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Switzerland a Country of Emigration


The endless Journey of the Emigrants

IIt's a roulette, and your stake is your life!

Emigration is one of the most radical and momentous steps a person can take. Close your door and throw the key away! What lies behind you, you must forget: the house of your childhood, the faces of your friends, the streets of your village, the familiarity of your language. Also the thousand little things of everyday life that mean security. This is all home. If you emigrate, you have to give it up. But what does you get for it?

The pain of farewell, the pettiness of the bureaucrats, the danger of the long journey, the compulsion to adopt foreign languages in order to organize the most commonplace things. Certainly, you get all that for it. In addition, the prospect of being alone in the new place and perhaps suffering. The fear of not finding work to live on. Perhaps also the danger of being deceived and depleted embarrassed to return to where you came from.

The cultural history of emigration is still not written, which could explain why people have broken out of the sometimes golden cages in all ages in order to start a completely new life. There were and are also entire tribes and peoples, who were repeatedly forced to flee by war, violence and hunger. Emigration is a human-historical phenomenon that embodies the radically practiced hope: the hope for freedom of thought, freedom of religion, liberation from hardship, better work, thriving trade, but also to be able to take the big step upwards, whether as a gold digger or as a banker.

On the banks of the Rhine in Basel, emigrants say goodbye in 1805

At least two and a half million Swiss have embarked on this existential adventure since the year 1400. Some married, had children and founded whole dynasties. Together, the descendants of these emigrants form what in the official Swiss usage is called "the fifth Switzerland": a nation of many millions of people of Swiss descent scattered all over the globe, the exact number can not be determined. Even if one disregards the nearly two million mercenaries who were temporarily or permanently in the service of foreign rulers from 1400 to 1850, over the generations there is a vast amount of Swiss and especially Glarner presence and drive outside the country. The history of Switzerland's emigration distinguishes between two powerful streams: military emigration on the one hand, and settlement and occupational emigration on the other.

Strictly speaking, of course, the military service for foreign masters was a professional emigration. Military service until the French Revolution, when it was not a question of defending one's homeland, was not so much a question of citizenship as of economic necessity, especially for that part of the great offspring of peasant families whom the barren soil could not feed. "Warcraft" as a term was quite literal to take. Thus, the second wave of Swiss military emigration, beginning after the Battle of Marignano (1515), was the great era of military entrepreneurs. The mercenary did not primarily enter the service of a foreign sovereign, but became the clerk of a captain who fixed wages and working conditions, rented his troop to the foreign sovereign, took the risk and pocketed losses as well as profits.

By far the most Swiss mercenaries were in the service of the French kings and emperors. Since the end of the Burgundian War, which had strengthened the excellent reputation of Swiss warriors internationally, to the Napoleonic Wars, which culminated in the winter tragedy on the Beresina, as the "Red Swiss" covered the retreat of the defeated "Grande Armée" and of the 10'000 Swiss who had moved to conquer Russia, only 700 returned.

By far the most significant and numerically strongest Swiss overseas emigration turned to the great nation of modern times, the United States of North America. In no other country have Swiss immigrants left such strong marks in the past four hundred years with comparable continuity. On the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, the signature of a man of Swiss descent even surpasses that of Benjamin Franklin: It is the name of the physician and politician Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) from Pennsylvania, who came from the St. Gallen Rhine Valley. Geneva's Albert Gallatin (1761-1849), close associate of George Washington's first years of American independence, became Minister of Finance under President Thomas Jefferson and went down in history as a reorganizer of American public finances. Today, a memorial commemorates him in Washington. One could also count Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964), the 31st President of the United States, among the "Swiss" in America's high politics. His pedigree clearly goes back to an Andreas Huber, who had emigrated to Philadelphia on September 9, 1738. This Huber came from Ellerstadt in the Palatinate. His father, Gregor Jonas Huber, had moved from Oberkulm in the canton of Aargau to German Rhineland in 1697 or 1699 to help rebuild the country destroyed by the armies of Louis XIV.

They are all immigrants, invariably all the white Americans who are fond of calling their country "a nation of nations". The history of this country is unique. Even the Native Americans, disempowered and expelled by white invaders, were in all likelihood immigrants who may have trickled in from Asia via the Bering Strait to Alaska before the end of the last Ice Age and widened over the continent over the millennia.

In this mightiest colonial operation in world history, Swiss were present almost from the first moment, at least as marginal figures like that Diebold von Erlach, a young ensign in French service, who fell in 1565 in Florida. He was the first Swiss in America. In the four centuries since then, America has developed from an adventurous mixture of Indians, Spaniards, Mexicans, Chinese, English, Irish, Scots, Italians, Jews and many other peoples to the most powerful Western leadership and to an economic, technological and military great power.

If we want to observe the history and achievements of the Swiss and especially of the Glarner in America, we must at least consider these great historical courses in allusions. The Swiss emigration to North America is by no means a special case, but a - quantitatively - minor contribution to the life and development of a great country. Around 300,000 Swiss have taken the decisive step across the Atlantic since the year 1600 until today and settled in America. With his fate and plans, his past, his abilities and mistakes, each of these 300,000 carried a tiny piece of home in their hearts, determined and shaped by their personal motives through spiritual, political, social, economic and cultural currents of his epoch. And just as the emigrants always carry a piece of home with them, their deeds radiate back into their old homeland. This home often finds in its famous as well as in their forgotten or even failed sons and daughters a fascinating image of themselves.



Economic hardship led to three major emigration waves in the 19th century


At all times, Glarner emigrated, temporarily or forever. The reasons were manifold. Many pushed the bare need into the near and far abroad, others went out of thirst for adventure, curiosity or to get rich. For the communities of Glarus, emigration has always been a means of getting rid of disagreeable, impoverished or otherwise "burdensome" ones. Some emigrants became successful, some failed and most of them lost their tracks.

The vast majority of Swiss emigrants left Switzerland because of poverty. Most of the Swiss who wanted to emigrate left their home country in three big waves in the 19th century. The causes were always similar: It was always about economic hardship. The eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815 brought with it a change in the global climate that led to crop failures and inflation in Switzerland in 1816. At the same time, the lifting of the continental blockade and thus the competition between English yarns and the Swiss textile industry made great competition. The decline in sales and the subsequent mechanization wave of the textile spinning mill made thousands of home spinners jobless. The crisis resulted in the first major overseas emigration.


However, not only the high food prices and economic changes were decisive, but also other factors: In Northwestern Switzerland, the population suffered particularly badly from the consequences of the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1809). Many families had already emigrated between 1803 and 1806. They prepared the ground for further families willing to emigrate. These usually joined one of the various emigrant associations, which acted as self-help organizations. There were hardly any poors among the migrants. Most of them came from the land-owning homeworkers who could sell at least a small farm and finance the trip that way.


The emigration wave around 1850 presents itself quite differently. It was many times bigger, differently organized and lasted longer, even if the causes were similar. Already 1837, 1838 and 1841 were bad harvest years. From 1845 to 1847, the potato blight imported from Ireland destroyed large parts of the potato crops. The textile industry was in a second mechanization phase. Now it was not just the spinning mills that were affected, but also the weaving mills. The wages in the home work sank, the homeworker stood now in the competition to the factories with their modern machines. This had a devastating effect especially in homeworker regions such as Glarus. The main reason for the high number of emigrants in those years was the promotion of emigration by the communities. The mass emigration employed a large number of emigration agencies, who organized the passage for the communities for a fixed price. As in 1816/17, the US was the preferred destination.

In 1844, the Glarner Emigration Association was founded, whose aim was to organize a collective (i.e., common, in a larger group) emigration. It promised substantial benefits such as less homesickness, social contacts in the group, use of native language, less risk of being cheated, mutual help and financially more favorable conditions. However, members of this emigration association were exclusively representatives of the authorities and not the impeachers themselves.


A third and last wave of emigration took place between 1880 and 1885. In contrast to the previous wave, few emigrants were poverty migrants. Although agriculture again suffered from bad harvests, the decisive factor for most migrants was rapid economic change. Agriculture turned more and more to livestock, grain farming became unprofitable because of cheap railroad imports from Russia. The conversion could only afford wealthy farmers, many medium and small businesses gave up. In addition, the crisis in the textile industry once again massively reduced homeworking. The rural population now found work in the emerging industrial centers of the cities. Those who preferred to work in agriculture, sought his salvation in the emigration overseas, the US and South America.

In addition to the economic reasons, individual psychological and social reasons played an important role in the emigration decision. Basically, it was true that never a single motive led to emigration, but always an accumulation of different preconditions and reasons had to come together before the mostly simple, completely travel unexperienced people decided to travel around half the world. For example, one has to be aware that the Glarner emigrants, who went to Wisconsin in 1845 and founded New Glarus, saw a train in America for the first time in their lives.

Countless emigration letters prove that not so much the curiosity and the thirst for adventure led the Swiss to emigrate, but rather the concern for the children's livelihood, the favorable judgment of previous relatives and acquaintances about the enticing, remote country, as well as very personal, usually only hintingly transparent motifs. People older than 50 years and more, who had secured positions and sufficient livelihood in their homeland, wanted to prove to themselves that they were still young and fit enough to start from the beginning. Often, social pressure also played an important role. In the early 19th century, Switzerland was anything but a liberal and tolerant society. The old spirit of marriage and custom courts, dress mandates and confessional exclusivity prevailed especially in the countryside. Minorities were discriminated. The Jews, for example, needed an official marriage license even in places where they were allowed to live. Meyer Guggenheim (1828-1905) was denied permission to marry, which led him to emigrate 1847 grudgingly from Lengnau in Canton Aargau and to found a huge commodity trade house in the United States.

Seemingly minor deviations from the social norms were punished with outlawing. Thus, many women and men fled from their broken marriages in the emigration. Some took with them the new partner they could not marry in their homeland. Illegitimate parenting, family crises, debts or a crime often led to emigrating to foreign countries. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the man who gained the false title of a general in far-away California and whose adventurous life story has inspired the imagination of novelists and playwrights until very recently: John August Sutter (1803-1880), who went bankrupt in Burgdorf with his cloth shop and had been issued for the then still common debt arrest. Besides his debts, he left his wife with five small children behind in Burgdorf.















Advertisements appeared regularly in local newspapers, placed by travel agencies based at Basle, Bern, or Belfort, in neighbouring France. These agencies offered organised crossings of the Altlantic from Le Havre for 80-100 Swiss francs, depending on the number of passengers. Food on board cost 40 Swiss francs, and consisted of biscuits, flour, butter, ham, salt, potatoes and vinegar. With this the emigrants prepared their own meals. In addition, there was the cost of transport to Le Havre (about 60 Swiss francs) and food for the 4 or 5 days spent in the diligence. Clippers such as the "Savanah" and the "Sirius" now crossed the Atlantic in less than 20 days, making the crossing far less of an ordeal than for the earlier pionneers.

During that time, local Swiss governments gave them a financial incentive to leave (typically 400 Swiss francs, or 6 months wages for a working man), in order to have one less mouth to feed during a period of economic recession.This was an incentive for many Glarners to leave Switzerland. The money was given to the emigrants on the condition that they never returned to Europe. If they ever returned to their native land, they were obliged to reimburse it, along with annual interest at 4%, calculated from the day of departure. Bad was the mendacious emigration propaganda of the numerous land seekers, promoters and emigration agents, whose abuses led quite late, namely only in 1880, to a Swiss Federal Law, which assumed such agencies of patent duty and a strict regulatory supervision.

Link to the History of Ellis Island and the History of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor


One of the earliest emigration motives was religious conviction, on the one hand in the form of the mission of faith, and on the other hand as a practiced hope for genuine religious freedom overseas.

Auswanderer in Basel.jpg
1. Switzerland a Country of Emigration
2. Economic hardship led to emigraton

Glarner mercenary entrepreneur

Kaspar Freuler

Auswanderer auf Schiff.jpg
Auswanderung Werbeplakat
Reiseverträge Auswanderer.jpg

Glarner Settlements in Russia

Emigration to Russia

5. Emigration to Russia

Glarner Emigration to Holland  - mainly a mercenary emigration

Emigration to Holland

Glarner Emigration to Australia

Emigration to Australia

Glarner Emigration to Norway

Emigration to Norway


Glarner Emigration to Germany

Emigration to Germany

6. Emigration to Holland
7. Emigration to Australia
8. Emigration to Norway
9. Emigraton to Germany
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