Switzerland and Midwest Connections: The Early Swiss Settlers of South Dakota

Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.

In 1868, a good part of the territory of present-day North and South Dakota was acknowledged by the United States as the homeland of indigenous nations such as the Cheyenne, Lakota, Crow, and Mandans. This changed after 1870 with an influx of European settlers and following several armed conflicts which pushed the native population into reservations. Among the first Swiss to visit was the painter Karl Bodmer in 1833 (see my history blog on him for details of his travels). Following him were three groups of Swiss immigrants, which deserve special mention: The Swiss settlers from Grisons, the Swiss Mennonites from Russia, and the Swiss Benedictine Monks.

The Badus Swiss

In 1854, some 150 people from the Canton of Grisons left for America, with some settling in Ohio and others in Wisconsin. When they learned of most favorable land prices in the Dakota Territory, they sent Anthony Tuor and Joseph Tenner in 1877 to find a suitable location for a Swiss settlement. This they found some 4 miles northeast from present-day Ramona, which they named Badus in remembrance of Piz Badus in their home Canton. A colony house was built and Joseph Muggli was appointed the first Postmaster in 1879. That same year, a prairie fire destroyed the settlement and only the sod houses remained intact. With time, gradually the Swiss traditions vanished and today only the church and a plaque testify to the existence of the former settlement. Other settlements with Swiss connections followed in Rochford, Lucerne, La Roche, Grossville, Chapelle, Zell, Martel, Bern, Geneva, and Delmont.

About 3300 people of Swiss descent today live in South Dakota.

The Swiss Mennonites

The Swiss Mennonites arrived in South Dakota in 1874 from southern Russia, where they had settled a hundred years earlier on the invitation of the Russian Czarina. Catherine the Great invited Western Europeans in 1763 to settle in southern Russia. Between 1784 and 1786, nine Swiss families with names like Krehbiel, Miller, Schrag, and Zerger went to Volhynia (today part of western Ukraine). They founded several congregations and proved to be excellent farmers whilst staying culturally distinct from their Russian neighbors and keeping their language as well as practicing their religion. When their special dispensations from military service, a key reason for settling in the area in the first place, were abolished by Czar Alexander II in 1871, several Mennonite groups moved to the United States, with most settling in the Midwest. In 1874, the first eleven families of Swiss-Volhynians arrived in Yankton, South Dakota. The Swiss Mennonites quickly adapted to the American environment, became successful farmers, and involved themselves in politics, serving in the State legislature, as county commissioners, judges, mayors, and city councilmen. One, David Wipf, served as South Dakota’s Secretary of State from 1905 to 1909. Today, the town of Freeman remains a small, predominantly Mennonite farming community in South Dakota.

The Swiss Benedictines

The fact that many Sioux today are Catholics is the work of Martin Marty (1834–1896), a monk from the Canton Schwyz and a key figure to establish the Benedictine monastery of St. Meinrad in Southern Indiana. In 1870, Marty was elevated to abbot and in 1876, despite his role as abbot, he left to convert the Sioux on the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota. As a “black robe” he was beloved by many Lakotas and also respected by Sitting Bull, whom he however was unable to convert. When Marty died in 1896, over 6000 Sioux had become Catholics. He was instrumental in mitigating violence towards the natives and fought against the corruption of some Indian agents. Yet, although heroic in his efforts and total dedication, Marty nevertheless was also an instrument of the white conquest. One of the catholic converts was Heȟáka Sápa, commonly known as Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota chief, who has since been declared a “Servant of God” by the Catholic Church. Born in 1863, he was present when Custer led 700 soldiers into battle against a vastly larger force of warriors from the Lakota and other tribes in1876. He later toured Europe with Buffalo Bill and while In England, ended up as a suspect in a Jack the Ripper Murder investigation, but was released without charges. Throughout his life he practiced traditional Lakota rituals while also baptizing more than 400 Native Americans. He died in 1950 and in 2017, the Diocese of Rapid City secured the unanimous consent of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to begin his canonization cause. If canonized, Black Elk would become only the second Native American Catholic saint, following Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century Algonquin-Mohawk, who was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

For additional information on the aforementioned stories, see the article “Swiss in South Dakota: A Preliminary Sketch” by the late Leo Schelbert. For more on Martin Marty, see “Mission Sitting Bull, Die Geschichte der katholischen Sioux” by Manuel Menrath (in German). For more on Black Elk see “Black Elk Speaks: the Life Story of Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux” by John Neihardt. You can visit St. Meinrad at https://www.saintmeinrad.org/. You can learn more about the Swiss Mennonites in the Midwest here: https://swissmennonite.org/.

South Dakota (Image courtesy South Dakota Tourism)
Chief Nicholas Black Elk (Courtesy Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center)
Bishop Martin Marty (courtesy St. Meinrad Monastery)
The Badus marker listing the first settlers (Courtesy Historical Marker Database)

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Switzerland in the USA

Official Medium account of the Embassy of Switzerland, Consulates General and Swissnex in the United States of America. Follow our stories.