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Swiss Settlements of Madison County

Highland, Illinois



Publication Number Eleven of the Illinois State Historical Library
Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for the Year 1906
Seventh Annual Meeting of the Society, Springfield, Illinois, January 24-25, 1906

(Book is not in Copyright)

(By Ella C. Newbauer.)

          The Swiss are well represented in the foreign population of our country. In the year 1902 the United States Consul at Zurich, Switzerland, said: "Emigration from this country in recent years has apparently been on the increase, owing to the favorable reports which reach this country of prosperity, good crops, high wages and the demand for laborers of all kinds in the United States." The statistics of 1902 show that the greater number of Swiss emigrants come to the United States. Out of 4,707 who emigrated from Switzerland in that year 4,227 sailed for our country.

          According to the Twelfth Census, Illinois has 9,033 Swiss inhabitants. The city of Chicago alone has 3,251. The city of Highland in Helvetia township, of Madison county, has a population consisting almost entirely of the Swiss element, for the place was originally settled by the Swiss. Many of the farmers in the vicinity of Highland, in Saline, Marine and St. Jacob townships belong to this foreign element. When these are included, the Swiss population of Highland may be estimated to be about 3,000. There are, however, almost 3,000 more Swiss inhabitants of Illinois of whom no definite information has been obtained. Many of these are, no doubt, to be found on farms throughout the State, for the Swiss are a great agricultural class.

          It would be interesting, indeed, to be able to trace the origin of the Swiss population of Chicago and to learn something as to its function and importance to the city today. It has, however, proved impossible to gain this much-desired information.

          Some of the earliest settlers in St. Clair county were Swiss.  In the year 1815 three emigrants, Bernard Steiner, Kudolph Wildi and Jacob Hardy, settled in the southern part of the county on what is now called "Dutch Hill." These three men were natives of the Canton, called Schwytz. Mr. Steiner had quite an interesting life history. While he was engaged in his trade in Neuchatel, Schwytz, he fell in love with the daughter of a very wealthy family. The parents consented to a marriage only on condition that he would accompany the family to America. Steiner willingly joined them in their journey, but before they had fairly started, he found himself sadly duped. While the party was detained at Antwerp for some length of time, Steiner gave his money over to his father-in-law. Without Steiner's knowledge, the family embarked to sea leaving him alone and penniless. Undaunted by this experience in his career, Steiner took advantage of the credit system and came to Philadelphia. For a time he was a peddler, then he became an importer and still later made preparations for the establishment of a clock and watch factory, but this project was ended by death.

          The natives of Switzerland were the first European colonists that came in great numbers to Madison county, of Illinois, and this county has perhaps a larger Swiss population than any county in the State.

          About 1831, when all of Europe was in a general state of unrest, and discontent seemed to prevail among the masses there, a number of people living in the city of Sursee, Canton Lucerne, Switzerland, resolved to emigrate to America. Dr. Caspar Kopfli acted as leader to this band of emigrants and .was accompanied to America by his family and by Joseph Suppiger, who became very prominent in the American colony. The trip from Switzerland to Paris was made in sixteen days. Seven weeks were required to sail from Paris to New York and one entire month to cross the country from New York to their destination in Illinois.

          The people of New England at this time regarded Illinois as an emigrant cemetery, as an unhealthy wilderness. Up to this time, no one had ventured to settle on the prairies; but to these Swiss wanderers the great plains of Illinois were the realization of a long sought land of promise. They felt especially attracted to Looking Glass Prairie and settled there, purchasing 1,000 acres of land at $2.70 an acre during the first, year. Though surrounded by difficulties, they looked forward to a bright future and wrote letters to friends and relatives in the native land which encouraged further emigration.

           In 1833, seventeen emigrants, most of whom belonged to the Supper family, arrived, and in 1835 about fifty more people came. Most of these new-comers settled in Townships 4-5, where they soon established a very friendly intercourse with the pioneers who had already made their homes there. The township settled by the Swiss was named Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland.

          October 15, 1836, the town of Highland was founded in this township, the town site being selected by James Semple, then speaker of the House of Representatives, Joseph Suppiger and Solomon Kopfli. In honor of Mr. Semple, a Scotchman, the town was named after the Highlands of Scotland instead of being given the more appropriate name of "New Switzerland."

          Highland was at that time a place which seemed very much isolated. No streets had been laid out and the town was not even connected with St. Louis, only thirty-two miles away, for the St. Louis road had not yet been constructed. All household furniture and many other necessities had to be brought from St. Louis in carts drawn by oxen. Streams had to be forded for there were no bridges, and as there were no roads, the carts had to travel overland, which was thickly covered with tree stumps, making the way rough and difficult. These early settlers, through much hard labor, built rude log cabins in which they made their homes. All cooking and baking had to be done over the open fire in the large fireplace. The women and girls busied themselves with spinning wheel and loom, providing themselves and the men with homemade clothes. The hide of the deer was tanned and was then sometimes made into clothes for the men. The men were on horseback most of the time, carrying their rifles and powder horn and were usually accompanied by dogs.

          As a result of the panic of 1837, this Swiss community was left without any circulating medium in the form of money. All buying and selling became a matter of exchange. Notwithstanding these discouraging conditions, a certain amount of activity was developed. A steam mill was erected in 1837 and a saw mill was attached to it 1840-1850. In 1839 a store was opened and once a week mail was delivered from Troy, twelve miles away. 1833 Mr. Eggen, a very influential man in the village, started the first brick-yard in connection with a pottery. He also started the first distillery and the first bakery.

          The accounts which were published of this growing and prosperous settlement were overdrawn and this fact becoming known in Europe, proved injurious to the colony. For a time emigration was checked.

          About 1840, however, some more families arrived from Switzerland. August 22, of this year, sixty-eight people from the Canton of Graubundten came to Highland. Some of these Swiss settled in the vicinity of this town. Some went to St. Jacobs, six miles west of Highland, while others went north into Saline township. In 1834 Dr. A. F. Beck, a native of Canton Berne, Switzerland, arrived and settled permanently in the Marine settlement, north of Highland. Sylvan Utiger, another Swiss, located a few miles north of Marine in a German settlement in what is now called the Handsbarger neighborhood.

          In 1843, the most important event, up to that time, took place. A stage route was established between Vandalia, the old State capital, and St. Louis and it proved a great day to Highland when the first stage coach, drawn by four horses, came into the town.

          October 6, 1848, an omnibus brought from St. Louis a dozen immigrants who had come from French Switzerland. Among these were A. E. Bandelier, Constant Rilliet, in latter years the successor of Bandelier in the Swiss consulate and associate county justice in 1861, Francis Vulliet, a minister of the Free Evangelical church of the Canton of Vaud, who had come to America in hope of finding that freedom of religion which had been denied him in his native country.

          Mr. A. E. Bandelier published a very interesting account of the beginning and development of this colony at Highland. Mr. Vulliet and Mr. Rilliet together issued a guide to immigrants and sent copies of it to their friends in the homeland. Through the influence of this guide, others in French Switzerland became enthusiastic to migrate. Between the years 1848 and 1850 families bearing the names of Estoppey, Majonnier, Junod, Bran, Decrevelle and Thalman from the Cantons of Neuchatel and Vaud, came to America. They belonged to a religious sect called the Plymouth Brethern, which suffered persecution in the native land. In order that they might worship God in liberty according to the dictates of their own consciences, these people came to our country. They established themselves on farms near Sugar Creek, east of Highland and there fared prosperously. At the present time but few of their descendants remain, for death and migration have reduced their numbers. This settlement was called the Sugar Creek settlement. Several years later a number of immigrants from France joined these French Swiss and the increased colony was then named Sebastopol, 1859.

          The Swiss people have some of the characteristics of the north as well as the south German. Their mountain life, surrounded by many dangers, has made them cautious and vigilant. The Swiss have sometimes been called the Yankees of Europe, because of their calculating shrewdness and active energy, and also because of their familiarity with self-government. They are, as a people, also greatly interested in education. This fact was shown in naming the streets of Highland, a great many of which were given names of Swiss and of American educational leaders like: Pestalozzi, Zschokke, Jefferson and Franklin.

          Joseph Suppiger, a man who always bore at heart the interests of others, succeeded in raising funds to build a little school house in 1840. Before this time, a lady teacher had been employed to give private instruction at the homes of the children. The quaint school building was also used as a house of worship whenever a stray minister happened to appear in the neighborhood. The gospel was preached to these early settlers regardless of the faith in creeds. In 1844 Father Maragno, who was the first Catholic priest to come to Highland, united with the Protestants and helped to erect a church which was used by all Christians.

          Just ten years after coming to this country, Dr. Kopfli returned to Switzerland with his family in 1841. He found his native Canton the scene of war, and because he no longer felt safe in his own birthplace, he returned to the United States after a lapse of seven and a half years. Both of his sons, Joseph and Solomon, had returned after a stay of only two and a half years in Switzerland. Solomon Kopfli became very prominent in Highland. He was forever planning something for the advancement and the progress of the community. He never tired of striving for the improvement of roads and later on for railroad connections. His efforts won him influence and favor among the American settlers. Mr. Kopfli became interested in politics without making claims upon any public office for himself. In 1862 he became a member of the convention which was to form a new Constitution for Illinois. His untiring activity in this assembly affected his health, and though he took several trips back to his native land, he never completely regained good health and strength.

          Heinrich Zschokke, pastor at Aaran, Switzerland, writes of Kopfli: "Sein letzter Aufenthalt in Zurich gait dann noch den Vorbereitungen zu einem Lieblingsplan namlich der Stiftung einer Universitat in Highland. Er konnte jedoch denselben nicht mehr ausfuhren, eben so wenig das Vorhaben, eine Greschichte der von seiner Familie gegrundeten Schweizer-Kolonie im Drucke herauszugeben wozu er sohon bedentende Vorarbeiten gemaeht hatte. An beiden hinderten ihn den Tod." Mr. Kopfli took so great an interest in education, that he himself went among the children and instructed them and also made financial sacrifices for any equipment which was necessary to his work. Zschokke called him a second Pestalozzi.

          October 13, 1858, the first printing press appeared in the settlement. The first newspaper printed was called "Der Erzahler." This changed ownership several times until it became the "Highland Bote" of which the "Union" became a rival, 1863. In 1869 the "Bote" was removed to Edwardsville; but the "Union" is still printed weekly in the city of Highland.

          Highland was not incorporated as a village until April, 1865. Mr. Jacob Eggen became president and Jas. Speckars, Henry Weinheimer, Xavier Suppiger and Frank Appel, trustees. About 1867 the Vandalia railroad passing through the town was constructed. This new intercourse with the world at large meant much in promoting the development of Highland.

          In 1885 the Helvetia Milk Condensing Company was established. The product of this industry is today known all over the world. Great quantities of the condensed milk are exported to foreign countries. The enterprise has had a wonderful development since its beginning. Only about a year ago a very large new plant was constructed at Highland. Besides this, the company now owns two branch factories, one at Greenville, Illinois and one at Delta, Ohio, and is planning to establish another somewhere in Pennsylvania. The manufacture of the condensed milk makes dairy farming very profitable to farmers in the vicinity of Highland. Through it employment is also given to a large number of boys, girls and men of the town.

          The Highland Embroidery Works, established in 1883, also employ a great many people. All the machinery used in this industry comes from Switzerland. A large output of embroidered goods is each year sent to the eastern cities, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Buffalo, while a considerable quantity of goods is also sold to the leading department stores of St. Louis.

          Besides the two important industries already mentioned. Highland has a flour mill, a grain elevator, a large brewery, a distillery and a soda water works. Within the city there are three large general stores, several grocery stores and bakeries, drug stores, furniture and hardware stores.

          Now Highland has a beautiful modern school building and maintains a good high school, besides the public schools; there is a Catholic parochial school. The city has four well attended churches, a German Evangelical, a German Methodist, a Congregational and a Catholic. The St. Joseph's hospital is a well conducted Catholic institution, located in the suburbs of the town. Two English and two German papers are now published weekly in the flourishing little city.

          During its seventy-five years of development and progress, the city of Highland has retained its Swiss population and with it many Swiss characteristics. In most of the Swiss homes, the children are taught the mother tongue before they are taught to speak English. On the play grounds at school the younger children usually converse with one another in the Swiss dialect. Business men, in their daily affairs, cling to their language when they discuss business or politics. The people of the town are also very loyal to Swiss costumes and still retain their Schweizer-Turnverein Mannerchor Harmonie and Schutzenverein. (Turner's Association, Mens: Singing Society and Sharpshooters' Association.)

A List Of The Books Consulted On The Subject Op Swiss Settlements Of ' Illinois.
H. F. Bandelier - "Geschichte des Townships Helvetia." Published in Highland.
Jacob Eggen - "Aufzeichnungen aus Highlands Grundungszeit zumFunfzig- jahrigen Jubilaum 1887.'' Published at Highland, 1888.
Salomon Kopfli und Jacob -Eggen - "Die Schweizer-Kolonie Highland in Illinois." Published in Deutsch Amerikanische 'Geschichtsblatter. April 1905 and July 1905.
Kroner, Gustav - "Das Deutsche Element in den Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerlka."
W. R. Brink & Co. - Publishers of "History of Madison County, Illinois." Published at Edwardsville, 111.
Charles Weis - Publisher of "A Brief History of the City of Highland." Published at the office of the Highland Journal, Highland, 1893.
Statistics were taken from "Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900." Volume I, Part I, Population.
For information concerning the French Swiss, who formed the Sugar Creek settlement, I am indebted to Mr. L. Mellera, an old French settler, still living near Sebastopol. Most of the pamphlets on Highland history I obtained from Mr. J. S. Horner, who for many years published the Highland Union.


Jacob Eggen, Pioneer Settler of Highland

Jacob Eggen, Pioneer Settler of Highland, Illinois

Mill at Highland, Illinois

Mill at Highland, Illinois


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