The (almost) Swiss President of the United States

November 8, 2012, 2 Comments

President’s Obama’s right little toe is Swiss, or at least a small part of him is: 1/256th to be exact.That’s probably actually more like his little toenail but we won’t split hairs over body parts. It all dates back to 1691 and the birth of Hans Gutknecht in Ried bei Kerzers, Canton Fribourg. Exactly 270 years later his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson (that’s sevens greats) Barack Hussein Obama was born in Hawaii. Quite a lot of time and distance for his family to have covered.

Hans Gutknecht married Anna Barbara Kieffer in Murten in 1717, but moved to France and from then on the Swiss connection became smaller and smaller. Their son Christian anglicised his name to Goodnight and emigrated to Philadelphia in 1749, where his son Samuel was born. He had a daughter, Catherine, who married Jacob Dunham in 1819 – and Dunham is the maiden name of President Obama’s mother. So from then on it’s a direct line through two more Jacob Dunhams (son and grandson), Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham in Kansas and Stanley Dunham, who eventually moved out to Honolulu with his wife Madelyn and daughter Ann. That was in 1960, and a year later Ann’s son Barack was born.

President Gutknecht isn’t the only descendant of Swiss immigrants in the United States – there are thousands of them all over the country. They may not be as high-profile as Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans (how Swiss, to be so modest) but Swiss-Americans are there to be found. The first known Swiss person in what is now the United States was Theobald von Erlach (1541-65), but there have been more famous examples of Swiss immigrants to the States:

  • Louis Chevrolet, car maker
  • Albert Gallatin, politician and first Secretary of the US Treasury
  • Meyer Guggenheim, industrialist whose son founded the art gallery in New York
  • Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, psychiatrist and expert on death & dying
  • Adolph Rickenbacker, electric guitar maker
  • John Sutter, founder of New Helvetia (now Sacramento)

And then there are those, like the newly re-elected president, who are descended from Swiss immigrants, although most have a more direct connection than Barack Obama:

  • Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft
  • Yul Brynner, actor who was the King
  • Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons
  • Cyndi Lauper, pop singer who always had fun
  • Ben Roethlisberger, American footballer
  • Renée Zellweger, actress aka Bridget Jones

Of course there are many other examples, such as TV host Ryan Seacrest or Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E Burger, and the Amish, who trace their roots back to their namesake, Jakob Ammann, an Anabaptist minister born in Canton Bern. Then there are the towns founded by the Swiss, most notably New Bern in North Carolina, where Pepsi-Cola was invented, and New Glarus in Wisconsin, home to the Swiss Center of North America. And Swiss Americans even have their own board game!

So next time you listen to the President speak, or have a slice of Swiss cheese in your sandwich, remember how much Swissness there is in North America. Not always on show, but always there somewhere.


2 Comments on "The (almost) Swiss President of the United States"

  1. Rob Sherwood Friday November 30th, 2012 at 09:27 PM · Reply

    I am a member of the Swiss American Historical Society and thanks for the great plug! There are quite a number of other Swiss Americans that have achieved some fame or notoriety. President Obama, is simply another in the long line of Americans who have Swiss ancestors.
    Thanks again.

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