Conservation Minnesota

Sense of Justice and Need for the Truth

tumafeature“It is worth while to have lived and suffered, to have labored and waited, long years for such an opportunity of pleading for the Slave mothers of our land, before such an audience.”

Jane Swisshelm
February 26, 1860*

In a letter to her brother, Jane Swisshelm, expressed with satisfaction the hard-earned acceptance of her abolitionist message in the Minnesota frontier following a lecture she gave at the Minnesota State Capitol building within the Representatives Hall in the run-up to the great election of 1860. Swisshelm was not always so appreciated for her strong opinions on abolition in Minnesota. At age 42 she set foot on the muddy streets of the little-known frontier town of St. Cloud in 1857 as a single mom to live with some distant relatives after escaping from an abusive relationship. Already well accomplished as a writer, upon her arrival she was soon working as an editor of a new paper within the city.

Not a timid soul, she unleashed her very effective editorial skills on one General Sam Lowrie. One of Minnesota’s dark secrets is that several southern slave owners had significant business and property interests in Minnesota due to the easy access created by the superhighway of the time, the Mississippi River. It was very common for the slave owners to bring their slaves north to do their bidding in the Minnesota territory.

Lowrie was one of the southern slave owners who, by the time Swisshelm arrived in St. Cloud, had established himself as essentially the political boss of the region. As a slave owning Buchanan Democrat, Lowrie made the fatal error of calling on Swisshelm to ask her to editorialize in favor of Buchanan. To her colleague’s surprise, she agreed to write an editorial “for” Buchanan with the meeting between the slave owner and abolitionist ending peacefully. That would be the last peace between them. She followed up the next day with a satirical “positive” editorial that laid bare the evils of slavery. This began a several year feud that included death threats against the editor and the destruction of her presses by Lowrie’s minions.

Swisshelm’s dogged determination to get the truth out eventually led to Lowrie’s demise. Prior to the Civil War he had been groomed for a possible top political position in Minnesota but soon disappeared from the political scene, dying as a small postscript in St. Cloud’s history at a young age in 1868.

During the Civil War Swisshelm sold the paper to a relative so she could serve as a nurse on the battlefront. She was later able to secure a government position but had to leave that after blasting the Johnson presidency for ineptness in the reconstruction efforts. She would return to her ancestral home outside Pittsburgh to live out her days where she established a suburb and continued writing until she died in 1884. Her autobiography, Half of a Century, was published in 1881 and is considered a classic on the struggle for women’s rights during the first part of the 19th century.

What was a driving force for Swisshelm was a sense of justice and need for the truth to be brought to light. Our present-day press could learn a lesson from Swisshelm and start asking the tough questions around the pending mining proposals in northern Minnesota. Recently it’s been reported that on August 7 the federal Environmental Protection Agency has written a letter to other agencies involved in the permitting of proposed mines to extract copper, nickel and other metals from sulfide ore. The mining industry has been touting this as a positive development, but the letter fails to answer basic questions all Minnesotans should be asking.

1)   Will Minnesota’s water stay safe and clean?
2)   Are there safeguards in place for when things go wrong?
3)   Will these foreign companies leave the site clean and maintenance-free when they exit Minnesota?
4)   Will Minnesota’s taxpayers be protected?

It’s time for editorial boards to emulate Ms. Swisshelm’s courage and start asking these business interests from outside of our state to answer these questions. To learn more about this new mining, go to the Mining  Truth  website.

*Jane Swisshelm, Letters of an Abolitionist 1858 and 1865,

Author’s Note: 

It has come to my attention that Jane Swisshelm as a frontier editor during the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota acted extremely inappropriately toward the native Dakotas. I take full responsibility for not knowing this fact due to using some older sources and not further checking on her past. I was saddened to learn that she had taken and acted upon the common view of most white frontier Minnesotans following the war. I wish she and others in the region would have taken the truly courageous position of Bishop Whipple of Faribault at that time on this subject. I would hope that if Jane Swisshelm would have the same 150 years of history and distance from the event that this early champion of several progressive causes would have had a more enlightened view of this tragic chapter Minnesota’s history and the noble nation of the Dakotas. I apologized to anyone I may have offended, particular our friends Dakota nation, and I appreciate those who have shed more light on this complex historical figure.

About John Tuma

John Tuma
John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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It’s the 151st anniversary of the incident that directly triggered the 1862 US Dakota War.

In light of Swisshelm’s vengeful response to the conflict, perhaps Conservation Minnesota should look for a different historical avatar for journalists if it seeks to call for courage, justice and truth on the part of reporters.

More here:

It’s not an attack on the person holding up Swisshelm as a model, but rather a questioning of the shared privilege that permits Minnesotans to ignore the less savory part of her career.

She didn’t just opine about the Dakota nation as “vermin,” she actively sought deportation and ethnic cleansing, going so far as to travel from the Minnesota frontier during the Civil War to quarrel with President Lincoln about his commutation of the death sentences of hundreds of Dakota men by a kangaroo court, men condemned simply for being soldiers.

It’s ironic to use history to chide reporters to seek the truth, but not know that history. It would be doubly ironic to use that lack of knowledge to defend the use of Swisshelm as a role model.

Neala Schleuning says:

Be careful about Jane Grey Swisshelm. The other side of the story–she was a flaming anti-Native American racist.