Jane Grey Cannon was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After her father died when she was eight year old, she had to help support the family by lacemaking; at age 14, she became a schoolteacher.
In 1836, she married James Swisshelm, a farmer, and moved with him to Louisville, Kentucky, where she encountered slavery for the first time. Before long, she was involved in the abolitionist movement and became a member of the Underground Railroad.
She began writing stories, poems, and articles for newspapers and became the first woman in the USA to establish a newspaper, the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter. She used it to advocate for women's rights and against slavery. She left her husband in 1857 to move with her daughter to St. Cloud, Minnesota, where she re-established her paper as the St. Cloud Visiter. The following year, her newspaper office was attacked and her printing press destroyed by a pro-slavery mob. Undaunted, she launched a new paper, the St. Cloud Democrat. At the start of the U.S. Civil War, she sold the newspaper and served as a nurse for the Union army.
After the war, she retired to Swissvale, east of Pittsburgh, where she wrote her autobiography, Half a Century (1880). She also was the author of a collection of her newspaper advice columns in book form called Letters to Country Girls (1853).