James A. Swan came to South Africa in 1888, at the age of about 21, and spent most of his life in the employ of De Beers Consolidated Mines at Kimberley. He was associated with the founding (in 1907) and development of the McGregor Museum for many years. For example, in 1909 he presented the museum with a number of prehistoric stone artefacts and many varieties of molluscs from Griqualand West. These donations were followed by more small stone artefacts from the Kimberley district in 1911 and 1912, molluscs from the Vaal and Orange Rivers in 1912, and a great number of small stone scrapers in 1913. He served on the museum board from 1911, having been nominated by the Kimberley city council, and was acting treasurer for 1912 only.
Swan collected mainly Later Stone Age artefacts. He continued his donations to the McGregor Museum for many years, but later also sent collections to the Archaeological Survey in Johannesburg and to the British Museum. After his retirement around 1940 he continued collecting, mainly in Griqualand West and along the Natal South Coast. At the time his collections were regarded as valuable records of the surface archaeology of those regions. In recognition of his contributions to archaeology the South African Association for the Advancement of Science awarded him one of its first certificates of merit in 1948. He died during a thunderstorm while out collecting in Griqualand West at the age of 86. A collection of letters written to him is held by the McGregor Museum.