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Group emigration from Neuchâtel

Swiss colonies

Switzerland has never been a major colonial power like certain other European countries, but throughout its history, we nevertheless see a repeated pattern of collective emigration and colonisation on a smaller scale. For the reasons explained previously, there were times when emigration, with all the risks it entailed, seemed more attractive than remaining in Switzerland, and doubtless it was easier to face the unknown in the company of friends, or at least compatriots who spoke the same language and shared the same way of life.

An abundance of place names in the US and elsewhere bear witness to their Swiss settlers: Geneva (in 14 different US states!) Nueva Helvetia (later renamed Fort Sutter after its Swiss founder) in California, Bern in Indiana, New Bern in North Carolina, Bernstadt in Kentucky, New Glarus in Wisconsin, New St Gallen in W Virginia, Vevay and Switzerland County in Indiana, Tell City in Ohio, Grutli in Tennessee, Helvetia in W Virginia and Oregon, are just some examples. In Brazil, we find Nova Friburgo and Nouvelle Genève, and in Uruguay Swiss colonists founded Nueva Helvecia and Nouvelle Berne. There was even a Zurichtal in the Eastern Crimea on the Black Sea. These and many other "islands" of Swiss colonialism typically maintained their Swiss identity with shooting clubs, choirs and welfare societies.

In this section, we look more closely at some of the groups who left the canton of Neuchâtel to start a new life far from home: those who travelled to East Prussia, the settlers of Purrysburg and the Neuchâtel Mennonites.


An early example of collective emigration from the canton of Neuchâtel came shortly after it became part of the Prussian empire in 1707. Between 1780 and 1712, a large part of Eastern Prussia and Lithuania was devastated by plague, and Friedrich I appealed to his new citizens to help recolonise the land left largely unoccupied. In spite of opposition from local authorities, approximately 200 families set out in February-March 1712 on the long and perilous journey to a region around Königsberg and Gumbinnen, on the borders of what is now Poland, Lithuania and Russia.  

The conditions encountered on the way, however, were so bad that by April half the contingent was forced to turn back, returning home in a pitiable state. The remainder duly overcame the difficulties to reach their destination, but their problems did not end there. The French-speaking settlers belonged to the Swiss Reformed church and found it difficult to integrate with the local German-speaking Lutherans. The climate was harsh, and at times they must have bitterly regretted leaving their native land.

Gradually the settlers became accustomed to their new homeland, and French parishes sprung up among the Lutheran ones. An administration was set in place to help new arrivals, and over the next two decades many of their relations and former neighbours joined them in Prussia.  


Königsberg Castle c1900

As time went by, the Swiss families intermarried with local ones and the French language was gradually abandoned. Several of their names were germanised by authorities who simply wrote them down phonetically, so "Huguenin" became "Igney" and "Perrenoud" became "Pernau", for instance.

Descendants of more than 50 Neuchâtel families still lived in this area prior to World War II and today are spread throughout Germany.

Some Prussian settlers linked to our genealogy are Jonas Perrenoud (b.1670), Jaques Huguenin (1678-1759) and Anne-Marie Roulet (b. 1678).


The ill-fated settlement of Purrysburg in South Carolina was essentially the fruit of one man's dream - you might even call it an obsession. 

Jean-Pierre Pury was born in Neuchâtel in 1675, the son of a tinsmith who died while he was still a baby. At the surprisingly young age of 18, he was appointed tax collector of the village of Boudry, but was dismissed the following year. In 1709 he became mayor of the village of Lignières, but bad luck dogged him: his home was destroyed in a fire, and his wine-exporting business went bankrupt. Heavily in debt, he resigned as mayor in 1711, and went into the service of the Dutch East Indies Company.

In 1713, "corporal" Pury escorted 70 recruits to Java, putting in at the Cape in South Africa on the way. Here, it seems, his dream of European colonisation was born: he saw the possibility of expanding the small community serving the port into a major settlement which could exploit the full potential of the virgin territory. He drew up a proposal which he sent to one of the company directors, but was forced to continue his voyage to Batavia (now called Jakarta) without receiving a reply.

Pury remained in Batavia for about 4 years, but his colonial vision never deserted him, and in 1717 he presented a new proposal of colonisation to the company - this time concerning Australia, which was then known as New Holland. Based on what he had seen in South Africa, he firmly believed that the ideal site for implanting a European colony was at 33° North or South of the Equator, and that the fertility of the land depended on its latitude. In spite of Pury's persuasive letters and pamphlets, however, his proposal was once again rejected.

Undeterred, Pury turned his attention to the New World, and in 1724, after his return to Neuchâtel, wrote to George I, proposing the foundation of a town in South Carolina (which had recently come under the control of the British Crown). He would recruit 600 "poor Swiss Protestants" as settlers in return for 24,000 acres of land for himself and the rank of colonel. A large number of prospective emigrants gathered in Neuchâtel in October 1726, but the promised financial support failed to materialise, and in the end, the Neuchâtel authorities had to step in to supply the stranded indigents with enough money to return home, Pury and his associates having fled. A small number of this group eventually made their own way via Holland to England, and finally to South Carolina.

In 1730, Pury presented fresh proposals to the Crown, wihich at long last would come to fruition. Mindful of the French colony in neighbouring Louisiana, and the Spanish presence to the south, the British government was ready to encourage colonisation, and the following year, Pury visited South Carolina, and presented his proposals to the General Assembly at Charlestown, before choosing the site for his future settlement beside the Savannah River, some 30 miles inland. He was given the rank of colonel by the Crown, and promised 12,000 acres of land rent-free - later increased to 48,000 acres.

Pury envisaged a largely agricultural colony, growing silk, hemp and indigo for exportation, and back in Neuchâtel he published a pamphlet describing South Carolina in extravagant terms, which provoked considerable interest from potential settlers. The first contingent of 150 arrived in Charlestown in the late autumn of 1732, with more following over the next few years: mainly Swiss from Neuchâtel and the French-speaking cantons, but also some Swiss Germans and French Protestants.

Purrysburg grew into a town of about 600 inhabitants, but it never truly thrived as Pury hoped. The site on the Yamasee bluff had been chosen principally for military defence, and much of the land was totally unsuitable for agriculture. It was too far inland for commercial navigation, and was bounded by malarial swamp land. The settlers suffered badly from the heat and illness, and there were disputes concerning land allocation almost from the start, with many receiving grants which were completely worthless. 

Jean-Pierre Pury died in 1736, and his oldest son Charles was murdered in a slave uprising in 1754. Many of the settlers moved away to more prosperous townships, and Purrysburg had completely disappeared by the end of the 19th century. Today a stone cross marks its former emplacement.

Neuchâtel Mennonites

The arrival of the anabaptist movement in Switzerland initially had little or no effect in the canton of Neuchâtel, where the inhabitants who welcomed the Reformation preached by Guillaume Farel joined him in rejecting the “heresies” of the so-called “re-baptisers”. It was not until the end of the 17th century that a few Mennonites from the canton of Bern settled on both sides of the border between Neuchâtel and France - a region sufficiently remote and inhospitable for their persecutors to leave them in peace.

The first major influx of Mennonites into the canton came after Friederich I, king of Prussia, succeeded Marie de Nemours as ruler of Neuchâtel in 1707. Aware of the tolerance he had shown their co-religionists in his own country, several Bernese Mennonites seized the opportunity to take up residence in Neuchâtel, mainly in the Val-de-Ruz and around La Chaux-de-Fonds. The local authorities, however, soon looked askance at these foreigners who were never seen at church, worked on Sundays and refused to join in military exercises or carry arms, and hostility towards them began to rise.

In 1734, the government of Neuchâtel wrote to Friederich I’s successor, Friederich-Wilhelm I, to demand the expulsion of all Mennonites from the territory of Valangin, to which the Val-de-Ruz and La Chaux-de-Fonds belonged. Like his father, the new ruler was reluctant to do so, calling on his subjects to show “Christian tolerance”, but in the end he was forced to agree that all anabaptists must leave Valangin by the end of 1742. In fact most of those affected simply moved to another part of the canton where there was less opposition to their presence, while those living in the more remote parts of the Val-de-Ruz remained where they were, tacitly ignored by the authorities. The ineffectiveness of the expulsion can be seen by the fact that when the decree was issued in 1739 there were 17 Mennonite families in the territory of Valangin: in 1747 there were 22.

From about 1750 Mennonite families started to settle on the isolated plateau of Les Bressels in the parish of La Sagne, and it was here that the first organised Mennonite assembly of the Neuchâtel mountains was created, with services held in the homes of its members - there would be no Mennonite chapel in the canton until 1894. They maintained links with fellow Mennonites over the border in the Montbéliard region of France, who like themselves came originally from the canton of Bern. 

Gradually the growing Mennonite community began to acquire certain rights and a degree of acceptance. In 1734, La Sagne was the first village to encourage toleration of foreigners and anabaptists “provided they behave themselves”! The thorny problem of military service was solved temporarily in 1769, with provisional exemption of Mennonites from this obligation, and official confirmation came in 1792.  In 1773, the Mennonite community in Neuchâtel obtained a crucial advantage when the government voted to allow them to purchase land, and guaranteed that they could not be expelled from it because of their religion. Until now, Mennonites had only been able to rent land, and had no security of tenure.  In 1819, the Neuchâtel authorities again confirmed the Mennonites’ exemption from military service, but stipulated that all able-bodied men aged 18-50 must pay a yearly tax instead. 

The revolution of 1848 which made Neuchâtel a republic  brought with it a guarantee of liberty of worship for the Mennonite community.  Ironically, however, it also provoked a dilemma, when in 1852 the new government revoked the law of 1819 and insisted that Mennonites like all other Swiss citizens must perform military service if physically able. As pacifism was one of the basic tenets of their faith, many refused to comply, preferring to leave in the first wave of Mennonite emigration from  Neuchâtel to the US. Others remained until the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, when the troops of Neuchâtel were mobilised to defend the border, and real conflict seemed possible.  This produced a second wave of emigration, where entire families left the canton, settling like their predecessors mainly in Illinois, Iowa and Ohio.

A few Mennonites had already led the way from Neuchâtel to America, notably Michael Schlunegger, who settled in Ohio in 1822. He was soon followed by two intrepid widows, his sister Anna and sister-in-law Verena (“Fanny”) Liechti, each accompanied by seven children! Like those who remained behind, both earlier and later emigrants were essentially farmers, migrants from Bern and their descendants, who for many years remained faithful to the German dialect of their ancestors.

In the second half of the 19th century, the community at Les Bressels grew, and started to spread more widely in the upper part of the canton. At the same time, Mennonites from what is now the canton of Jura spread westwards into Neuchâtel. However, whereas the newcomers were “evolved” Mennonites, those already established in Neuchâtel had maintained the Amish tradition, and this led to a certain amount of tension until the two groups were reconciled and united in one body, still present and active in the canton today.

The Evangelical Mennonite Church of Les Bulles has its own web site (in French).

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