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Monday, January 21, 2013

Two Women of Frontier Minnesota

One of the joys of working with rare and special materials, is that one can never become so focused on one thing that all else is forgotten.  I started out with a major in German language and literature and ended up studying late medieval religious drama.  But now I am learning about Minnesota's history, culture and literature in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The recent gift of "Minnesotiana" from the T.R. and LaJean Anderson family has offered many new ways to look at my adopted home.

Fort Snelling, Minnesota, from an illustration in Mary Eastland's
Dahcotah; or Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling (1849).

Two particularly interesting figures represented in this collection are Jane Grey Swisshelm (1815-1884) and Mary Eastman (1818-1887).  Both remind us of the complexities of nineteenth-century life and that we should never assume that things were "simpler back then."  Neither was born in Minnesota and neither died in Minnesota.  However, both spent formative times in their careers in this frontier area on the edge of the prairie.

Jane Grey Swisshelm (born Cannon) arrived in Minnesota Territory with her daughter on June 22, 1857.  Having divorced her husband, Swisshelm had set out on her own to test her fortunes in the new settlement of Saint Cloud, Minnesota (where a certain group of Benedictine monks had arrived only about a year earlier to start a community that became Saint John's Abbey and University).

Cover to Jane Grey Swisshelm's autobiography, published in 1880, only four years before her death.
Swisshelm was a staunch abolitionist and quite outspoken on women's rights.  Within a few months of her arrival, she became the editor of the newly established newspaper, the Saint Cloud Visiter (December 10, 1857-July 29, 1858, with a hiatus between mid March and mid May 1858).  At the same time, she took this position as an opportunity to attack Sylvanus B. Lowry, a prominent local Democrat and supporter of the slave states--Swisshelm called him "the Minnesota dictator" in her autobiography, Half a Century (1880).

By contrast, Swisshelm supported Abraham Lincoln and readily condemned President James Buchanan as a slave-supporter.  It is no surprise then, that her outspoken polemics in the Saint Cloud Visiter soon led to a physical attack on her press and office.  Although the attack did interrupt her publication briefly, her supporters soon acquired a new press for her and she again began publishing.  When threatened with a lawsuit by her enemies, she closed the Visiter and started up a new newspaper, the Saint Cloud Democrat, which continued to September 1866.

Part of Swisshelm's account of her struggle with "the Minnesota dictator" (Sylvanus Lowry). Here we read of the replacement of her destroyed press and type.

The biggest blow to her life in Minnesota came with the Dakota War in 1862.  Unlike her strong abolitionist beliefs and support for African Americans, she also bore a strong aversion to Native Americans and their culture.  In 1863, she embarked on a speaking tour in the East to promote more punishment for Native Americans.  As part of that tour, she came to Washington, D.C., where she joined in the Union efforts during the Civil War.  Her brief and colorful career as an editor in Saint Cloud had thus already ended after about five or six years.

Mary Eastman accompanied her husband, Captain Seth Eastman (1808-1875) to Fort Snelling in 1841, about a decade and a half before Swisshelm.  In her seven years in Minnesota, Mary Eastman set out to meet Native Americans and record their stories.  This culminated in her collection:  Dahcotah; or, Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling (1849).  This collection has proven to be quite popular in the years since its first publication and has been frequently reprinted.  Like Swisshelm, Eastman proved to be an outspoken and ambitious promoter of her view of the territories being opened up in Minnesota.

Two books by Mary Eastman.  On the left, Dahcotah, and on the right, Aunt Phillis's Cabin (1852), a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Her chief informant was a Native American named Chequered Cloud, who was a medicine woman and legend teller, but Eastman had numerous other contacts with Native Americans in the area where one day the Twin Cities would thrive.  Her husband, who was an artist-soldier, supplied illustrations for her collection, and she in turn promoted his art, especially for its inclusion in the major overview of Indian life being prepared by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft:  Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (1853-1857).

The Maiden's Rock; or, Wenona's Leap. From Mary Eastman's Dahcotah.

Eastman's views toward the issue of slavery in the South are somewhat more problematic to modern readers, however.  Born in Virginia, she found slavery to be a difficult necessity for the economy in her earlier home.  So it was, that her response to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was to publish her own justification for slavery in Aunt Phillis's Cabin, or Southern Life as It Is (1852).  As her husband and sons fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War, it seems likely that her views changed over time.  Unfortunately, the references I have read thus far have not indicated what Eastman's reaction to the 1862 Dakota War was.

Mary Eastman's response to Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The Anderson gift of Minnesota titles has given us chance to become reacquainted with two early Minnesota women who were both sympathetic to us in their strong personalities and in their interest in improving the lives of others.  Some writers have even described them as early feminists (or perhaps proto-feminists).  At the same time, their displays of intolerance toward certain groups (Native Americans and Catholics for Swisshelm, African Americans for Eastman) help modern readers to see that the years leading up to the American Civil War were filled with complex events and people that still deserve our attentive research. As HMML continues to catalog the Anderson gift, I am certain that we will find many resources for such studies right here in Central Minnesota.

Cited works in the Anderson gift:
  • Jane Grey Swisshelm. Half a Century. Chicago, J.G. Swisshelm, 1880.
  • Mary Eastman. Dahcotah; or Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling. New York: John Wiley, 1849.
  • Mary Eastman. Aunt Phillis's Cabin, or Southern Life as It Is. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, & Co., 1852.
  • Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Information Respecting the history, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (illustrated by Seth Eastman), in six large volumes. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1853-1857.

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