Swiss immigrants

Among the earliest non-English peoples to settle in the United States, the Swiss have always constituted a comparatively small immigrant group who have settled throughout the United States. Despite their relatively small numbers, they have made significant contributions to American industry, politics, science, religion and other fields.

Although the Swiss were among the first non-English peoples to enter what is now the United States, they have never constituted a large immigrant group. Indeed, they have seldom accounted for more than 1 to 2 percent of all incoming immigrants. Nevertheless, their impact as a group has been noticeable–from midwestern agricultural landscapes to the denominational landscaping of American Christianity. Moreover, they have also contributed more than their numerical share of distinguished public figures, such as the Jeffersonian politician and diplomat Gallatin, AlbertAlbert Gallatin, the pioneer of American psychiatry Meyer, AdolfAdolf Meyer, and the self-taught engineer and entrepreneur Chevrolet, LouisLouis Chevrolet, for whom an American automobile was named.Swiss immigrantsSwiss immigrants[cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Swiss immigrants[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Swiss immigrants

Swiss-born politician Albert Gallatin served in the U.S. Senate and was secretary of the treasury under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

(Library of Congress)

The majority of Swiss immigrants to the United States have been German speakers, but members of Switzerland’s French- and Italian-speaking minorities have also come in substantial numbers. Speakers of Romansh, a tiny minority within Switzerland, have, however, never immigrated to the United States in significant numbers.

Colonial Era

Swiss immigration to British North America began before the eighteenth century on a very small scale. The first Swiss person known to have visited the continent was the Bernese Erlach, Diebold vonDiebold von Erlach, a young member of a failed Huguenot immigrants;FloridaFrench Huguenot settlement in Florida during the mid-sixteenth century. The first Swiss to participate in English colonial schemes were probably the several “Switzer” craftsmen who joined the initial wave of settlers at Jamestown, Virginia;Swiss immigrantsJamestown, Virginia, in 1619. In the century that followed, some notable immigrants from Switzerland settled in the British colonies. These included the wealthy Gignilliat, Jean FrançoisJean François Gignilliat of Vevey, who in 1687 received a grant of three thousand acres from the proprietors of South Carolina;Swiss immigrantsSouth Carolina, where he settled the following year.

The eighteenth century witnessed a surge in Swiss immigration to America, with 25,000 immigrants coming to British America before 1776. Religious persecution, social unrest, and the frail economic position of an early modern society with a paucity of arable land and few natural resources were major push factors that helped prompt their emigration from Switzerland. Reports circulated by colonial promoters and returning Swiss immigrants of the fertile soils, low taxes, and boundless opportunities in the New World helped attract new immigrants.

Swiss immigrants settled in a number of British colonies, but North Carolina;Swiss immigrantsNorth Carolina’s New Bern settlement, founded in 1710, and South Carolina’s Purrysburg, founded in 1734, were important sites of early Swiss settlement in the southern colonies. Pennsylvania;Swiss immigrantsPennsylvania drew the largest number of immigrants from Switzerland. Many were pietist dissenters, such as the Swiss Brethren, who became known as MennonitesMennonites in America. These people were strongly attracted by Pennsylvania’s reputation for religious toleration. Most other Swiss immigrants were members of the state Reformed Church who came to the colony primarily for economic reasons.

Early National Period

While Swiss immigrants continued to trickle into the new United States during the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century, the next great surge of Swiss immigration came after 1820. Between that year and 1900, about 200,000 Swiss came to the country. The main cause of this immigration wave was the contrast between the severely contracted economic opportunities in Switzerland and the reportedly abundant opportunities in America.

About 60 percent of Swiss immigrants settled in rural areas–-especially in the Midwest, where the first significant Swiss settlement of the century, Nouevelle Vevey, was established in Indiana;Swiss immigrantsIndiana by French-speaking Swiss viticulturists. This trend continued during the second half of the nineteenth century, when Ohio;Swiss immigrantsOhio, Indiana, Missouri;Swiss immigrantsMissouri, Illinois;Swiss immigrantsIllinois, Iowa;Swiss immigrantsIowa, and Wisconsin;Swiss immigrantsWisconsin were favored destinations for Swiss immigrants. However, significant numbers of immigrants continued to settle in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, and small colonies of Swiss also appeared in states such as Kentucky;Swiss immigrantsKentucky, West Virginia;Swiss immigrantsWest Virginia, and Tennessee;Swiss immigrantsTennessee during this period.
California;Swiss immigrantsCalifornia also attracted Swiss settlers, especially Italian-speaking laborers from Canton Ticino, who began arriving in significant numbers during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

Immigration was often encouraged by letters from immigrants in America to family and friends back in Switzerland, and it was maintained by the social and economic support networks created by Chain migration;Swiss immigrantschain migrations of communities. In some cases, Switzerland’s cantonal governments–eager to purge poor rolls and dispose of “Undesirable aliens”[Undesirable aliens];Swiss emigrants“undesirables”–subsidized some emigration from Switzerland. In at least one case, a Wisconsin;Canton GlarusWisconsin;Swiss immigrantscanton directly financed the establishment of a major Swiss settlement in the United States: New Glarus (named after its government benefactor, Canton Glarus) in Wisconsin.

Nineteenth century Swiss immigrants were religiously diverse, with both Roman CatholicsRoman Catholics;Swiss and Protestants well represented. Members of the Swiss Brethren continued to arrive in America, and they sometimes joined with their Swiss MennonitesMennonite cousins, whose forebears had come in colonial times. American Mormon immigrants;SwissMissionaries;MormonMormon missionaries in Europe helped create a new category of Swiss immigrants, as about 1,000 of their faithful converts settled in Utah;Swiss immigrantsUtah and Idaho;Swiss immigrantsIdaho.

Twentieth Century

Swiss immigration followed similar patterns during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Although the peak decade of the 1880’s, during which more than 80,000 Swiss arrived in the United States, would never be repeated, the numbers were still substantial. Between 1901 and 1920, more than 58,000 Swiss immigrated to the United States. However, the rate of immigration gradually diminished after the [a]Immigration Act of 1924;and Swiss immigrants[Swiss immigrants]Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas. Swiss immigration nearly stopped during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. However, during the last decades of the twentieth century, Swiss immigration again became steady, although still demographically almost insignificant, with fewer than 1,000 immigrants per year arriving between 1971 and 2000.Swiss immigrants

Further Reading

  • Commetti, Elizabeth. “Swiss Immigration to West Virginia, 1864-1884.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47 (1960): 66-87. Interesting account of Swiss settlement in Appalachia during the peak years of their immigration.
  • Grueningen, J. P. von. The Swiss in the United States. Madison, Wis.: Swiss-American Historical Society, 1940. Older but still indispensable starting point for any study of Swiss immigration. Based on extensive use of U.S. Census data.
  • Hale, Frederick. Swiss in Wisconsin. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2007. Brief examination of the Swiss experience in one of the most popular nineteenth century destinations for German-speaking immigrants.
  • Haller, Charles R. Across the Atlantic and Beyond: German and Swiss Immigrants to America. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1993. Intended as a sourcebook for genealogists, this volume also contains much useful information for students and historians, including bibliographies.
  • Schelbert, Leo, ed. America Experienced: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Accounts of Swiss Immigrants. Camden, Maine: Picton Press, 1996. Excellent collection of primary documents on Swiss immigration to the United States.

Chain migration

Einstein, Albert

European immigrants

French immigrants

German immigrants

Guggenheim, Meyer


Religions of immigrants