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History of Glarus

1. The Legend of Saint Felix and Regula

Legend has it that the siblings Felix and Regula were members of the Theban Legion, a Roman military unit from Thebes in Egypt. Around 300 C.E., it is said, the legion and their leader, Maurice, refused to take part in the persecution of Christians in Valais, which is why all 6600 of them were martyred. Felix and Regula were said to have escaped and fled over the Kistenpass from Valais to Glarus. In Thierfehd, near Linthal, where they reached the valley bottom of Glarus, and where they quenched their thirst for the first time after the perilous hike, a spring is still today called the “Felix-and-Regula spring”.

They found shelter in a cave on the castle hill in Glarus and may have lived there for a while. After some time, the two continued their journey and went to the Roman settlement, Turicum (today Zurich). There, they were caught, tried, and executed by their persecutor. After decapitation, they miraculously stood to their feet, picked up their own heads, walked forty paces uphill, and prayed before lying down in death. They were buried on the spot where they lay down, on the hilltop which would become the site of the Grossmünster Church in Zurich. The Wasserkirche was built at the site of their execution. During the course of the Reformation, the Wasserkirche was identified as a place of idolatry.

The beheaded Felix, Regula and Exuperantius on the town seal of Zurich 1347

In the 13th century, the ‘servant’ Exuperantius was added to the legend who, it was said, served the now ‘genteel’ siblings, Felix and Regula. With the beginnings of the Reformation in 1524, the veneration of Zurich’s patron saints came to an end. With the dissolution of the monasteries by Huldrych Zwingli in 1524, their possessions were confiscated, and the graves of the martyrs were opened. Their relics are now kept in the village church of Andermatt in the canton Uri.

The legend is the likely reason why the name Regula was, and still is, a popular first name in the cantons of Glarus and Zurich.

2. The Legend of the Patron Saint Fridolin

Who was this Fridolin, who has been seen on the seals and flags of  canton Glarus for many centuries and as a patron saint on the coat of arms? Only a medieval saint’s narrative reports of his life. The oldest version we know today, was written by a monk named Balther, who lived in the period around 1000 in the Säckingen monastery.

According to this tradition, Fridolin (or Fridold) belonged to a noble family in Ireland, and at first laboured as a missionary in his native land. Afterward, crossing to France, he came to Poitiers, where in answer to a vision, he sought out the relics of St. Hilarius, and built a church to house them.

St. Hilarius subsequently appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to proceed to an island in the river Rhine, in the territories of the Alemanni. In obedience to this request, Fridolin went to the Emperor Clovis, who granted him possession of the still unknown island, and thence proceeded through Helion, Strasburg, and Coire, founding churches in every district in honour of St. Hilarius. Reaching at last the island of Säckingen in the Rhine, he recognized in it the island indicated in the dream and prepared to build a church there. The inhabitants of the banks of the Rhine, however, who used the island as a pasturage for their cattle, mistook Fridolin for a cattle-robber and expelled him. On showing them Clovis’s deed of gift, he was allowed to return and to found a church and the monastery on the island. He then resumed his missionary labours, founded the Scottish Benedictine monastery in Constance, and extended his mission to Augsburg. He died on March 6 about 540 and was buried at the monastery in Säckingen.


The legend is the likely reason why the name Fridolin, and also Hilarius, were popular first names in  canton Glarus.

As a traveling abbot, Saint Fridolin not only founded the monastery of Säckingen but was also active in other parts of Switzerland. This is reported by a legend about the life of the Saint: Two noble brothers, who were large land owners in the area of Glarus, lived at the same time as Saint Fridolin. One was called Urso, the other Landolf. The holy lifestyle of Fridolin inspired Urso to donate his part of the land to the monastery of Säckingen. At the time, his brother Landolf agreed to this donation. After the death of Urso, Landolf seized the land which his brother had donated to the monastery of Säckingen against the wishes of this brother. In front of the court, Fridolin couldn’t enforce his rights. Finally, the judge said: “If you want to bring the dispute to an end, you have to present to the court the donator, so that he can reaffirm as a witness in front of the court that he has given the land lawfully to you.”

3. The History of Saint Fridolin and Urso

The Baroque appearance of

St. Fridolin along with Urso on the altar of the chapel in Boll in Hechingen

Fridolin accepted this verdict and asked the landgrave Baldeberg to inform him about the date and place of the next court session. After receiving this information, Fridolin went to Glarus to the grave of Urso. As he arrived there the grave opened and Fridolin said “Urso, get up!” Fridolin took Urso by the hand and led him to the village of Rankweil in Vorarlberg where the court took place. All were frightened when the resurrected Urso trod in front of them, and Urso asked: “Brother, why have you stolen my land and thereby deprived my soul?”

Fridolin in front of landgrave Baldeberg in the Rankweil

Woodcarving of the Emser Chronicle 1616

Landolf was so frightened, that he not only refunded the Urso’s part, but bequeathed also his part of the land of Glarus to the monastery of Säckingen. When this was done, Fridolin led the deceased Urso back to his grave in Glarus. After this incident, the monastery in Säckingen was the lawful owner of Glarus until Glarus gained its independence in 1388.

The holy Saint Fridolin is also the patron saint of Glarus and is depicted in the arms of Glarus.


Figure right: Saint Fridolin in golden robes. The so-called Julius banner was handed over in July 1512 by Cardinal Schiner to the 200 war participants of Glarus who served for Pope Julius II.

The fact that Canton Glarus was on the border of various socio-economic divisions as modern civilization developed had a profound effect on our ancestors.  It was a dividing line of the Celtic Helvetians and Rhatiens, of the Roman provinces of Rhaetia and Germania Superior, of Ostrogoths and Franks, of the Christian dioceses of Chur and Constance, of areas controlled by monasteries at Säckingen and Schänis, of newly emerging Switzerland and the Holy Roman Empire, of Protestant and Catholic cantons, and of the German and Romansch languages.  Indeed, adjacent to the northwest portion of Canton Glarus is an area historically referred to as the March, which is an old term for a border territory where skirmishes against marauding tribes occurred. The march district is now part of Canton Schwyz. (The Klausen Pass to the south also was called a march.) Located as it is, Glarus remained economically poor for much of its history.


The earliest known inhabitants of the region in the modern era supported themselves by breeding cattle and cutting timber.  Little attention was paid to agriculture. It is possible that some of those early people were Etruscan in origin (from the Tuscany area of western Italy), but by the time the Romans appeared on the scene many were of Celtic origin.


The Celts were a tribal, Iron Age people (1200 B.C.E. to 400 C.E.) that were slowly migrating across a wide area of Europe (east to west, with some ending up in Scotland and Ireland). To the Romans, an area that includes eastern Switzerland became known as Rhaetia.  While there are different theories for the name, it most likely was based on the Celtic word rait (mountain land). By 15 B.C.E., there were Roman sentry towers along the Walensee and the area that became the village of Ziegelbrücke was a trading site. One of the chief towns of Rhaetia was Chur, now the capital of Canton Graubünden. Chur is east of Canton Glarus in the Rhine River valley. It was there that the region was connected to northern Italy by a Roman road running from Bregenz on Lake Constance through Como and on to Milan.  Key mountain passes, already in use during Roman times, were the Splügen, which divides the watersheds of the Rhine and Po rivers; the Julier, a link to the Engadine valley and the Danube watershed; and the Septimer, once important for the bishop of Chur to control his vast territory.


























Switzerland during the Roman time (Wikipedia/Marco Zanoli)


To the west of Rhaetia was the Roman province of Helvetia, a name that lives on in the formal Latin name of Switzerland (Confoederatio Helvetica).  That land was inhabited by the Celtic tribe that the Romans knew as the Helvetii.  At one point there was a huge exodus of the Helvetii from central Switzerland toward southern France. The exact reason is uncertain - it may have been in response to Germanic invaders.  The exodus was brutally stopped by the Roman army, and the survivors were forced back to their homeland. Today, there are many remnants of the Roman occupation in this area.


Over the years, some Roman merchants and military veterans settled in Switzerland. To some extent, Latin replaced the Celtic and Rhaetian languages. However, as times got harder for the Roman overlords, they became more ruthless and demanded much from the rest of the population.


In late Roman times (2nd to 4th Centuries), a Germanic tribe known as the Alemanni migrated into areas along the Rhine River in what today would be Alsace and northern Switzerland. The Romans first made note of them in 260 C.E. The word Alemanni means “all men,” and would seem to indicate that they were a combination of various German tribes.  Their legacy survives as the words for Germany and Germans in some languages, such as the Spanish Alemania and the French Allemagne.  The Alemanni were continuously fighting with the Romans, and in 256 invaded Italy and Gaul (France). A decade later, Roman troops returned to Switzerland in force and repelled the Alemanni.


After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380, small churches began to appear in Switzerland. Bishops were posted to some of the main administrative centers, including at Chur.  Archeological remains of an early Christian church from the late Roman era have been found near the courthouse in the city of Glarus. 


The Alemanni made several attempts to cross the Rhine again and in 406 were successful, establishing some territorially defined districts along the river. Their land was known to have been divided into farms and community property, with a Landesgemeinde (public assembly) deciding issues. Remote Glarus remained lightly populated and was not fully settled by the Alemanni until after the year 500.  The Alemanni, like the Romans before them, preferred to settle the major river valleys and plains of west-central Switzerland. When the Alemanni did arrive in Glarus, they lived side-by-side with the earlier Celtic-Roman population.  As a whole, the people were fiercely independent. The German language finally became dominant by the 11th Century.


Like much of the area, Glarus was not a geographically defined state but a collection of people. The Latin name Clarona, which morphed into the German Glarus, was not recorded until around 820 in an account of the legend of Saints Felix and Regula (see above). The document containing the legend is in the famous Abbey Library at St. Gallen. The oldest records seem to indicate generally that Clarona referred to the valley wall during Roman times. Under Alemanni influence, the plural Claronum changed to Claruns and eventually Glaris and Glarus.


At the advent of the Middle Ages, our Glarus ancestors were a mixture of cultures: Primarily Alemanni, but with traces of Celtic, Roman, and perhaps Etruscan blood. Those people, like all of the Glarners down through the centuries, were wary of a special feature of their mountain home: the Föhn wind. The phenomenon caused by moist southern air flowing over the mountains and then compressing on the dry northern side, at times is violent and causes sudden changes in temperatures. The wind has often ruined homes, crops, and orchards and is an ever-present danger in spreading fires.  Illnesses ranging from migraines to psychosis, as well as a higher level of suicides, have been blamed on the Föhn.

4. The Beginning of Glarus

The early Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages, lasted from about 400 to 1000 C.E.  It was during this era that the feudal system developed, with relations between the weak and the strong, based on personal allegiance to a network of noble families and religious institutions.  Everything was related to Christian concepts of an orderly universe and you respected the privileges of those above and below you. Power constantly shifted among kings, dukes, and church officials. The majority of people, in what became Canton Glarus and elsewhere, were peasants. However, not all were feudal serfs. Many in Glarus actually were free tenants who gave the nobility or church a share of their crops or animals as rent. A few were ministerialen, vassals of the church but of a higher standing.


It was also during this era that a Germanic tribe known as the Burgundians settled in western Switzerland, intermixing with the Alemanni there and having Geneva as their center. To the northwest, the Germanic tribe known as the Franks gained power under Clovis. After he consolidated his authority as king over most of what is modern-day France, he turned his attention toward conquering the Alemanni territory. Somewhere between 495 and 506 he defeated the Alemanni.  Rhaetia, including Glarus, then became part of his empire.

After the death of Clovis in 511, his territories were divided and three weak kingdoms emerged. At first the Alemanni were granted considerable independence, but eventually their dukes disappeared from power. Administrative areas, known as a gau, remained, with the Glarus region first a part of a large Alemanni Thurgau and later a new division called Zurichgau.


While western Switzerland embraced Christianity, most of the Alemanni in eastern Switzerland remained pagans until around the year 600. At that point, Irish monks were roaming northern Europe with a mission of conversion and building monasteries. Among them were Gallus and Columban, who worked in the Zurich and Lake Constance area. Columban went on to Italy, and Gallus stayed in eastern Switzerland, founding the now-famous monastery in St. Gallen. The monastery, with Othmar as its first abbot, became a major center of learning and culture. Even today, its library remains as one of the richest from medieval times. The monasteries and cloisters – secluded areas generally within a monastery – were havens for many from the violence of the times.  Some people made large gifts to the Church in an effort to assure their place in Heaven and to avoid regular tithes. Such gifts generally could not be challenged by civil authorities. Where monasteries were in control, more land was settled and cleared for cultivation.

5. The Middle Ages

During this period a monastery was founded at Säckingen, an island in the Rhine River east of Basel. Tradition says it was started by the Irish monk Fridolin, after St. Hilarius showed him the island in a dream (see the St. Fridolin legend see above). While the Säckingen abbey had both monks and nuns, only the nuns’ convent became an important institution. Its land holdings were spread over an extensive area, including the Black Forest region of Germany.


It was during this Dark Age period that Glarus came under control of the abbey at Säckingen. There is no documented evidence of when or how it happened. However, a legend emerged much later in the 13th Century and involved Fridolin and a man named Urso, who had large land holdings in Glarus (see the Urso legend see above). The land transfer probably happened in the middle of the 8th Century – long after the time of Fridolin, but legends are often closer to reality than official documents.


During the early period of Säckingen control, the abbess appointed a Meier, or steward, to manage her holdings in Glarus. In keeping with the feudal system, it probably was a hereditary title. It is not known who most of those stewards were, but for many years the position was held by a family that took the name Tschudi (1). Although no archeological evidence has been found, it is believed that a fortress once stood on the mound that is the site of St. Michael’s chapel in the city of Glarus, hence its name Burgkapelle (fortress chapel), and that it was probably used by the stewards of Glarus.


There are few records from this era, but a later account reveals how the abbess was required to visit Glarus every four years, collecting her tithes and other levies from our ancestors and settling various disputes. In other years, the steward took care of those matters. The items that were gathered – sheep, cows, fish, cheese (including Schabziger), butter, wool, cloth, and small amounts of money – were then slowly taken all the way to Säckingen, with various officials and workers taking a share along the way. When the goods finally arrived at the convent, they comprised a much smaller amount.


While centralized governments were developing in some of the few cities in Switzerland, the more rural areas relied on the Landesgemeinde for major decisions, alliances, and even criminal convictions. Based on the old Alemanni tradition, the regional public assembly emerged in the 10th Century.  Everyone age 14 and older (later 16) could participate. In Ägidius Tschudi’s zeal to claim nobility for his family and describe Glarus as under control of feudal aristocrats, he ignored the reality of this democracy in which the people picked their leader or Landammann.  The leader had to be of free birth and be well respected. Usually he was from the old-line free families, sometimes referred to as the “judges,” who could be impartial because they were rich enough in their own right.  Canton Glarus is one of only two regions in Switzerland that still holds an annual Landesgemeinde.

However, that was based on the now-discredited claims of Swiss historian Ägidius Tschudi (aka Gilg Tschudi), who wrote that he traced the fief to 870 with one Johannes of Glarus. Research published in 1938 showed that Tschudi had misinterpreted old records and made up much of his story. Anyhow, the Tschudi family belongs to the oldest family in Glarus and there is a very high probability that they effectively held the Meier position for Säckingen.

(1) However, that was based on the now-discredited claims of Swiss historian Ägidius Tschudi (aka Gilg Tschudi), who wrote that he traced the fief to 870 with one Johannes of Glarus. Research published in 1938 showed that Tschudi had misinterpreted old records and made up much of his story. Anyhow, the Tschudi family belongs to the oldest family in Glarus and there is a very high probability that they effectively held the Meier position for Säckingen.

The transitional era of the late Middle Ages (1300 to 1500 C.E.) was the beginning of recorded history about our individual ancestors from Canton Glarus.


Life then was not easy. While many adults in Glarus lived a long life, average life expectancy was short because of high infant mortality. Outbreaks of the Plague and other epidemics (smallpox, cholera, typhus) also took their toll, combined with wars and famine. Europe’s population as a whole was cut in half. In the northern part of the land of Glarus, some people died of marsh fever (malaria). The unhealthy marshes were extensive there due to the large amounts of debris that had swept down from the mountains because of deforestation by Glarners centuries before. Avalanches were also a constant concern. Nevertheless, agricultural production was beginning to increase beyond the subsistence level due to better farming techniques and possibly climate improvement.  Our ancestors sold their cows, cheese, grain, and wood in exchange for foreign goods – wool, silk, spices, salt, and wine – that passed through the trade routes. More people were turning to the trades in market towns, and that fostered the development of the city of Glarus.

Documents from this late medieval era are the oldest sources of family information. Yearbooks (so-called Jahrzeitbücher) that detail donations to churches, and records of witnesses to business deals, have the earliest occurrences of well-known family names. Baptisms, marriages, and deaths were generally not recorded until the 16th Century. However, as a 1950’s history of Canton Glarus says: “Families came and went at that time like today. . . . they were concerned like all people with flesh and blood and all its joys, worries, and strivings.”  Where once a place of origin sufficed next to a first name (Elmer from Elm, Luchsinger from Luchsingen, Netstaller from Netstal), now surnames appeared – some were from occupations (Legler=barrel maker, Schindler=shingle), some from baptism names or first names (Klässi from Nicholas, Ott from Otto, Marti from Martin, Blesi from Blasius), others were nicknames (Dürst=thirsty). In the earliest Glarus books there are about 25 family names of which 11 still exist (Brunner, Elmer, Grüniger, Hösli, Landolt, Luchsinger, Ott, Schmid, Speich, Stäger, and Tschudi).

6. Family Names Emerge

The most widespread of the oldest families were the Tschudis. The Tschudi family can be found in the genealogy of many Glarner descendants. The family likely descended from the Knights of Glarus and definitely did intermarry with some of the lesser nobility.

Left: Gräpplang castle the seat of the Tschudi family

(about 18th century)

As a whole, the family had large land holdings, including the now-ruined Gräpplang castle to the east of Canton Glarus near Flums. Many Glarner descendants here can trace their lineage to Heinrich Tschudi of Schwanden and his wife Katharina Netstaller. Heinrich was born in 1382 and he and his brother were orphaned when their father was killed during the movement for independence from the Emperor.  In the 13th century, the Habsburgs (whose family origins lie in today’s Canton Aargau) were consolidating their imperial power. They asserted control over the monasteries and their land, including the territory of Glarus. Previously, as part of its management of the land, the Säckingen monastery exercised a lesser government authority that was comparable to handling misdemeanors. The imperial representatives had power over more serious situations. The Glarners preferred the mild rule of Säckingen over the harsher imperial rule. But the Säckingen position of Meier faded away and the imperial representative – the Landvogt (sheriff or bailiff) or Untervogt (undersheriff) – became the sole supervisor of the canton. 

Knights of the Windegg (or Windeck) family held that position for a while as did members of the von Landenberg and Wichsler families. The Windeggs had two castles – Oberwindegg above Niederurnen in Canton Glarus and the more important Niederwindegg across the valley to the north between Schänis and Ziegelbrücke. The Windeggs and the von Landenbergs are connected to the Tschudi family through marriage.

Right: Oberwindegg castle above Niderurnen

Most of the castles of Switzerland date from this era. Since Glarus was not on a major trade route, there were no massive stone fortresses. There were a few castles in addition to Oberwindegg, but only very small stone remnants remain today. The oldest of this group is likely Sola, near the village of Sool. It was probably built in the 12th Century as the seat of the Knights of Glarus, then abandoned in about 1250 when the lesser nobility was being foiled by the Habsburg rule.

Left: Reconstruction of the Sola castle near Sool

Another castle was on a small hill at Näfels and appears to have briefly served as the main administrative center for the Habsburgs. Today a Franciscan monastery and retreat center rests on the castle foundation.

The Vorburg castle was at a strategic point above Oberurnen and had originally been the seat of the von Urnen family, ministerialens who had been given the land by Säckingen, and later the Stucki family when they served as Untervögte. Benzingen, on a ridge north of Schwanden, guarded the point where the Sernftal meets the Linthal. There are several other locations where castles may once have stood, some perhaps as an emergency refuge for the general population. 

Right: Reconstruction of the Vorburg castle above Oberurnen

During the late Middle Ages there was another migration of people affecting Glarus and for many of us becoming part of our genetic makeup. The Walsers, a German-speaking people from Canton Valais, were moving eastward into Canton Graubünden and southwards into Italy. They obtained special privileges in exchange for helping to settle and control Alpine passes, and some of the Alpine names in Glarus reflect that. A number of identifiable Walser families eventually immigrated into Canton Glarus, especially the Sernftal, including the families Bräm, Disch, Geiger, Rhyner, Schneider and Stauffacher.

St. Fridolin and Hilarius church (about 1840) before the fire

St. Michael church on the castle hill (about 1840)

For many of our ancestors who lived further back in the main valley of Glarus, or in the side valleys, taking part in the rites of the church involved a long journey. Initially there were only two churches, both in the city of Glarus – the main parish church St. Fridolin and Hilarius and St. Michael’s on the castle mount. The parish church was destroyed in the great fire of 1861 (and the original possibly earlier) and the current St. Michael’s dates to 1721.


By 1282 there was a church at Matt. Part of the Matt church and part of the Betschwanden church remain as the oldest religious structures in the canton. In winter, the Matt church wasn’t close enough for our ancestors at Elm and by 1493 the pope had approved the construction of St. Peter’s church, which still is used by the community.

Church of Betschwanden (build about 1300)

Church of Matt (build between 1261-1273)

The beginning of two important economic activities also dates to this era: the textile industry and the cattle trade. Textile production first emerged in Canton St. Gallen and spread to Canton Glarus. During the long winter months many people spent their time spinning and weaving wool and hemp. Those living higher in the mountains, with its shorter growing season, raised some flax and wove linen.  A simple gray cloth was typical of the weavers of Canton Glarus for many years.  A brisk trade in cattle began with cows that had been grazing in the mountain pass meadows.  Rather than return these cows to the home valley for winter, farmers drove them to southern Switzerland and Italy for trade. Soon their Brown Swiss breed became one of the earliest of the purebreds.

The complete opening of the St. Gotthard Pass around 1220 and the resulting increase in trade with Italy and the Mediterranean region boosted the importance of the forest cantons of central Switzerland. While that area did have a special deal with the ruling Habsburg emperors, imperial control was still resented. In 1291, after the death of Rudolf von Habsburg, a movement toward independence emerged. Cantons Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden signed a mutual support agreement (the Bundesbrief of 1291), fearing that Rudolf’s successor might take away some of their special rights.


A lengthy period of imperial intrigue and economic sanctions followed, which included the plunder of the pilgrimage site and abbey at Einsiedeln. While Canton Glarus remained more under the thumb of the Habsburgs, it did have a non-aggression pact with the forest cantons. Therefore, when the Empire sent troops into central Switzerland in 1315, our Glarner ancestors were not involved in the historic Battle of Morgarten, where the imperial forces were decisively routed. That defeat initially led to a lessening of the power of the imperial Vogt (sheriff) in various cantons and an expansion of the Eidgenössenschaft (Confederation or Everlasting League) to include Lucerne and Zurich. Imperial forces were unsuccessful in trying to thwart Zurich and eventually made a treaty with that canton.

Right: King Rudolf I. Tomb slab in the Dome of Speyer

7. Independence

Between 1350 and 1352, a defensive stone wall was built across the entrance to the main valley of Canton Glarus. The Letzi wall was designed to delay and inhibit, but not stop, an enemy. There were two gates that could be used as customs stations. Many other Letzinen were built in other parts of Switzerland, some with moats, palisades, and hedges. In 1351, soldiers from Zurich and the forest cantons occupied Canton Glarus for a while, but soon the empire re-asserted its control. Holding the hereditary high authority over the increasingly rebellious Glarners, the Habsburgs decided in 1352 to unite Glarus with the districts of Weesen and Gaster (both to the north and now part of Canton St. Gallen).

Left: A preserved part of the Letzi wall in Näfels

The village of Weesen, along the Walensee, was an imperial stronghold from which Glarus and the east-west trade route could be controlled. The reorganization, along with imperial troops being sent back into Canton Glarus, was greatly resented by our ancestors. That resulted in the people of Glarus making an alliance (now known as the “inferior federation”) with the Eidgenossenschaft.

The next major battle with the Empire was in 1386 at Sempach (near Lucerne), after Canton Bern began to ally itself with the Confederation.  Again the imperial forces were defeated. Caught up in the spirit of the times, the Glarners were active in their own canton and breached the Oberwindegg castle near Niederurnen in July. The castle had historically been one of the homes of the Empire’s Glarus Landvogt. 


The next year a Landesgemeinde was held and Canton Glarus set up its own government.  The 1387 gathering is the first recorded Landesgemeinde, although it most likely existed long before. Soon after, soldiers from Glarus and the Confederation occupied the village of Weesen and sought to extract tribute. Habsburg sympathizers left a city gate open on the night of Feb. 21-22, 1388, and imperial troops returned and killed almost the entire army of occupation.  Sixty men died, about half from Canton Glarus. Equally humiliating was the loss of an important Glarus military banner. News of the Mordnacht (murder night) at Weesen spread through the canton with lightning speed and raised intense fears among the people.

Then, on April 9, 1388, the imperial army attacked the land of Glarus with 600 horsemen and 5’000 to 6’000 foot soldiers. They overwhelmed those defending the Letzi wall and pillaged the village of Näfels. The Glarner defenders retreated to a mountain-side, more gathered from elsewhere in the canton, and a small group of allies arrived from Canton Uri. When the imperial troops renewed their attack, the defenders sent down a hail of stones that disoriented the imperial horses, which were already on rather uneven ground. Taking advantage of the chaos, the Glarners attacked and the imperial troops, apparently misunderstanding an order and believing the troops from Uri were large in number, began to retreat.

Right: Depiction of the Battle of Näfels in the Spiezer Chronicle

Historical postcard of the Battle of Näfels

As their calvary crowded onto the bridge over the Maag River, at the outlet of the Walensee, the bridge collapsed. The resulting chaos ended with a Glarner victory and true independence.  More than 1’700 of the Emperor’s troops died in the carnage. Glarus lost 55 soldiers, who were buried in a cemetery at Mollis.

The village of Weesen was burned by the retreating, resentful imperial troops. Glarus placed restrictions on reconstruction of the village and it never regained its prominence – the final effect of that ban disappeared in 2014 with construction of some apartment buildings near the Walensee.

Our ancestors long remembered the battle at Näfels and honored their relatives who won the canton’s independence.  Patriotic songs [Näfelserlied] and poems hailed the achievement. Even today, the event is commemorated on the first Thursday of April with the Näfelser-Fahrt (procession to Näfels). Long a Catholic ceremony, it became a secular event in 1936.

The 500th anniversary of the battle was marked in 1888, with a large national gathering at Näfels. The Mordnacht and burning of Weesen were also the subject of patriotic songs, which justified the destruction of Weesen as divinely inspired retribution.

The Näfelserfahrt procession in front of the church of Näfels

List of soldiers killed in action on the occasion of the Battle of Näfels 1388

As a final step to independence, the canton bought out the remaining rights of the Säckingen cloister in 1395. Control of Alpine pastures was included and some were set aside for community use.  As a token of appreciation for its benevolent rule, Canton Glarus continued to pay a modest yearly tithe to the cloister until the end of the 18th century.  Like other cantons, Glarus remained part of the Swiss Confederation not so much because of shared identity but because it helped assure their independence.


The total population of the canton is estimated to have been only about 3’000 in this era. While the sale of yarn, thread, and woven products had become more widespread, it was not the major source of income. It was mercenary soldiers that began to bring wealth into the canton. With European countries constantly feuding, the prowess of the Swiss soldiers in their battles for independence had attracted attention elsewhere and created a demand for mercenary troops, especially for France and the Papal States. Our family histories include many men who were attracted by the possibility of adventure and earning a pension, given the limited economic options in Canton Glarus. The Swiss became known for their heads-down attack in huge columns, each soldier using a long pike, refusing to take prisoners, and having a consistent record of victories. Use of gunpowder had already ended the military might of knights. The mercenary agreements were a lucrative financial deal for the cantons, including Glarus. But Switzerland also suffered greatly in these arrangements, with as many as 750’000 men being killed, disabled, or missing over several centuries.  The Swiss Guards at the Vatican are the last remnant of this way of life.

Dramatic religious issues weighed heavily on our ancestors for many years. In the 16th Century, Canton Glarus again found itself in the middle of things – philosophically and geographically. While the region was spared the devastating religious military battles that took place in Europe over a 150-year period, the bitterness was at times all-encompassing.


During the Renaissance years (14th to 17th Centuries), there was an openness among the more educated to both classical and new ideas that spread rapidly after the invention of the printing press. In Switzerland, that led to a new nationalism and the questioning of some Christian traditions.


Canton Glarus became a wellspring of the Reformation when Ulrich (or Huldrych) Zwingli was the popular priest in the city of Glarus from 1506 to 1516. Unlike his religious contemporary Martin Luther, Zwingli was deeply affected by the humanist movement, especially as argued by Heinrich Loreti of Mollis (known scholastically as Glareanus) and Erasmus, from the Netherlands. Zwingli was a strong slasher of the Pope and, thanks to a generous papal endowment, he amassed a large library. A number of notables, some of them our ancestors, studied under him, and he was one of the most influential men in Switzerland.  However, the locals also knew another side of him – he had relations with women, not an uncommon practice for clergy in his day.

8. Religious Tensions

Ulrich Zwingli (Hans Asper about 1531)

Zwingli served several times as chaplain for Glarner mercenary troops during historic battles in northern Italy, where the French were fighting the Papal States over disputed territory. Earlier battles had brothers fighting brothers – that is, Swiss mercenaries were on both sides. In the last battle where Zwingli was present – at Marignano – Swiss soldiers representing the Confederation were defending the Papal States. Outnumbered, poorly managed, outflanked by French artillery and cavalry, and with some officials being bribed by the French, the battle was a disaster for the Swiss troops. After that loss the Confederacy never went to war again, declaring its neutrality in 1525.

What Zwingli witnessed caused him to speak out politically against the mercenary tradition, which put him at odds with the wealthier members of Glarus society.  Feeling pressure to leave the canton, he retreated to the Benedictine abbey at Einsiedeln.  Some in Glarus wanted him to return and he was kept on the Glarus church payroll for several years.

Zwingli began to find many faults with the Church of Rome. After more study and Scripture-based preaching, he concluded that mercenary service was immoral. After being called to serve the Grossmünster in Zurich, he took a stand against the sale of indulgences, fasting, celibacy, use of images, and corruption of church authorities. He saw church reform and preservation of the Swiss Confederation as something that had to happen together.

In 1524, Luther’s German translation of the New Testament was first printed in the Swiss dialect by Froschauer in Zurich. Then, in 1525, Zwingli introduced a new communion liturgy. By 1529, he had split with Luther over the issue of the real presence of Christ in communion. And in 1531, Zwingli published 4 years earlier than Luther the first German translation of the whole Bible, the so called “Froschauer Bibel”.


In Canton Glarus, the Reformation took hold without much opposition. 15 of the 17 parishes voted to affiliate with Zwingli’s theology.  Only the congregations at Näfels and Oberurnen remained Catholic.  Historian Ägidius Tschudi had studied under Zwingli, as did Valentin Tschudi, who succeeded Zwingli as pastor at Glarus.

While Ägidius eventually reaffirmed his strong support for the Catholic Church (as did Glareanus), Valentin Tschudi took a typical Glarner middle-of-the road approach during the transition years – reading a Catholic mass and then preaching a Protestant sermon.  That led to a long period of both faiths using the state church in the city of Glarus, as also happened in Cantons Aargau and Thurgau.

Right: Front page of the Froschauer Bible 1531

Zwingli’s views were strongly opposed in the five Forest Cantons and, with the Swiss Confederation about to disintegrate, military action ensued. In 1529, just before fighting was about to break out on the plains of Kappel near Zurich, Glarus Landammann Hans Aebli negotiated a truce. Aebli believed in confessional parity – that is, both religious views should be treated equally. Out of that grew the story of the Kappeler Milchsuppe (Kappel milk soup), which is considered a parable of religious tolerance as an alternative to war.

Left: The Kappeler Milk Soup 1529 (Albert Anker 1869)

While negotiations were going on, the soldiers from the Forest Cantons brought milk and those from Zurich brought bread. The milk was warmed in a large pot and soldiers from each side carefully dipped their bread in their half of the pot. However, Zwingli didn’t like the terms of the settlement and eventually pushed for an economic boycott of the Forest Cantons. That brought about a military response at a time when Zurich was unprepared. 

Vastly outnumbered, the Protestants were defeated in 1531, and Zwingli was killed in the battle at age 47, refusing to recant his beliefs. While a few strategic areas were forcibly returned to Catholicism (including Schänis and the Sarganserland, next to Canton Glarus), an agreement was reached to preserve the Confederation and each canton’s right to practice either faith – an unusual thing in Europe. Most cantons were one religion or the other.

Glarus was one canton that embraced both traditions and, unlike Canton Appenzell, did not split. In typical Swiss fashion, each Protestant canton had its own church hierarchy – there was no national Reformed church.

The killing of Zwingli during the battle of Kappel

With state and religion deeply intertwined, the practice of the Glarus Landesgemeinde was modified.  Beginning in 1623, there were three gatherings – one Protestant, one Catholic, and one joint.  There was even a separate postal service. Those divisions lasted until 1836. The separate churches continued to be responsible for education and aid to the poor. For most of the 18th Century, there were two calendars in use – the Catholics had the new Gregorian calendar (used universally today) and the Protestants, not recognizing the Pope’s decree, continued with the old Julian calendar. The Catholic parishes remained part of the Diocese of Constance until 1814, when they came under the administration of Chur.


With income from the mercenary business declining, the home textile industry became more important. The growth paralleled that of the watch-making cottage industry in western cantons, where goldsmiths and jewelers developed a new specialty in reaction to the Calvinistic restrictions on wearing jewelry.

In addition, those whose families came from the Sernf valley may find ancestors who were slate miners or fabricators. There are high quality slate outcrops all along the valley and villagers in Engi and Matt exploited the natural resource beginning in the 1600s, serving markets throughout Europe. Slate was used in some roofing, flooring and furniture.   Cabinet makers enclosed little slate tablets in wooden frames – some designed for keeping score when playing the Swiss card game Jass. 

Elm generally avoided the industry until the 1860s. As demand grew in the 1870s for slate blackboards in schools throughout Europe, Elm stepped up its mining efforts that culminated in the tragic landslide of 1881.


Picture right shows the village Elm after the landslide which caused 114 human lives.

Right: Drawing from J. Weber 1881

This was also a transition time for our ancestor’s diets.  Swiss cuisine has always been influenced by neighboring countries and now Spanish explorers had brought back potatoes, tomatoes, and corn (maize) from the New World. The new plants slowly spread to Italy and other European countries, although they were regarded with suspicion, often for religious reasons since they came from a “heathen country.”  While it took a long time for those foods to be accepted, by the 18th Century they were important crops.


There was another migration of people at this time that involved some of our ancestors. Since Canton Glarus was primarily Protestant, there was an influx of some families from areas that remained Catholic.  Among those that appear to have moved for religious reasons were the Hefti, Bäbler, Baumgartner, Lienhard, and Iselin families.


Switzerland as a whole did not tolerate dissenters from the two established religions. Anabaptists, including Mennonites and Amish, and Huguenots from France for the most part moved on to the German Palatinate and then to the United States. Settlements in the USA were mainly in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. Among those in Pennsylvania were members of the Tschudi and Heer families of Canton Glarus.


There were Jewish communities in various parts of Switzerland by the 13th Century, but as in much of Europe they faced persecution in many ways – job restrictions, special taxes, forced baptisms, and being blamed for many misfortunes. In 1622, the Confederation banished Jews from Switzerland. A few families were permitted to live in two villages in Canton Aargau – Endingen and Lengnau – because Aargau was not officially a part of the Confederation.  Meyer Guggenheim, the patriarch of America’s wealthy Guggenheim Family, was born in Lengnau.  Full rights were finally guaranteed in the constitution of 1848 and in 1866 legislation. However, ritual slaughtering for kosher foods is still prohibited in Switzerland.


This was also the era of the “Turkish menace,” which haunted Europe for 150 years.  The Ottoman Empire, based in Istanbul, was extending its rule and bringing Islam into central Europe. In 1529, Suleiman the Magnificent and his soldiers were at the gates of Vienna, but bad spring weather and disease turned their siege into a disaster. Another attempt to conquer the region was made in the summer of 1683.  Just as Vienna was about to fall, an army led by the Polish king Jan Sobieski rescued the city and put a halt to the Islamic expansion. Although news traveled slower in those days and Vienna is on the eastern end of Austria (about 350 miles from Glarus), the threat to our ancestors’ way of life was very real.


Since the days of the Reformation, religious practices in Glarus have changed dramatically. By 2000, canton residents included 16’786 Protestants, 14’246 Catholics, 7 Jews, 2’480 Muslims and 9’630 other or non-affiliated.

Europe was again in turmoil between the 1790s and 1820s. The dramatic events of those years – military, political, and economic – were fresh in the memory of the early settlers of New Glarus and their parents.


Napoleon Bonaparte’s France, seeking to spread his personal power and some of the ideals of the French Revolution, occupied Switzerland in 1798. The Swiss national government and individual cantons were reorganized. Switzerland became the Helvetic Republic and Canton Glarus, along with a region to the east known as the Sarganserland, became the new Canton Linth, with the city of Glarus as its capital. The official language of the old Confederation had been German, but now French and Italian were added. There were some benefits for the land of Glarus. Under the new regime there was a rising concern for public education (which became mandatory in 1837), the canton’s first newspaper was published, and a plan to clear up the disease-laden marsh at the northern border received national endorsement.

9. Napoleon Bonaparte and Alexander Suworow

Napoleon exploited Switzerland as a buffer territory when he was opposed by the armies of Austria and Russia. While some Swiss fought for the French, most generally supported the other nations. In 1799, French troops were engaged in two major battles near Zurich. After Russian Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov had driven the French from Italy, he was ordered to move his troops into Switzerland to aid in the fighting. However, he was too late to rescue the bumbling General Alexander Korsakov and in early October Suvorov was forced to retreat through the land of Glarus and over the Panixer Pass above the village of Elm.


The maneuver is regarded as one of the most famous retreats in military history. Poorly equipped and nearly starving, Suvorov’s army of about 21’000 finally reached Chur in the Rhine River valley having lost about 5’000 troops. Many died of starvation or fell to their death on the steep cliffs on the eastern side of the Panixer.

Right: General Alexander Suworow’s way through Switzerland in September/October 1799

Our Glarner ancestors suffered greatly from both the retreating Russian soldiers and the French who were not far behind. Tiny villages were overwhelmed. Looters stripped the area of food and farm animals, ruining fields and causing deaths. While the Russians trudged over the snow-bound Panixer, one of the largest houses in Elm became Suvorov’s temporary headquarters. In more recent years the home was restored by a prominent builder, Kaspar Rhyner, and is known today as the Suvorov Haus. There is a popular ski-season coffee shop/wine Stube in the basement. Figure left shows a statue of a Russian soldier that now stands before the entrance to the Panixer Pass above the village of Elm.

Right: Suworow Monument in Elm

Below: The Werdenberg Castle

During the French occupation, Glarus lost control of the small district of Werdenberg (along the Rhine River across from Liechtenstein) that it had administered since 1517. For centuries, the Landesgemeinde would appoint a new Landvogt every three years to supervise and collect taxes in the area.

Many of us would find one or more ancestors among those who held the post and lived in the Werdenberg Castle, the seat of their authority.

The military action also brought an end to the first golden age of the textile industry. First, there was a shipping blockade of American cotton. Then the English mills, once restricted by the French, dumped their wares on the market. Neighboring countries, smarting over Swiss cooperation with the French, enforced high protective tariffs on Swiss-made goods. To overcome the boycott, the leading companies of Canton Glarus slowly developed markets in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Persia, India, and the Philippines.

10. Industrialization, Economic Turmoil and Emigration

A staple of the Glarner textile industry was head scarves and shawls, including the Glarner Foulard (a French word for a slightly larger version of the Glarner Tüechli or kerchief). The elaborate batik designs, originating in India and Java and still popular, were done in rich shades of red and yellow. Not only were large amounts of cotton and silk imported, but also the base of natural dyes such as saffron, indigo, and Brazilian redwood. At the same time textile production was increasingly mechanized, with more than 20 spinning and weaving mills in operation by 1822.

Left: Glarner Tüechli

Many of the home weavers in Canton Glarus did not want to work in factories and lose their independence, but those who did – and they were a majority of the population – tended to do relatively well financially for a while and were less connected to the farms in the summer months. Although the factory work entailed a 12- to 15-hour workday, the jobs also led to the building of better stone row houses for the workers, which included a garden plot outside the villages. While factories combined the various steps of spinning, weaving, bleaching, and printing cloth, the Glarners for the most part stuck to their old method of hand block printing (especially on calico) while other countries started to use roller printing machines. Soon they could not compete and more people were unemployed and hungry. Skilled spinners, weavers, and printers started to leave eastern Switzerland.


Despite the economic turmoil, our ancestors were witnesses to one of the greatest engineering feats of Switzerland – improvement of the Linth River and the building of the Linth Canal. The changes, which enhanced the development of the textile factories, included an 1811 re-routing of the river at Mollis so that it emptied into the Walensee rather than into the Maag River. That eliminated annual flooding that was caused by debris buildup where the Linth connected with the Maag. Following that, Hans Conrad Escher designed a canal to connect the Walensee with the Zürichsee (Lake Zurich), draining the marshes and providing easier trade transportation when the canal was completed in 1822. It was on that canal that the original settlers of New Glarus began their journey in 1845, departing from a landing place called the Biäsche. The canal’s importance soon declined with the advent of the railroads in the 1860s.


Then there was the weather. The years 1813 to 1817 were unusually cold and sometimes referred to as a mini ice age. Alpine glaciers reached much farther down the mountains, and the cold and wet weather severely limited crops. It was the time of the “year without a summer,” (1816), which was also evident in North America. We now know that the cold period was primarily due to a huge volcanic eruption in the East Indies. Canton Glarus, with its limited amount of arable land, suffered greatly.


All of the above reasons contributed to an increase in emigration. Russia was a preferred destination before 1830. Then it was the United States. With some emigrants having severe difficulties, especially in South America, the Glarners in their deliberate way decided to provide a method to ensure that their compatriots would have a safe, financially favorable community overseas, with mutual aid and use of the mother tongue helping to reduce homesickness and the possibility of being cheated. That was the purpose of the Emigration Society, which saw its fulfillment in the settlement of New Glarus in 1845.


Between 1845 and 1855, one-twelfth of the population of Canton Glarus emigrated. In most cases, the emigrants cashed out their communal rights, which gave them some money to begin their new life abroad.

*) The chapter 4 - 10 are partially adopted from a series written by Duane H. Freitag in Family History Notes 2013/2014 issued by Robert Elmer

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