Jane Grey Swisshelm
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1815, a little girl was born named Jane Grey Cannon. When she was seven, her father died from tuberculosis, leading Jane to sell embroidery and paintings as a young girl to help her family financially. She attended a girl's boarding school for a time, but her education was cut short due to her own threat of tuberculosis. At age 13, she became a school teacher, and at 18, she married James Swisshelm. Neither of their mothers supported the union, and as time would tell, Jane and James would have a difficult, and unhappy marriage. Finally, in 1857, she took their daughter and left to live with her sister in St. Cloud, Minnesota. A few years later, James applied for a divorce, and in 1861 it was granted by the state.
In 1838, before the divorce, the couple lived in Kentucky while James joined a business endeavor with a brother. It was in Kentucky that Jane was first exposed to slavery, and though she despised it before moving to the South, her experiences there increased her abhorrence of it. She was an unbelievably bold woman and never shied away from telling people what she thought of slavery. She started writing antislavery articles, poems, and tracts for abolitionist newspapers. Her southern neighbors were so infuriated by her outspoken beliefs they threatened to tar and feather her. She tried to start a school for slaves but was forced to shut it down because of threats to burn her house down. The next year, she moved back to Pittsburgh to care for her ill mother and started a paper of her own. The Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter gained national attention in abolitionist groups. She fiercely attacked slavery and spoke up for women’s rights in the Visiter.
While her views on women’s rights and the abolition of slavery were admirable, she had some appalling beliefs as well. In 1862, there was a Sioux uprising in Minnesota that killed some white settlers. Jane became committed to the view that all Dakota Indians needed to be punished and driven out. Her unwavering views helped contribute to the brutal expulsion of the Dakota people from Minnesota.
Later, when she lived with her daughter in St. Cloud, Jane started another newspaper named the St. Cloud Visiter. In St. Cloud, her forward views found a quick enemy in Sylvanus Lowry, a politician that refused to free his slaves. In her paper, Jane slandered the man even after he had people break into her office and trash her printing press. Lowry finally bought a libel suit against her. She agreed to the settlement that made her discontinue the St. Cloud Visiter but then simply started another newspaper with a different name and kept publishing.
Learn more about Jane Grey Swisshelp by reading a biography about her life available through the libraryby historian Sylvia Hoffert.
Weber, Eric. "Swisshelm, Jane Grey (1815–1884)." MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/person/swisshelm-jane-grey-1815-1884 (accessed October 1, 2020).
Erin Blakemore, “How the First American Woman to Be a Political Journalist Got Her Start,” Time, January 27, 2017, from https://time.com/4627868/first-female-political-journalist/
Swisshelm, Jane Grey Cannon. Crusader and feminist; letters of Jane Grey Swisshelm, -1865. edited by Larsen, Arthur J Saint Paul, The Minnesota Historical Society, 1934. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/35000912/.