Jane Grey Swisshelm only lived in Minnesota for six years, but during that time she left a lasting mark on the state. While in St. Cloud, she founded a newspaper which she used to advocate for women's rights, argue for the abolition of slavery, build up the Republican Party, challenge the authority of the Democratic machine there, and promote violence against the Dakota.
Jane Grey Cannon was born in Pennsylvania in 1815. Her young life was marked by tragedy. Her father and a beloved elder brother died of tuberculosis when she was eight. In 1836, she married James Swisshelm. Neither of their mothers approved of the union, and it proved to be an unhappy one. Her difficult relationship with his mother, the couple's religious differences, and her independent spirit made the marriage hard for them both.
In 1838, she and James moved to Louisville, Kentucky so that he could join his brother in business. Already an abolitionist before they traveled South, Jane was radicalized by the experience of witnessing slavery first hand. She returned to Pittsburgh the next year to care for her dying mother, and James rejoined her there after his business went bankrupt.
From Pittsburgh, Jane Swisshelm became a national voice in the fight against slavery. In 1848, she started the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter, a weekly newspaper that had a national following in abolitionist circles. In it she regularly and strongly attacked slavery and spoke out for women's rights. Though her wit and confident voice earned her a national following, the paper always struggled financially. After the birth of her daughter in 1851, she could not handle the strain of work, a failing marriage, and a small child at home, and, in 1856, the Visiter merged with the Pittsburgh Journal. Finally deciding that her marriage would never be a happy one, Jane took her daughter to Minnesota in 1857.
In Minnesota, they couple joined Jane Swisshelm's sister and brother-in-law in St. Cloud. She became the editor of a newspaper and named it the St. Cloud Visiter. Even though a Democrat owned the paper, she insisted that it be abolitionist. As in Pittsburgh, her confident voice made her influential, and her condemnations of slavery earned her the enmity of Sylvanus Lowry, a native of Tennessee, local Democratic politician, and leading citizen of St. Cloud. Because of her attacks on him, Lowry first attempted to bribe her and, then, to silence her. In 1858, his allies destroyed her presses and trashed her offices. However, this event only made her more popular and determined. Under a new title, the St. Cloud Democrat, and with new presses supplied by her friends and allies, she resumed her attacks on Lowry and promoted the Republican Party.
Though she spoke movingly against slavery, she was still subject to prejudices against American Indians. When she moved to Minnesota, Swisshelm had held romantic notions about American Indians and their lives on the plains. The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 changed her views completely. Initiated by factions of the Dakota, who had rightful grievances against white immigrants, the war saw atrocities on both sides. When Dakota soldiers attacked white settlements, Swisshelm became committed to their expulsion from Minnesota and punishment for what she regarded as unprovoked attacks. It did not matter to her that only a few hundred Dakota participated in the war; Swisshelm held all Dakota responsible for it. She even traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for harsher treatment of the Dakota. While there, she was offered a position with the U.S. Quartermaster's office and worked as a nurse tending to wounded soldiers.
From Washington, Swisshelm sold her St. Cloud paper to her nephew and eventually started a new paper. Naming it the Reconstructionist, she attacked the Johnson administration's easy treatment of ex-Confederates. After an arson attempt on the paper's offices, she closed it down. She moved back to Pittsburgh and won a court case against her former husband to retain some of the land they had owned together. She continued to write and travel with her daughter. She died in Pittsburgh in 1884.
Hoffert, Sylvia D. Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life, 1815–1884. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
McCarthy, Abigail. "Jane Grey Swisshelm: Marriage and Slavery." In Women of Minnesota: Selected Biographical Essays, edited by Barbara Stuhler and Gretchen Kreuter, 55–76. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1998.
Swisshelm, Jane Grey. Half a Century. Chicago: Jansen, McClurg, and Company, 1880.
In 1857, at age forty-one, Jane Grey Swisshelm leaves her unhappy marriage, moves to St. Cloud, and starts the St. Cloud Visiter.