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Swiss emigration

History of emigration from Switzerland

Each emigrant has his own complex and personal reasons for choosing to leave his native land and seek a new life in another country, but two major elements recur in Swiss emigration: economic and religious factors.

Economic factors

Switzerland is a small, mountainous country lacking in agricultural land and until comparatively recently it was unable to feed all its inhabitants. This inevitably led to a continual stream of emigration over the years, with major waves after the great famine of 1816/1817, between 1845-1855 and between 1880-1885. The majority of emigrants came from the agricultural cantons, and mostly preferred to continue a rural existence in their new homeland. However, emigration from Switzerland started much earlier than this.

For six hundred years Swiss soldiers served as mercenaries for European sovereigns, fighting for hire throughout the continent and beyond. While for most of these men their emigration was only temporary, others met local girls, married, and settled in their adopted country after finishing with military life. This only came to an end when the Swiss constitution of 1848 outlawed foreign military service, the sole exception being the Swiss Guard at the Vatican.

The bulk of Swiss emigration came during the 19th century, when many Swiss citizens left their native land to start a new life in America. The local council gave them a financial incentive to do so (typically 400 Swiss francs, or 6 months wages for a working man), in order to have one mouth less to feed during a period of economic recession. 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. Sometimes the Swiss authorities took advantage of the situation to get rid of the local undesirables - the indigent poor and the work-shy - by placing them on a boat with the emigration subsidy in their pocket. It is doubtful whether this cheap and effective method of reducing population pressure was greatly appreciated at the unwilling emigrants’ port of destination!  

At this time, advertisements appeared regularly in Swiss newspapers, placed by travel agencies catering to the demand for emigration. The more reliable of these agencies offered organised crossings of the Atlantic from Le Havre for 80-100 Swiss francs, depending on the number of passengers. Food on board cost about 40 Swiss francs, and typically 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 crossed the Atlantic in less than 20 days, making the crossing far less of an ordeal than for the earlier pioneers.  In 1857, the agency of André Zwilchenbart at Basle advertised regular packet-boat sailings for New York, and 3-mast American ships sailing to New Orleans. 33 years later, in 1880, the same agency advertised steamship passages to North America, Canada and South America. However, less scrupulous agents provided extremely poor conditions on board, coupled with insufficient provision for the new emigrants at their port of destination, and in 1888 the Swiss government banned all such advertisements without a special permit.

Australia was another destination favoured by 19th century Swiss emigrants.  French-speaking winegrowers and Italian-speaking gold-miners provided large groups of settlers in the state of Victoria, while German-speaking farmers, tradesmen and professionals settled throughout the country.

Religious factors

As the Reformation was preached throughout Europe, it was accepted or rejected on a local basis by the individual Swiss cantons. While most people bowed to the decision of their secular authorities, there were some in both Catholic and Reformed cantons who found the situation intolerable, and who preferred to join those who shared their beliefs elsewhere. Some migrated to other Swiss cantons, while others spread farther afield.

In 1525, a group who felt that the Reformation had not gone far enough formed in Zürich, calling themselves the Swiss Brethren. They disagreed with the state Reformed church over the issue of infant baptism, insisting that the sacrament should be reserved for adult believers, and also believed in the separation of church and state. Their beliefs were denounced as heretical by both the Catholic and Reformed churches, and the Brethren were violently persecuted. In spite of this, the anabaptist movement spread throughout Switzerland and Europe. Members became known as Mennonites after Menno Simons, a former Catholic priest who was one of their first leaders, and Swiss Mennonites took refuge from persecution in the more tolerant cantons, as well as in Alsace, Germany, Holland and America.  

In the late 19th century, many Swiss converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints emigrated to the US to join Mormon communities in Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Arizona.

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