The single mother had split from her husband on the river wharf in Pittsburgh, heading by boat to St. Paul with her 5-year-old daughter. From there, they would hop a stagecoach to St. Cloud, where her sister lived. The divorce would take awhile, but Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm was upbeat.
Never mind that single mothers venturing into the Minnesota frontier were unheard of in 1857 — a year before statehood.
“… I having, voluntarily, assumed the legal guilt of breaking my marriage contract, do cheerfully accept the legal penalty — a life of celibacy — bringing no charge against my husband, save that he was not much better than the average man.”
That excerpt from Swisshelm’s 1880 memoir, “Half a Century,” hints at her unbridled feistiness. Although she would spend only six years in Minnesota, she left an indelible mark. As a newspaper editor, she took on St. Cloud’s elite, harangued against slavery, advocated for women’s rights but also called for the extermination of Dakota people following the six-week war in 1862.
“Slight, delicate, fragile as a thistledown, she did not hesitate to encounter giants, and generally to the sorrow of the Goliaths, who scorned her diminutive figure and her simple sling,” the St. Paul Daily Globe would write in her 1884 obituary.
Back on that stagecoach, 20 miles from St. Cloud, Swisshelm noticed some wolves staring at her as darkness fell.
“They were between me and my hermitage,” she wrote. “But they were only prairie wolves.”
She didn’t scare easily and had big plans for her 40-acre farm “on the shore of one of a nest of lovely lakes,” east of the Mississippi and a dozen miles from St. Cloud.
There she would “build a cabin of tamarack logs … with an open fireplace, a rough flag hearth and a rustic porch draped with hop vines and wild roses” surrounded by “the lakes, the flowers, the level prairies and distant knolls.”
She snapped from her idyllic daydreaming when a fellow stagecoach rider cautioned her that St. Cloud’s most powerful man, Sylvanus Lowry, was a wealthy Kentucky native and a slave owner.
“Them sentiments of yours won’t go down there,” he told her. “Lowry don’t allow no abolition in these parts.”
Swisshelm, gazing out at the wolves, responded: “This is a broad country; but if this be true, there is not room in it for Gen. Lowry and me.”
After she settled in, she opened negotiations with local publisher George Brott at the Advertiser, a newspaper that encouraged immigrants to check out St. Cloud.
When she agreed to accept lots in town as a salary, she became the editor — warning him that she would take a hard line against slavery and that she planned to attack the powerful Lowry and his allies with her words.
“While I spoke his jaw dropped and he sat staring at me in literal open-mouthed wonder,” Swisshelm wrote. “Then he threw back his head, laughed heartily and said, ‘Oh go ahead! I bake no bread in any of their ovens …. A lady has a right to be of whatever politics she pleases.’ ”
By 1858, Lowry’s men trashed her offices and wrecked her presses. So she launched the St. Cloud Democrat and carried her strong opinions across the state as a popular public speaker — even addressing both houses of the fledgling Minnesota Legislature.
A woman speaking at the Capitol in 1862, like everything about Swisshelm, was unheard of. Senators and St. Paulites packed the Senate chambers, but Swisshelm insisted she spoke “with no more embarrassment than though talking with a friend in a chimney corner.”
When the U.S.-Dakota War broke out that summer, a small group of Dakota warriors killed roughly 600 settlers after a series of broken promises and missed annuity payments from the U.S. government. The Dakota figured the timing was right to win back their land because the Civil War raged down South. But the U.S. Army proved too much for them.
Swisshelm argued for swift vengeance against the Dakota, calling them “wild beasts” and “red-jawed tigers whose fangs are dripping with blood of the innocents.”
She called on her readers “to kill the lazy vermin” — and make Minnesota safe for an incoming wave of immigrant settlers.
She left St. Cloud in 1863 for Washington, D.C., working as a nurse after the Civil War and becoming one of the first women clerks in the quartermaster general’s office.
While in Washington, she recalled meeting President Lincoln, to whom she lobbied for stricter punishment of the Dakota. Her memory of the meeting is vintage Swisshelm.
“Mr. Lincoln stood going through one of those dreadful ordeals of handshaking, working like a man pumping for life on a sinking vessel,” she wrote. “And I was filled with indignation for the selfish people who made this useless drain on his nervous force.
“I wanted to stand between him and them, and say: ‘Stand back, and let him live and do his work.’ But I could not resist going to him with the rest of the crowd, and when he took my hand I said: ‘May the Lord have mercy on you, poor man, for the people have none.’
“He laughed heartily, and the men around him joined in his merriment.”
Swisshelm later sued her ex-husband — that “average man” — and won back the family property 7 miles outside Pittsburgh. Her daughter, Zo, became an accomplished pianist and married a Chicago insurance man. Swisshelm died in 1884 at 68.
“There are few women in the United States who, by sheer force of personal character, have made their influence more strongly felt during the past thirty or forty years than has she,” the St. Cloud Journal Press wrote in her obituary.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@ startribune.com .