Switzerland & Midwest connections: Swiss in the Resettling of the Midwest

A Conversation with Professor Leo Schelbert

Welcome to the newly created 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.

Leo Schelbert, was born 1929, in Kaltbrunn, Canton St. Gallen. Switzerland. After his schooling he taught at the Progymnasium Rebstein from 1955 to 1959, then pursued graduate studies in New York City where he received his Ph.D. in American history from Columbia University in 1966. From 1963 to 1969 he taught at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, then spent two years doing research in Switzerland. From 1971 to 2003 he taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago He has authored or edited several books and has published numerous scholarly articles.

Joerg Oberschmied: Professor Schelbert, recently, historic monuments have been under attack in the United States, do we need to rewrite history or do we need to do a better job teaching history?

Leo Schelbert: That’s an intriguing question. A certain rethinking is required. The European expansion after 1500 has mostly been gloriously described, and there is indeed a lot of glory in it, but there is also terrible destruction. In the United States of the 19th century, when main Swiss settlements emerged as well, forceful taking of land ensued resulting from direct war against, and expropriation of, the indigenous people. This process began in 1500 and ended around 1900, whereby Europe expanded and took into possession entire continents, with the Portuguese and Spaniards taking Latin America and the British and to a lesser degree the French taking North America. Switzerland was involved not as a nation, but through its people.

JO: Did Swiss emigrants take active part in, and benefit from, resettling Native Americans in the Midwest?

LS: Maybe the question should be if they were involved in the displacement of the native people and the answer is that they were involved as part of a continuous process, first in the driving out the indigenous owners and then with help of the government in the takeover and build-up by buying the land thus offered. The key is that there is no free land, but only conquered land. The emerging nation makes conquered land its own and then sells it to individuals as private property.

JO: How would you describe the role of the missionaries, in particular as it relates to the Native Americans? I am thinking of, for example, Martin Marty who went to convert the Sioux. Was their role beneficial?

LS: In one sense, it is part of the conquest since the native religion and world view was considered primitive and invalid and needed to be replaced by the tradition of the white people. Their mission was Janus-faced, one side smiling and the other destructive. In the context of their schools, and the taking by force of the children to be freed of their supposed savagism and having them introduced to civilization, we have on the one hand their humanity, and on the other they are the destroyers of the Native American traditions. As historians, we have mainly celebrated, rightly so, the great creative set of deeds and achievements in the building of neo-European nations like the USA and Canada. If we look at the reduction of some 7 to 15 million native peoples to 200,000 people in reservations by 1890, there is a fundamental amount of destruction that has only marginally been portrayed.

JO: The Swiss Embassy is in the process of removing two historic paintings of Generals Sherman and Lee by Swiss painter Frank Buchser from the residence. If they would be replaced with Swiss people who came to America, which two people would you nominate?

LS: On the one hand the most prominent Swiss was Albert Gallatin, a Genevan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and a diplomat of great importance. Another would be Philipp Schaff, a protestant theologian who was transcendent in his field. Among women Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who has widespread recognition for her work on human dying, and Marie Sandoz for her writings on red versus white and the conquest we discussed.

JO: Do you see a difference between the Swiss who came to the Midwest 150 years ago and those who are coming today? Many came for professional opportunities like they do today rather than out of destitute conditions.

LS: Yes, Swiss people were basically not poor, many in fact were middle class and could buy land. They were part of the territorial conquest of the United States. After World War II, migration is more one of coming and going rather than of settlement as it was before.

JO: Who are some other important Swiss Women in the Midwest we should know more about?

LS: There are some significant women who were nuns as part of the Benedictine mission, and they were great educators.

JO: Do you have any topics you would like to see covered in a future history blog?

LS: Settlements founded by Swiss, like Sauk City and New Glarus in Wisconsin, St. Meinrad in Indiana, Anabaptist settlements, Tell City. Some have kept their cultural traditions over time. Also Martin Marty whom you mentioned would be interesting.

JO: Marty is very prominent in South Dakota where he is called the Apostle of the Sioux. Maybe it would be worthwhile hearing from the Sioux side how they view that part of history?

LS: That would be a fascinating topic because, on the one hand, the missionaries had this dual role of mitigating mischief done by settlers; on the other hand, they built schools, of mixed reputation, by ignoring native culture and language. The missionaries were important instruments in creating such institutions promoting western superiority.

Thank you for this enriching conversation, Professor Schelbert, you provided us with many more ideas for future blogs and all the best to you.

Be sure to read some of our previous history blog entries:

Switzerland & Midwest connections: Meet me in St. Louis

Switzerland &Midwest connections: A Swiss Victory at the 1920 Indy 500

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