daughter of William and Anna (Bousman) Sweger, married David Swartz in April of 1864.

1870: The aforementioned web page about William Sweger indicates that he appears in the 1870 census as a gunsmith.

1870: The following item is from the July 26, 1870 issue of the "Bloomfield Times" newspaper:

1875: Volume 2, page 1343 of the aforementioned 1897 book indicates that Sarah Sweger, daughter of William and Anna (Bousman) Sweger died on October 11, 1875.

1877: The following item is from a section of the February 13, 1877 issue of the "Bloomfield Times" newspaper titled "Receipts and Expenditures of Perry County for 1876":

1877: The following excerpt from the Saville Township, Perry County portion of the 1877 "Atlas of Perry, Juniata & Mifflin Counties..." identifies the residence and gun shop of William Sweger. As a very rough approximation, the shop was at 40.40467471, -77.28239624, which is 80-1/2 miles east-north-east of the Defibaugh Tavern. Roy Chandler documented the size of Sweger's gun shop as 15 x 18 feet and reported that it was located between Sweger's barn and his farm house.
An 1877 map of Saville Township, Perry County, Pennsylvania showing the gun shop of the gunsmith William Sweger.

The following excerpt from a 1933 topographic map shows the terrain in the vicinity of the William Sweger farm. The farm was on Limestone Ridge on a road that is presently known as Dunkleberger Road.
Topographic map showing terrain in the vicinity of the William Sweger farm.

1880: The following excerpt from the 1880 federal census identifies William Sweger as a 65-year-old farmer in Saville Township, Perry County, Ohio.

1881: The following item is from the October 11, 1881 issue of the "Bloomfield Times" newspaper:

1886: The following item is from the August 4, 1886 issue of the "Perry County Democrat" newspaper.

1892: An article titled "The Long Rifle" in the March 14, 1940 issue of the "Perry County Times" indicates that the gunsmith William Sweger died on June 24, 1892 at the age of 77 years, four months, and 21 days. The aforementioned web page about William Sweger indicates that he is buried at the Messiah Lutheran Church Cemetery (40.3904991, -77.2886963) in Elliottsburg, Perry County, Pennsylvania.

Work product:

  • The 1953 book American Gun Makers lists William Sweger as the unidentified maker of a so-called "Kentucky Rifle" with flintlock ignition.
  • A correspondent who has seen a half a dozen or so William Sweger guns, and has viewed photos of many others, reports that nothing about them shows a Bedford County style.
  • An article titled "The Long Rifle" in the March 14, 1940 issue of the "Perry County Times" indicates that the rifles William Sweger produced were very plain. It also indicates they typically had patch boxes that were small and round, which sounds like what we would now call a cap box.
  • The web page about William Sweger indicates that "Billy" stamped or engraved the barrels of his guns with "W. Sweger" or "W.S."
  • The web page about William Sweger indicates that later in his career he used commercially produced barrels, but earlier in his career he produced them himself. The page reports that seven grooves were incorporated on the majority of his barrels, but some barrels had eight grooves.
  • The web page about William Sweger indicates that late in his career he built some percussion rifles with back action locks.
  • The web page about William Sweger indicates that he built his rifles with double-set triggers.

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