These Swiss who populated America

By Dale Bechtel - 27 july 2009 -

In 1880, many Swiss participated in the wave of emigration to the United States. This massive influx will have a great influence on the attitude of Americans to immigration.

In the 1880s, more than 82,000 Swiss packed their bags to the ports of Hamburg or Le Havre to board a boat bound for America.

Swiss emigrants to the United States are as numerous during this decade as in the 70 years before. They were part of this wave that numbered no less than five million Europeans - more than double that of the previous decade.

A time marked by a kind of great commotion: the world was emerging from a long economic crisis, Europe was facing political and social tensions due to the second industrial revolution and the population explosion. Between 1870 and 1914, the Swiss population increased from 2.65 million to nearly 4 million.

America has been very welcoming, and has facilitated transatlantic emigration, particularly through faster and cheaper means of transport: the steamship, and on the New Continent, the train.

"As a result of massive industrialization, Americans were eagerly seeking manpower, and the states of the large grasslands were also developing their agriculture. Farmland was freely available to anyone who agreed to stay there for three years, "says Barry Moreno, historian and librarian at Ellis Island, New York.

Poorly prepared

According to Barry Moreno, US authorities have encouraged large-scale immigration, but are ill-prepared to accommodate such a wave. A wave that, for the first time, was not only composed of Europeans from the north, but also from the south and east of the Old Continent.

Consequence: the government wanted to limit immigration according to the countries of origin. A precedent already existed, with a law introduced in 1882, the "Chinese Exclusion Act", to stop the tide of Chinese immigration on the west coast.

"Southern Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Poles and Jews landed en masse," said Barry Moreno. Which adds that many Americans thought that these people were the "lie of European society" and that the authorities therefore decided to limit immigration. The Swiss, like a number of other nationalities as well, were, however, still well accepted.

Welcome to Swiss

The American immigration records show that even though most Swiss arriving in America could only afford a third-class ticket, they still had enough cash to try to start a new one. life.

In addition, they traveled with their family, another sign of wealth compared to immigrants from southern Europe, who traveled alone, with some lira or worthless drachma in their pocket.

The Swiss who arrived in America, whether French, German or Italian, were greeted by an official speaking their language, or even their dialect. Their names and contact details were recorded, they appeared on the list of passengers before helping them in their first steps.

Most Swiss then went west to take advantage of the free lands and settled in communities where other Swiss had previously settled in California or other areas such as New Glarus in Wisconsin. .

"They were helped to get land, to open a shop or a business. They were quickly integrated by becoming members of Swiss clubs and associations, "adds Moreno. "Even churches were run by Swiss!"

Ellis Island

Europeans landing in America were all passing through Ellis Island, an immigration center opened by the authorities to meet the growing demands of newcomers in the 1880s.

The place has since been transformed into a museum dedicated to the history of American immigration. Prior to the opening of Ellis Island, the newcomers were temporarily stationed at Battery Park, then known as Castle Garden.

In 1890, when the US authorities created the Federal Immigration Office, they closed Castle Garden and opened Ellis Island two years later. The aim of this new department was to "sort out" immigrants and to dismiss undesirables.

The calm before the storm

Subsequently, medical checks were introduced, a hospital was built on the island itself, in order to isolate sick immigrants.

In the end, Ellis Island officials did not fire many immigrants, but the new procedures still had some deterrent effect. However, this is not a major factor in the decline in the number of arrivals in the 1890s. The number of immigrants from Europe decreased by 1.2 million during this decade, of which 30'000 Swiss only.

But it was only calm before the storm. Subsequently, while Swiss immigration remained stable or even slightly decreased, the Americans had to welcome new influxes of immigrants to Ellis Island. More than 8 million Europeans knocked on their doors during the first decade of the 20th century.

Dale Bechtel in New York,

Some numbers

Swiss arrivals in the USA, from 1820 (date of the beginning of the American archives) to 1950.

1820-50: 12,722
1851-60: 25'011
1861-70: 23,286
1871-80: 28,293
1881-90: 81'988
1891-00: 31'179
1901-10: 34922
1911-20: 23'091
1921-30: 29,676
1931-40: 5'512
1941-50: 10,547

The Swiss of America

The number of Americans of Swiss origin is estimated by Swissroots at 1.2 million and that of the national doubles was 52'415 at the end of 2007, according to the Swiss embassy in Washington.

The states of the union with the highest population density of Swiss origin are California, New York State, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

5000 cities, towns and villages in the United States bear Swiss names.