Swiss America

Wanderings through some Switzerland-related places in the U.S. and through some places fancied to be “the Switzerland of America”:

(#1) City hall of Santa Clara UT, flying the US, Utah, and Swiss flags

(#2) Alpine Ouray CO, in the Rockies

Swiss America. A fitting name for this posting, though the American company with that name appears to have nothing substantive to do with Switzerland; it’s just an evocation of Swiss banks and accumulated wealth, especially in the form of gold and silver. The Swiss America Trading Corp., with its headquarters in Phoenix AZ, trades in precious metals. Pop music celebrity Pat Boone has been their spokesperson since at least 2007.

Santa Clara UT. From Diccon Bewes’s website, in the posting “The United States of Switzerland” of 1/16/12:

I’d never heard of Santa Clara, a small place in SW Utah near St George. I guess few people have. It was settled in 1854 by fifteen Swiss Mormon families who were sent there from Salt Lake City by Brigham Young, even though most of them had just arrived in Utah after months of travelling from Switzerland. Now home to about 4,600 people it doesn’t look particularly Swiss at first – no chalets, no cows, no hills. But then you notice the Swiss flag alongside those of the USA and Utah outside City Hall, and the very Swiss names on the historical plaques along the main street. All those immigrants from Thurgau, Glarus and Zurich: Graf, Staheli, Gubler, Frei and Reber.

From Bern. The posting notes Swiss-derived American placenames like Geneva (for example, Geneva NY, a city in the Finger Lakes area of New York state), Zurich (for example, Lake Zurich, a village in Lake County IL), Lucerne (for example, Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania), and especially Bern, to which I now turn — starting with the Bern closest to me personally: Bern Township in Berks County PA, the (generally rural) township just north of the one I grew up in, Spring Township:

Bern Township is a township in Berks County, Pennsylvania, United States. As of the 2010 census, the population is 6,797. The township is in Schuylkill Valley School District.

… The township was so named by Swiss settlers after Bern, in Switzerland.

(Placenames in the area come from several sources: some descriptive (there was a significant spring in Spring Township), many from native American names (Wyomissing, Tulpehocken), many from names of English places or persons (especially the Penn family, but also Lancaster, York, etc.), quite a few from Welsh (Brecknock, Caernarvon, and Cumru townships in Berks County), many of course from German (Muhlenberg, Heidelberg, and Hamburg townships in Berks County), a few of Dutch origin (Schuylkill), and a few of Swiss origin.)

Not only Bern Township, but also Bernville in Berks County. From Wikipedia:

Bernville is a borough in Berks County, Pennsylvania, United States. The population was 955 at the 2010 census. Bernville is bordered by Penn Township to the north, east, and south and by Jefferson Township to the west.

Before European settlers arrived in the Tulpehocken Creek valley, the area was inhabited by the Lenape people. In 1723, thirty-three Palatine families from Schoharie, New York, moved to the confluences of the Tulpehocken and Northkill Creeks. By 1735, a saw and grist mill was located three and a half miles up the Tulpehocken river from Bernville.

In 1737, Stephanus Umbenhauer immigrated from Bern, Switzerland, and purchased 220 acres from Thomas Penn. In 1819, Stephanus’ grandson, Johann Thomas Umbenhauer, set aside 46 acres to be divided into 62 lots. On 24 August 1819, Peter Bennethum bought the first six lots. In January 1820, the town was named Bernville after Stephanus’ birthplace.

But the most significant US Bern-named place is in North Carolina. From Wikipedia:

New Bern is a city in Craven County, North Carolina… As of the 2010 census it had a population of 29,524, which had risen to an estimated 30,242 as of 2013. It is the county seat of Craven County…

It is located at the confluence of the Neuse and the Trent rivers, near the North Carolina coast. It lies 112 miles (180 km) east of Raleigh, 87 miles (140 km) northeast of Wilmington, and 162 miles (261 km) south of Norfolk. New Bern is the birthplace of Pepsi Cola.

New Bern was settled in 1710 by Bernese and Palatine immigrants [that is, some Swiss, some German] under the auspices of Christoph von Graffenried, 1st Baron of Bernberg. The new colonists named their settlement after Bern, Switzerland, home state of their patron.

Then a Berne (French spelling) that has preserved some of its Swiss heritage:

(#3) Constructed in 2010, the town clock tower is modeled after the Zytglogge in Bern, Switzerland

Berne is a city in Monroe and Wabash townships, Adams County, Indiana…, 35 mi (56 km) south of Fort Wayne. The population was 3,999 at the 2010 census. Berne and the surrounding area have become known for their large Amish population, who [speak] Bernese German

Berne was settled in 1852 by Mennonite immigrants who came directly from Switzerland, and named the community for the capital of Switzerland.

Then some truly small places:

[WI] Bern is a town in Marathon County, Wisconsin, United States. It is part of the Wausau, Wisconsin Metropolitan Statistical Area. The population was 591 at the 2010 census. (link)

[KS] Bern is a city in Nemaha County, Kansas, United States. As of the 2010 census, the city population was 166. Bern had its start in the late 1880s by the building of the railroad through that territory. It was named by Swiss immigrants after Bern, the capital of Switzerland. (link)

[ID] Bern is an unincorporated community in Bear Lake County, Idaho. It is located in the southeast corner of the state, about four miles from Montpelier. [2010 population 137] The first settlement at Bern was made in 1873. A post office called Bern was established in 1901, and remained in operation until 1988. The community was named after Bern, in Switzerland, the native land of a large share of the first settlers. (link)

Swiss American overview. From the World Culture Encyclopedia: Multicultural America site, an article on Swiss Americans by Leo Schelbert — with a few sections of special relevance boldfaced:

The first known Swiss in what is now the territory of the United States was Theobald von Erlach (1541-1565). In 1564 he was a leading member of a French attempt to create a permanent foothold in North America. He perished when some 900 French soldiers were shipwrecked by a hurricane in September 1565, and killed by the Spanish. Some “Switzers” also lived at Jamestown during the regime of Captain Smith. In 1657 the French Swiss Jean Gignilliat received a large land grant from the proprietors of South Carolina. In 1710 some 100 Swiss joined Christoph von Graffenried (1661-1743) who founded New Bern in present-day North Carolina [see above].

Between 1710 and 1750, some 25,000 Swiss are estimated to have settled in British North America, especially in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. Many were members of the Reformed church and were actively recruited by entrepreneurs such as Jean Pierre Purry (1675-1736), the founder of Purrysburg, South Carolina. About 4,000 Swiss Mennonites settled in Pennsylvania, many of whom had first gone to the Palatinate from which the next generation emigrated in search of fertile, affordable land and greater toleration of their creed. [Early settlements involved considerable mixing between the Swiss and the Palatinate Germans who became the Pennsylvania Dutch / Germans.]

In the late 1750s an influential group of French Swiss officers in the British service assumed leadership roles in the fight against indigenous peoples resisting white incursions into the trans-Appalachian West, the French, and the insurgent colonials. In the middle decades of the eighteenth century a group of Swiss Jesuits labored in the Southwest of the present United States to promote the northward expansion of New Spain.

In 1804 a special grant of Congress enabled a group of French Swiss winegrowers to settle on the Ohio and establish the town of Vevay, Indiana. [See my July 16th posting “19-century Swiss steak”.] This viticulture, which they had hoped to introduce as a permanent feature into the Midwestern economy, became insignificant by mid-century and was replaced by the cultivation of maize and other staples. In 1817 and 1825 Swiss Mennonites founded the agricultural settlements Sonnenberg and Chippewa in Ohio, respectively, and in 1838 Berne, Indiana; the latter remains conscious of its Swiss origin [see above]. By the efforts of the Köpfli and Suppiger families the town of Highland emerged in southern Illinois in 1831 and eventually attracted some 1,500 Swiss settlers. In the same decade John August Sutter (1803-1880) established New Helvetia in California, then still under Mexican sovereignty. When gold was discovered on his property in 1848, thousands of goldseekers overran his extensive domain, and the city of Sacramento [formerly New Helvetia] was platted, and became California’s capital in 1854.

In 1825 several Swiss, who had joined Lord Selkirk’s Red River colony in Canada in 1821, settled at Gratiot’s Grove northeast of Galena, Illinois. In 1845 New Glarus was founded in southern Wisconsin’s Green County, today the best known settlement of Swiss origin. [New Glarus is the site of the Swiss Center of North America; more on New Glarus below] Numerous Swiss also settled in the towns of Monroe, Washington, and Mount Pleasant. In 1848 Bernese Swiss established Alma on the Mississippi, which counted some 900 Swiss in 1870. A French Swiss group connected with the Protestant Plymouth Brethren established a community in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the same year.

In the spring of 1856 a group of Swiss and Germans established a Swiss Colonization Society in Cincinnati, Ohio, to create a culturally homogeneous settlement. After an extensive search Tell City was laid out in 1858 on the Ohio River in Perry County, Indiana. In the post-Civil War era Helvetia was founded in West Virginia in 1867 as a result of active recruitment by that state. In the 1880s Peter Staub (1827-1904) initiated the settlement of Grütli in Grundy County, Tennessee. During the same decade 1,000 Swiss who had converted to Mormonism went to Utah and settled mainly at Midway near Salt Lake City and at St. George on Utah’s southwestern border. Between 1870 and 1914 several thousand Italian Swiss went to California where they established vineyards and dairy farms. [See my July 15th posting “Braised short ribs with Swiss chard, and the Swiss Hotel”.]

On the whole, Swiss settlers in the US largely blended into the surrounding culture, while preserving a few customs of the old country. But some settlements aimed for a more ambitious preservation of things Swiss (or at least, of things like stereotypes of Switzerland) and fashioned themselves into tourist destinations. Two notable examples: New Glarus WI and Sugarcreek OH.

From Wikipedia on the first, an article that’s inclined to lapse into vacation-brochure copy:

(#4) The New Glarus Village Hall

New Glarus is a village in Green County, Wisconsin, United States at the intersection of Wisconsin Highways 69 and 39. It has a population of 2,172 according to the 2010 census. Since 2000 it has had a population growth of 2.9 percent. The village, and the town that surrounds it, were named after the canton of Glarus in eastern Switzerland. The community was founded in 1845 by immigrants from that canton and was incorporated in 1901.

More than 160 years after it was founded, New Glarus has maintained much of its Swiss heritage and old world traditions. Swiss-style chalets and flower boxes filled with red geraniums grace the streets of the village and Swiss flags fly next to the American flag at many businesses and homes. Old World meat markets, restaurants, and a Swiss bakery are also found in downtown New Glarus, along with folk art, museums, and Swiss-style shops. Many Swiss customs are still alive in New Glarus, including the card game Jass, yodeling, and flag tossing. Today New Glarus is the best known Swiss settlement in America.

On the second of these towns, from my 10/17/16 posting “Zwickys of New York: Chuck the mixmaster”:

In Ohio, where I lived for many years, we had the Swiss settlement Sugarcreek, northeast of Columbus and a bit southwest of Akron/Canton, site of the Ohio Swiss Festival.

(with some details and a photo). From Wikipedia:

(#5) The regrettably cute Sugarcreek cuckoo clock

Sugarcreek is a village in Tuscarawas County, Ohio… It includes the community formerly known as Shanesville. The population was 2,220 at the 2010 census. It is known as “The Little Switzerland of Ohio.” In the center of town stands one of the world’s largest cuckoo clocks, which was previously featured on the cover of the Guinness Book of World Records in 1977.

… The town has a notable Amish community which is part of the greater Holmes County Amish settlement. Sugarcreek supports a Swiss heritage and Amish centered tourism industry [and] is the headquarters of The Budget weekly newspaper, the most important Amish newspaper

The many Switzerlands of America. Swiss settlers in the US mostly sought out good farmland, especially land suitable for dairy farming or viticulture, originally in coastal settlements from Pennsylvania through South Carolina, then in the Midwest and West — with the result that, for the most part, American Swiss settlements were in places that did not particularly resemble Switzerland itself.

But the US has plenty of places with stunning mountains (especially accompanied by a picturesque lake or river) that might (sometimes optimistically) be likened to the mountains of Switzerland. Such a place is apt to be labeled “the Switzerland of America” — generally entailing no actual Swiss connection, just resemblance. There are a great many of these. A small sampling follows, starting with the top of the line, Ouray CO (in #2 above).

From Wikipedia:

Ouray [ /júre/ ] is … the county seat and the most populous city of Ouray County, Colorado, United States. The city population was 813 at the U.S. Census 2000 and 1,000 as of the U.S. Census 2010.

… Originally established by miners chasing silver and gold in the surrounding mountains, the town at one time boasted more horses and mules than people. Prospectors arrived in the area in 1875.

… Ouray is located … in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. It is about 40 miles (64 km) south of Montrose. It is only 10 miles (16 km) northeast of Telluride, but due to the severity of the landscape, the drive is about 50 miles (80 km). Ouray is connected to Silverton and then Durango to the south by Red Mountain Pass which crests at just over 11,000 feet (3,400 m).

… The entire present-day economy of Ouray is based on tourism. Ouray bills itself as the “Switzerland of America” because of its setting at the narrow head of a valley, enclosed on three and a half sides by steep mountains.

In Switzerland, the isolation enforced by steep mountain ranges was largely overcome in the 19th century by the building of a remarkable rail system (including a great many tunnels through the mountains) that knit the country together. While the mines were working in Ouray, there were rail lines for both the ores and passengers. The first lines opened in 1887; passenger service ended in 1930, all service in 1953. Now, apparently, the trip by car or bus is hair-raising.

In any case, decidedly Swiss-esque scenery, but no significant number of Swiss people.

Then, back in Pennsylvania, about 60 miles by car from Reading (from Wikipedia):

(#6) Vintage post card from Pennsylvania’s “Switzerland of America”

Jim Thorpe [(founded as Mauch Chunk)] is a borough and the county seat of Carbon County in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. The population was 4,781 at the 2010 census. The town has been called the “Switzerland of America” due to the picturesque scenery, mountainous location, and architecture; as well as the “Gateway to the Poconos.” It is in eastern Pennsylvania about 80 miles (130 km) north of Philadelphia and 100 miles (160 km) west of New York City. This town is also historically known as the burial site for the body of Native American sports legend Jim Thorpe.

Then in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, way far north, there’s Dixville Notch and its resort hotel The Balsams (but no Swiss that I can see):

(#7) The Balsams

(#8) New Hampshire’s “Switzerland of America” — with a comparison of it to the Salzkammergut resort area of Austria (only it’s not as beautiful)

Dixville Notch is an unincorporated community in Dixville township, Coos County, New Hampshire… The population of the township, all of whom live in Dixville Notch, was 12 at the 2010 census. The village is known for being one of the first places to declare its results during United States presidential elections and the New Hampshire primary. It is located in the far north of the state, approximately 20 miles (30 km) south of the Canadian province of Quebec.

Then in California, a vintage declaration of Mt. Tam and the Marin headlands (north of San Francisco) as “The Switzerland of America”:


Finally, Clear Lake CA. Characterized in the Lake County (CA) Record-Bee as “The Switzerland of America” on 6/2/16 by Tony Pierucci:

(#10) Early postcard of Clear Lake

From Wikipedia:

Clear Lake is a natural freshwater lake in Lake County in the U.S. state of California, north of Napa County and San Francisco. It is the largest natural freshwater lake wholly within the state, with 68 square miles (180 km2) of surface area.

Snowclonic note. “X is the Switzerland of America” is an instance of the larger analogical snowclone pattern “X is the Y of Z”, designed to attribute to X in its domain Z certain salient properties of Y in a parallel domain W (which you are to supply from context and background knowledge): that is,

X : Z ∷ Y : W (for some domain W parallel to Z)

That is, “Clear Lake is the Switzerland of America” conveys something like:

Clear Lake : America ∷ Switzerland : Europe

(attributing certain salient properties of Switzerland vis-a-vis Europe to Clear Lake vis-a-vis America — in this case, a certain kind of scenic beauty). But Y in W is the ground, the given and familiar, while X in Z is the figure, the new, so that the analogies are ordinarily not reversible: if Clear Lake is the Switzerland of America, that doesn’t make Switzerland the Clear Lake of Europe.

4 Responses to “Swiss America”

  1. Stephen R. Anderson Says:

    More on Tell City, from Wikipedia: “In 1858, the Swiss Colonization Society, a group of Swiss and German immigrants to the United States, founded its first (and only) planned city on the banks of the Ohio River in Perry County, Indiana. The town was originally dubbed Helvetia, but was quickly changed to Tell City to honor the legendary Swiss hero. The city became known for its manufacturing, especially of fine wood furniture. William Tell and symbols of an apple with an arrow through it are prominent in the town, which includes a bronze statue of Tell and his son, based on the one in Altdorf, Switzerland. The statue was erected on a fountain in front of city hall in 1974. Tell City High School uses these symbols in its crest or logo, and the sports teams are called “The Marksmen.” The William Tell Overture is often played by the school’s pep band at high school games. Each August since 1958, Tell City’s centennial year, the town has held “Schweizer Fest,” a community festival of entertainment, stage productions, historical presentations, carnival rides, beer garden, sporting events and class reunions, to honor its Swiss-German heritage. Many of the activities occur on the grounds of City Hall and Main Street, at the feet of the Tell statue.”

    As I’ve recently been convinced, the whole William Tell story is, alas, a con job. “The Danish legend of Palnatoki, first attested in the twelfth-century Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus,[29] is the earliest known parallel to the Tell legend. As with William Tell, Palnatoki is forced by the ruler (in this case King Harald Bluetooth) to shoot an apple off his son’s head as proof of his marksmanship.[30] A striking similarity between William Tell and Palnatoki is that both heroes take more than one arrow out of their quiver. When asked why he pulled several arrows out of his quiver, Palnatoki, too, replies that if he had struck his son with the first arrow, he would have shot King Harald with the remaining two arrows. According to Saxo, Palnatoki later joins Harald’s son Swein Forkbeard in a rebellion and kills Harald with an arrow.” In the absence of any attestations before the 15th or 16th century, we have to give up on the apple story.

    Also, you seem to have left out “Little Switzerland, NC”. Good move there, since (as my wife and I have been able to confirm recently) there is nothing at all Swiss about the place except the name, but somebody must have thought so once. Again from Wikipedia:,_North_Carolina

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Once again, many thanks. It’s incredibly hard to know where to stop with this stuff; there’s so much intriguing material out there, a lot of it needing investigation and critiquing. (Thanks especially for the report on Little Switzerland NC, which is as I’d feared.) I have very complex feelings about culture tourism: I’ve worked a bit in the Welsh Folk Museum at Cardiff, which is as maniacally committed to authenticity as you could want and is in fact a delightful place to visit; my parents lived for some years in the fantasy small-town Denmark of Solvang CA, which was a strange and disconcerting experience; I have odd feelings about the mixed authenticity and fantasy of various Pa. Dutch Days celebrations, where I actually experienced some of the customs first-hand (and so know where corners are cut); Sugarcreek OH goes way far over the quaintness line on a lot of things, but still has some stuff worth experiencing. And so on.
    Thanks too for saying some things about William Tell. So much myth…

  3. Dennis Preston Says:

    This would seem to create the 1804 date you give: “The first substantial group of overseas immigrants to enter Indiana were Swiss, who settled in Switzerland County, along the Ohio River in the extreme southeast part of the state. Swiss surveyors arrived in 1796, and a colony was founded at Vevay in 1803. Vevay still held a Swiss wine festival as late as 2008.” (Indiana immigration history website)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I’m not sure what the point of your comment is, Dennis. I don’t myself give an 1804 date; that was in the long quoted passage from Schelbert. And the passage from the history of immigration to Indiana that you give was quoted (with credit) by Peter Reitan in an ADS-L posting that I quoted in full in my 7/16 posting on Swiss steak (linked to in the posting above). (Nothing in this was original research of my own.)

      Are you disputing the 1804 date (saying that it should be 1802 or 1803)? Or supporting it? Or what? And why is the exact year (1804, 1802, 1803, maybe a bit earlier or later) important in the context?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: