The Swiss migration to the American West

Luca Criscione

Stephen Bon and employees in front of his shop. Wyoming State Archives, Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources.

Key terms: migration, regime, cultural power, cultural identity.

In this project I will trace the footsteps of Swiss emigrants in the American West encompassing the States of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. I will exclude the Pacific coast as well as the dry dessert areas of Nevada and Arizona. This often called ‘mountain’ region still belongs to one of the least populated areas of the United States today, with exception of the metropolitan areas of Salt Lake City, Denver, and Albuquerque. During the 19th century, most of this mountain region was slowly settled by first- and/or second-generation European immigrants even though it was also home to different Native American tribes. The lands were not just yet a part of the United States but at different moments in time under Spanish rule, contested territory between Mexico and the U.S., ‘unorganized Territory’ claimed by the US., or organized Territory seeking formal admission to the United States. When Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862, the lands of the west were opened for settlement and many (new) Americans, but even more immigrants sought to take advantage of the new legislation. In 1869, the railroad track builders from Omaha and Sacramento met in Utah, connecting the east and the west coast by railroad for the first time. These two events exemplify the quintessential change the American west experienced in the second half of the 19th century. In this research project I am focusing on the roles Swiss immigrants played in this history of settling the West. I am particularly interested in practices which yielded cultural power – with a basic understanding of power as the ability to influence how other people think or act. In other words, I will analyze practices that allow Swiss immigrants to co-shape the societies in new settlements or boom towns.

Stephen Bon was a Swiss immigrant who opened the first shoe shop in Wyoming’s state capitol Cheyenne. He is remembered as an important figure in the building of the city running his shop and employing several shoemakers. Two of those employees have been featured in an oral history project in Wyoming in the 1970s. Also in Wyoming, a family of dairy farmers still today refer to their immigrant ancestry. On their company website, they are displaying an image of their Swiss great-great-grandparents who founded the business in 1885. Joseph Küng left wife and kids in 1869 to try his luck in the Montana gold mining business. Almost nine years (!) after leaving Switzerland, the adventurer gave up his idea of returning home and asked his family to follow him to the American West, which they did in 1878. His son’s autobiography was translated to German and published in 1991. Additionally, multiple autobiographies of Mormon immigrants from Switzerland lie in the archives of the Latter Day Saints archives, waiting for their history to be retold. Swiss emigrant Mary Ann Hafen was one of those immigrants and her story was recommended to me by her great-great-granddaughter’s husband, a former professor at the Brigham Young University in Utah. Migration stories like these stand at the center of this project and I hope to find more Swiss immigrant stories in the American West to get a broader image of their experiences.