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Swisshelm, Jane Grey (1815–1884)

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Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm

Jane Grey Swisshelm, c.1860.

Jane Grey Swisshelm lived in Minnesota for only six years, but during that time she left a lasting mark on the state. While in St. Cloud, she founded a newspaper that 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 Dakota people.

Jane Grey Cannon was born in Pennsylvania in 1815, and 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 her husband's 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 she traveled South, Jane was radicalized by the experience of witnessing slavery firsthand. 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 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, mother and daughter joined Jane's sister and brother-in-law in St. Cloud. Jane 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, a local Democratic politician, and a leading citizen of St. Cloud. Because of her attacks on him, Lowry first attempted to bribe Jane, and then to silence her. In 1858, his allies destroyed her presses and trashed her offices. This event, however, 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 Swisshelm spoke movingly against slavery, she was subject to prejudices against Native Americans. When she moved to Minnesota, she had held romantic notions about Native people and their lives on the plains. The US–Dakota War of 1862 changed her views completely. Initiated by a faction of the Dakota, who had rightful grievances against white immigrants, the war led to the loss of many lives. 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, DC, to lobby for harsher treatment of the Dakota. While there, she was offered a position with the US 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 one. 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.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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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.

Related Images

Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm
Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm
Office and home of Jane Swisshelm, St. Cloud.
Office and home of Jane Swisshelm, St. Cloud.
Sylvanus B. Lowry. Fur trader from Watab who was a member of the Territorial Council from 1852-1853 and a state legislator in 1862.
Sylvanus B. Lowry. Fur trader from Watab who was a member of the Territorial Council from 1852-1853 and a state legislator in 1862.

Turning Point

In 1857, at age forty-one, Jane Grey Swisshelm leaves her unhappy marriage, moves to St. Cloud, and starts the St. Cloud Visiter.



Jane Grey Cannon is born in Pittsburgh


She marries James Swisshelm.


She moves with James to Louisville, Kentucky, where she personally witnesses slavery for the first time.


Having already written for other newspapers in Pittsburgh, she founds the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter, her own paper.


Swisshelm moves with her six-year-old daughter to St. Cloud, where she starts the St. Cloud Visiter.


James Swisshelm applies for a divorce from Jane on the grounds that she abandoned him. Pennsylvania grants the divorce in 1861.


She travels to Washington, DC, to lobby the Lincoln administration to take a harsher line in their handling of white–Dakota relations and takes a clerkship there in the Quartermaster's office.


In Washington, DC, Swisshelm starts another newspaper, the Reconstructionist.


Swisshelm begins fraud proceedings against her ex-husband for his handling of their property and wins their home in Pittsburgh.


Swisshelm publishes Half a Century, her autobiography, which details the first fifty years of her life.


She dies in Pittburgh, where a park still bears her name.