Swallow descendants gather for recent family reunion

Photo by Katie Merdanian/Fall River Co. Herald-Star

Descendants of Eli Swallow gather for a reunion on September 16 at Chautauqua Park in Hot Springs. Pictured from left is: Louis Twiss, Melvin Pence, Rusty Merdanian, Heather and Steve Standart, Sandy Swallow Morgan, Roy Merdanian III, Nikki Shaw, Toby Swallow, Harlynn Stover Miller, Travis Hamilton, Victor Swallow, Paula Hamilton, Deb Swallow, Barbara Walter, Tristian Old Horse and T’mara Twiss.

INSET: Swallow settled in Oelrichs after the Civil War and owned and operated several businesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including a general merchandise store in the old Anglo-American Cattle Company building and the Hotel Swallow.


By Katie Merdanian

OELRICHS - On Saturday, Sept. 16, the Swallows gathered at Chautauqua Park in Hot Springs for their annual reunion, with ​35 family members in attendance. They enjoyed a potluck lunch with plenty of watecha (leftovers) to take home at the end of the day.

When most of the attendees were growing up, they recalled their families traveling to the park each summer to meet up with relatives. In 2018, the memories of those good times brought the Swallow descendants back together. Deb Swallow, Travis Hamilton, Sandy Swallow Morgan and Roy Merdanian worked together to coordinate a picnic, and it has become a tradition once again.

The Swallows come together to celebrate the legacy of Elias (Eli) Swallow, born Hilaire Soileau in 1843 in St. Landry Parish, LA, of French heritage. There are many Soileau family members still in St. Landry Parish today.  Eli Swallow was an early settler in Oelrichs, where he was a successful businessman and rancher.

According to family history, Eli left home when he was nine years old. During the Civil War, he originally fought on the Confederate side. However, after being captured by the Union Army, he was given a choice between going to prison or being sent to the Dakotas to fight against the American Indian “uprisings.”

He joined the Union Army at Rock Island, Ill., on Oct. 13, 1864, and was sent to Ft. Laramie, Wyo. According to Victor Swallow, one of the family historians, this is when his name was first recorded incorrectly as Swallow.  Since Eli was illiterate, he would not have known the army misspelled his name. Victor pointed out Eli was the first of many in the Swallow family who served in the military, and the family should be proud of his Civil War service.

While in Laramie, he met his first wife, Mary Lizzie Iott (or Iyotte), who was Rosebud Sioux. When Eli wanted to marry Lizzie, as she was known, he had to go before the commanding officer and the tribal chief to ask permission. According to Sandy Swallow Morgan, he had to give gifts, such as horses, to be allowed to marry her.

After being mustered out of service on Oct. 15, 1865, Eli freighted into the Spotted Tail Indian Agency in 1872 and came from there into the Black Hills in 1875. He and Lizzie settled on a ranch east of Oelrichs, where he built the first dam and irrigation project in that part of the country. He became one of the largest landowners in Fall River County.

Lizzie divorced Eli and moved to Rosebud with three of their five children, and their last names were changed to Swalley. There are differing opinions in the family as to why. Some believe Lizzie was so angry with Eli, she changed her name. However, Victor believes it might have had something to do with allotted land in Rosebud or a misinterpretation while registering with the tribe. Either way, the Swalleys are very much part of the family.

In 1879, Eli married Julia Guerrier, whose father was French and mother was Brule. Julia’s first husband had been killed while serving with the U.S. Calvary. Their two daughters were taken by his parents to Wisconsin. She never saw her girls again. June died young, and Adeline was raised not knowing of her American Indian heritage.

Louis Twiss, great-grandson of Eli and Julia, discovered Julia and her brother received 640 acres of land each in Oklahoma through a treaty with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, although they were not members of either tribe. Their father worked as a Cheyenne interpreter on the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail in Wyoming, and he worked for William Bent. Bent assisted in the negotiation of the treaty wherein the U.S. apologized for and made reparations for the Sand Creek Massacre.  Presumably, that is how the Guerrier children received land in the 1865 treaty. According to Twiss, he has not yet determined what happened to Julia’s land.

Eli and Julia had nine children. Eli believed in the value of an education, so he sent his children to attend boarding schools in Carlisle, PA, and Pierre, SD. Son Ben Swallow told his daughter that after being surrounded by cities and sidewalks in Pennsylvania, “I was anxious to go home and ride my horse and live in the wide open spaces.” Julia died at the young age of 54 while two of her children were at boarding school.

Their oldest daughter, Ida Swallow, attended Carlisle and Drexel Institute in Pennsylvania and later was a bookkeeper at her father’s store before marrying Dr. Sarkis K. Merdanian. She then assisted her husband in his medical practice.

In addition to owning and operating the general merchandise store in Oelrichs, previously the company store for the Anglo-American Cattle Company, Eli also owned the Hotel Swallow. Eli is remembered as being a generous businessman, often giving the townspeople credit in his general store to help them get through tough times. The hotel burned in 1913; however, the brick store is still standing in downtown Oelrichs. Eli sold the store in 1915, a year before his death.

Many descendants of Eli Swallow stayed in southwestern South Dakota, with a large number around the Oelrichs area. Others have spread far and wide, but they say there is always a pull to come back - at least to visit.

During the reunion, Deb Swallow informed the crowd that her son, bronc rider Steven DeWolfe-Shedeed, was riding in the Badlands Circuit Finals Rodeo and would be competing in the Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas October 24-28.

Family historians work hard to pass on knowledge to each other and to the younger generation. They created a Swallow Descendants facebook page where they share pictures, family history, and stories. The Swallows plan to gather again next September.

Fall River County Herald Star

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