THE SWISS IN UTAH
Pre-1896 pioneer midwife Hilda Erickson in 1965
Beginning in the mid-1850s, Swiss immigrants, virtually all converts from
early successful Mormon proselytizing in their homeland, began arriving
in the Utah territory. They became part of two larger immigrant streams:
one composed of thousands--by the year 1900, some 115,000--of fellow Swiss
who, beginning in colonial times, had found new homes in the United States;
and other, the so-called "Gathering to Zion," the organized emigration
of thousands of European Mormon converts, mostly from Protestant countries,
in the last half of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth
These Swiss emigrants traveled to Utah by various means--on sailing ships
and steamships, by covered wagons, handcarts, and eventually the railroad--to
help settle several hundred communities in the "Great Basin Kingdom"
of the Rocky Mountain West. Only a very few of them acquired any lasting
fame; but they were, in general, industrious, disciplined, and productive
people, surprisingly well satisfied with their new arid homeland. Only an
occasional disillusioned soul returned home, while a few others like Henrik
Hug and his brothers and their families lost faith in Mormonism and its
leaders and moved elsewhere.
By the mid-nineteenth century migration and emigration were well-established
elements of Swiss demographic life, with over 70 percent of the emigrants
choosing the United States as their destination. Throughout much the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, religious dissatisfaction, periodic economic crises,
and local overpopulation joined with alluring propaganda for America as
the "land of unlimited opportunities" and the powerful testimonials
of earlier emigrant families and friends to entice Swiss from virtually
every canton to the United States, where they truly became part of the "melting
By the twentieth century, as the Swiss economy, undecimated by world wars,
moved toward world-leading levels of prosperity, and as the U.S. began to
"fill up," emigration from Switzerland dwindled to a trickle.
Families of farmers and tradesmen were replaced by individual young people,
businessmen, and scientists drawn primarily by the unique opportunities
and lifestyles of modern American cities.
Until then, Swiss immigration to Utah was both similar to and different
from its larger American counterpart. The 1870 U.S. census listed 509 Swiss-born
Utah residents, up from 78 ten years before. Increases would continue for
the next 40 years. By 1910, the highest number ever--1,691--had been reached.
After 1920, Utah showed a net decrease every decade, as the number declined
steadily to 548 in 1980. Comparable figures for the U.S. show a peak of
118,659 Swiss-born Americans in 1920, with a decline to 71,515 by 1950.
Unlike the majority of Swiss immigrants to America in the nineteenth century,
those who came to Utah came primarily for religious rather than economic
reasons. They felt a strong desire to leave Switzerland where their numbers
were small and they encountered local persecution and stigmatization. In
Utah, they could live and raise their children among friends of the same
faith, and they also had opportunities to participate in sacred temple ceremonies,
a broader choice of marriage partners, and the satisfaction of helping build
"Zion." These attractions continued until the Swiss LDS Temple
was dedicated in 1955.
Swiss Mormons came primarily from Protestant cantons, especially the German-speaking
ones, where missionaries had been most successful. Not until late in the
twentieth century did Mormons gain admission and converts in the more traditional
Catholic cantons. Most converts came from Bern, Zurich, and Thurgau; but
there was also a sprinkling from Schaffhausen, Basel, St. Gallen, Appenzell
A. R., Aargau, and Glarus, as well as from the French-speaking cantons of
Geneva, Vaud, and Neuchatel, where Mormonism in Switzerland had originated.
Only after 1960 did non-Mormon Catholic Swiss from the Italian-speaking
Ticino become part of the Utah mix.
Nineteenth-century Swiss immigrants to Utah also differed from other Swiss
settlers in the United States by participating as real American pioneers.
While Swiss settling in the American East, Midwest, and South usually came
to settled areas and established communities, early Mormon Swiss not only
crossed the plains on foot, in covered wagons like Ulrigh Loosli, or pushing
handcarts like Mary Ann Hafen, but also, after arriving, were often called
to help strengthen newly founded communities throughout the length and breadth
of the territory, like the eighty-five sent to Santa Clara in 1861.
In addition to Santa Clara, predominantly Swiss settlements were established
in alpine-like Midway, and in Providence, Logan, and other Cache Valley
communities; but Swiss could also be found pioneering scores of other settlements
up and down the territory. As both Switzerland and Utah became less agricultural
and rural, increasing numbers remained in Salt Lake City and Ogden. Census
statistics for 1920, for example, show that 610 of Utah's 1,566 Swiss-born
citizens lived in Salt Lake City. Thus, the Utah Swiss, aided by strong
religious ties, became integral members of the Utah community, notwithstanding
some cultural frictions in everywhere being confused with Germans or in
sparring with their English neighbors in Santa Clara.
All of this settlement took place against the backdrop of continued and
direct contact with their Swiss homeland. A large number of male Swiss Mormon
converts served missions for the church before they emigrated, and many,
perhaps several hundred, both married and unmarried, returned to Switzerland
until well into the twentieth century as proselyting missionaries for the
Mormon faith, where they attempted--sometimes successfully--to persuade
family, friends, and other Swiss to become Mormons and "gather"
with them to Utah. Typical of such are Conrad and Ulrich Abegglen, who arrived
in Midway with their brothers, mother, and sister in 1860. Between 1889
and 1901 they returned to Switzerland as missionaries and succeeded in converting
and bringing seven other families to Utah with them.
Many Swiss immigrants wrote glowing letters home about life in Utah; these
letters aided in the proselyting and "gathering" work. Utah may
thus have been nearly as well-known in Switzerland as some other American
states with larger Swiss-born populations.
Many of the Mormon Swiss came as families, including extended families like
the Hafens and the Bangerters. Some, like young men Fritz Zaugg or Julius
Billeter, preceded their families, working for already established Swiss
to earn the money to bring the rest of the family. Later Swiss immigrants
came more often as individuals rather than as families, did not come directly
to Utah, and were rarely part of any organized immigration movement.
With few exceptions, early or late, the emigrant Swiss brought with them
their finest Swiss cultural traits. As early as 1877, Brigham Young complimented
the Santa Clara Swiss for their industriousness, noting that there were
no "poor" in the settlement. So important were these virtues that
the Midway community in 1885 took up a collection to send Gottlieb Kohler
and his family back to Switzerland because "you have no job, no permanent
home and you will be a drain on the community." Fortunately for the
community and for Utah, this peremptory offer was not accepted.
Besides their strong work ethnic, the Swiss brought with them long traditions
of discipline, a commitment to quality products and craftsmanship, frugality,
excellent training, a keen sense of local independence and political responsibility,
as well as cultural abilities and appreciation, especially in music and
literature. Later immigrants to Utah added excellence in education, scientific
expertise, and a broad spectrum of professional and artistic skills to the
Although Frank Esshom's 1913 book, Prominent Men and Pioneers of Utah,
lists only fifty Swiss-Utahns out of over 6,100, the contributions of the
Swiss and their descendants to Utah and surrounding states are significant
and worthy of recognition. Most important are those of the rank-and-file
who have contributed in manifold ways to the building of Utah. From Santa
Clara in the south to Park Valley in the north, and in most communities
in between, Swiss-Americans included farmers and stockmen like John G. Hafen,
Godfrey Fuhriman, and Conrad Gertsch; watchmakers like Octave Ursenbach
and Paul Frankhauser; cheesemakers like Gottlieb Abegglen and Ed Gossner;
genealogists like Julius Billeter and Anna Fink; and scholars and scientists
like Robert Helbling and Gottlieb Schneebeli.
Swiss immigrant women have also played a major role. As wives and mothers
they bore the common yet heavy burdens in the early pioneer life, not only
bearing children in an often harsh environment but also working in the fields
as well as performing demanding household tasks. In addition, they attended
to the education of their children, worked in the Relief Society and other
church auxiliaries, cared for the poor and needy and, especially in the
nineteenth century, financially, psychologically, and spiritually supported
their husbands while the latter served the LDS Church on missions. Many
Swiss women like Mary Ann Hafen, Sophie Ruesch, and Rosena Tobler were plural
wives to Swiss men who practiced polygamy before it was abolished in 1890.
Two Swiss polygamists, Conrad Bryner and Gottlieb Ence, for example, served
time for polygamy in the Utah Penitentiary. As a result of the earlier plural
marriages, many extended Swiss families became very large, spreading throughout
the state and beyond.
But many Swiss women, even in pioneer Utah, were more than housewives and
mothers. At least two of them, Netta Ann Furrer Cardon and Sophie Reusch,
were trained medical doctors, having graduated from respected medical schools
in Geneva and Italy prior to their emigration. They carried on special missions
among the sick in Ogden and St. George. So did others including Regula Benz,
Mary Uraul Staheli-Oberhansli and Elizabeth Fluckiger Fuhriman, all trained
midwives who worked with prominent Utah doctors like Romania Pratt Penrose
to improve maternity care. Later, other women like Bertha Hertig and Margrit
Feh Lohner, outstanding musicians, arrived with their husbands and families,
and shared their talents with church and community groups for over half
Perhaps because of their democratic heritage, Swiss immigrants and their
descendants have made significant contributions to Utah's political life
in ways ranging from membership on local water and school boards to the
same on town and city councils to serving as governor of the state. Theodore
Brandley served as mayor of Richfield for three terms and also was a member
of the constitutional convention of 1894. John Huber was justice of the
peace, assessor, and school board member in Midway, while Adolf Merz was
both a justice of the peace and a member of the Mount Pleasant city council.
A few served with Serge L. Ballif in the Utah War against the invading Johnston's
Army; others like John Sulzer, John Huber, and Gottlieb Ence were veterans
of Utah's Indian wars. Utah's governor from 1984 to 1992, Norman Bangerter,
is the descendant of Friedrich and Maria Bangerter, Mormon converts from
Canton Bern who in 1882 settled in Bountiful, where Friedrich developed
a successful career as a farmer-veterinarian.
Most of Utah's Mormon Swiss immigrants also fulfilled well their major objective
for coming to Utah--to participate in and strengthen the Mormon Church.
Like most other Saints, the Swiss rank-and-file contributed time, money,
and devotion to building churches and temples, bringing other immigrants,
and spreading their faith. Besides struggling for economic survival, these
Swiss-Utahns were primarily devoted to their families, church, and communities.
Several were called as mission presidents, not only assuming responsibility
for missionary proselyting and church members in large parts of Central
Europe but also writing and translating missionary tracts and editing church
periodicals, including Der Stern. Many led groups of emigrants to
Utah, at times, as in Serge Ballif's case, even paying the way for those
with inadequate means. Some, like the multilingual Ballif presided over
German-speaking congregations comprised of recent arrivals and those whose
fluency in English came more slowly. The Salt Lake Beobachter, a
German-language newspaper published by the Mormon Church between 1890 and
1935, tied the immigrant Swiss and German communities together and served
for many as a bridge from the older culture to the newer one.
Since the building of the Mormon temple outside of Bern, Switzerland, in
1955, the first in Europe, several Utah Swiss have been called to give volunteer
service there, including temple presidents Walter Trauffer, Charles Grob,
Carl Ringger, and Louis Ringger and their wives. Descendants of Swiss immigrants
have also risen to become general authorities in the Mormon Church. Joseph
B. Wirthlin is presently a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles.
His father, Joseph L. Wirthlin, served for many years as Presiding Bishop
of the church, and William Grant Bangerter, an older brother of the governor,
was a member of the First Quorum of Seventy. Tens of thousands of descendants
of Utah Swiss have served voluntary missions for the church throughout the
world, but often back in Switzerland, thus maintaining the emotional and
cultural ties with their homeland.
Besides their religious faith and their work ethic, Swiss immigrants also
brought with them a lively appreciation for their native culture, with its
art, literature, and folk music. Many Utahns are well-acquainted with the
artistic brilliance of John Hafen, a native of Thurgau, whose paintings
adorned buildings in the state and enriched pioneer life.
Folk music is important to the Swiss in Utah. In 1861, when Mormon apostle
George A. Smith met the Swiss company headed for the Dixie Mission in southern
Utah, he commented favorably on their singing and good humor. One of their
number, George Staheli, whose musical reputation apparently preceded him,
received an offer from Brigham Young to remain in Salt Lake City to augment
the capital's musical talent. Staheli turned down the offer in order to
remain with his Swiss friends in Santa Clara, where he later organized a
band which played both at community and church events, including the 1877
dedication of the St. George LDS Temple. Andreas Burgener was known as Midway's
Swiss Music Man; he had been a military band leader in Switzerland and brought
seven instruments with him to start and lead the second band formed in Utah.
Cultural expression, however, was not confined to the more homogenous outlying
communities. A large "Swiss colony" in Salt Lake Valley had existed
since before the turn of the century and gathered occasionally for Swiss
patriotic and cultural events. In response to immigrants' requests for more,
Walter Trauffer, Julius Billeter, and Eugene Strasser organized the Swiss
Chorus Edelweiss in 1934. A primarily Mormon folk music and dance organization,
the chorus provided a focal point for many Utah Swiss as well as an effective
integrating force for new immigrants. By 1991 the organization had celebrated
its fifty-seventh anniversary of singing, concertizing, socializing, and
traveling together. During time, they have brought not only enjoyment and
fellowship to themselves and their families but also an awareness of Swiss
traditional culture to Utah and much of the American West.
Other expressions of the preservation of the Swiss heritage and identity
in Utah have been the development and expansion of "Swiss Days"
in Midway, visited by some 60,000 people annually, a new though similar
event in Santa Clara, the recent publication of emigrants' journals, as
well as articles and books about Swiss pioneers, and a general resurgence
of interest is Swiss heritage and "roots" among many in the state.
Recently, a "Swiss Biz" club was established to bring together
in a non-denominational setting native Swiss who enjoy hiking and socializing.
The modern Utah Swiss community is varied. Composed of both aging Mormons
and non-Mormons, it continues to contribute much of value to Utah. Yet,
if Swiss immigrants to Utah and their descendants have helped both build
and transform the state, they have also been transformed by it. Because
they became so fully integrated into Utah with its own unique scenery and
lifestyle, they could enjoy and celebrate their native land and native language.
Utah not only attracted certain kinds of Swiss citizens but also helped
them escape the confining narrowness, pettiness, and class consciousness
which modern Swiss authors have lamented among their fellow resident Swiss.
Not only have the Swiss been a boon to Utah, but in the words of Max B.
Zimmer, they have had the best of two "homelands," the best of
Douglas F. Tobler