The United States of Switzerland?

January 16, 2012, 7 Comments

When I was in the US last summer, I couldn’t help but notice how many Swiss references there were all around me. Now maybe my Swiss antennae are particularly sensitive, but I’m sure there were more Swiss things than say, Belgian or Portuguese. Of course some were to be expected, such as the endless rows of Swiss watches on sale in Las Vegas or ‘Swiss cheese’ in many a sandwich, but many others were complete surprises: a painting of the Swiss Alps in an Alcatraz cell, San Francisco being twinned with Zurich, the lubricant called Swiss Navy, a picture of Bern’s Zytglogge in the video presentation at Hearst Castle, a Swiss seafood restaurant. Most interesting of all was the town in Utah founded by Swiss Mormons.

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. It was only a shame that we were there on Independence Day, so everything was closed. I would’ve loved to have had a peek in the city archives.

Santa Clara wasn’t the only American town founded by Swiss immigrants; there are many Genevas, Zurichs, and Lucernes dotted all over the States. More famous is New Bern, once the state capital of North Carolina, founded in 1710 by Christoph von Graffenried from Worb near the old (original) Bern. It even has the Bernese bear on its coat of arms, though with one important difference: the original is obviously male, while the New Bern version is sexless. Perhaps a bigger claim to fame for New Bern is as the birthplace of Pepsi Cola.

Then there’s New Glarus, founded in 1854 out in the wilds of Wisconsin by immigrants from, you guessed it, Glarus. It’s about half the size of the original but home to almost as many Swiss festivals as well as the Swiss Center of North America. With over 75,000 Swiss passport-holders in the US and 1.3 million people of Swiss descent living there, I guess it’s worth having a Center just for them. One day I might have to pop over and have a look. Not exactly a day trip from Bern though, the old or the New one.

After discovering that Sacramento was once called New Helvetia, thanks to its founder John Sutter, and that the first Secretary of the Treasury was Albert Gallatin, from Geneva, I began to realise that the Swiss influence in America is not insignificant. But compared to the endless films, books and stories about Irish-, Italian-, Polish- or even German-Americans, the Swiss-Americans never get a look in, despite almost 200,000 of them arriving between 1850 and 1910. Why is it then that Swiss-Americans are almost invisible? The answer is obvious. The Swiss are as modest in the new world as in the old. Self-promotion and being larger than life don’t sit so well with the Swiss, wherever they are. No wonder there is no Las Vegas casino modelled on a giant Swiss chalet with yodelling croupiers and fondue buffets. Imagine that!

7 Comments on "The United States of Switzerland?"

  1. Anne Monday January 16th, 2012 at 02:56 PM · Reply

    Hello Diccon,

    as you usual, you nailed the story perfectly! There is quite a large (invisible) Swiss population in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., where I live, and of course the embassy, which brings over some of them more seasonal members. I always enjoy the National day celebration, even though it is very hot at that time of the year.

  2. swisswatching Monday January 16th, 2012 at 04:09 PM · Reply

    It was a window display in San Francisco, so possibly quite Village People. As for homophobic, certainly not in the bits of California we went to, but yes in many other states it is, eg making same-sex partnerships illegal.

  3. Anonymous Coward Wednesday January 25th, 2012 at 10:38 PM · Reply

    In late November 1982 I got a chance to visit New Glarus in Wisconsin on a day outing. Being a home sick teenaged exchange student, I was overjoyed to buy a Ruchbrot and some Gipfeli at a local bakery. What a feast after months of “Wonder Bread!” To my utter amazement the proprietress spoke dialect (Innerschwyzer, possibly Glarner) to some of her customers, including me, when I’d eagerly outed myself.

  4. Martin Gertsch Saturday June 16th, 2012 at 02:11 AM · Reply

    Hallo, as we say, …not to forget the Navy Secretary at the Time off the Great White Fleet, or the Bear in Californias Flag, or Chevrolet, or Switzerland representing the US in Iran, or as Johann Rodolph Valltravers who coined Direct Democracy, wrote to Benjamin Franklin in 1774 “Let us be united, as two Sister Republics.”

  5. Peter Tuesday July 31st, 2012 at 01:40 AM · Reply

    You came across a Swiss seafood restaurant? Hilarious!

  6. Joe Golden Friday June 24th, 2016 at 02:31 AM · Reply

    Not sure this site is still active but as in fo there is aTown in upstate Ny named Berne. Family name of Bassler for one still common there. My town

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