Advice for the Old Country
Pioneers travel to Illinois’s new Switzerland
December 11, 1986
Here we have a well-edited compilation of writings of three members of a party of Swiss emigrants who left Europe in 1831 to found a settlement near the modern city of Highland, Illinois. The book departs from the usual travel guides of the period in many of the same ways that their authors depart from the usual American emigrants to Illinois. Interesting. Alas, the book is today out of print, I believe.
Reviewed: Journey to New Switzerland: Travel Account of the Koepfli and Suppiger Family to St. Louis on the Mississippi and the Founding of New Switzerland in the State of Illinois, edited by John C. Abbott. Southern Illinois University Press, 1986
New Orleans was unhealthful, the newcomers decided, "and for this reason, only speculators, mostly Frenchmen, are to be found there." The German Swiss are a hard people to impress, and few works will confirm that more interestingly than Journey to New Switzerland. The book is a compilation of writings of three members of a party of Swiss emigrants who left Europe in 1831 to find a settlement in a "heavenly area" east of St. Louis near the modern city of Highland, Illinois. The work includes a travel diary kept by young Joseph Suppiger, letters from Suppiger and Salomon Koepfli to a family still in Switzerland, and a formal guide to prospective emigrants later written by the leader of the expedition, Dr. Kaspar Koepfli.
The current popular image of the European emigration derives mainly from the massive movement to the U.S. in the early twentieth century from southern and eastern Europe. If not peasants, the newcomers were mostly poor, and their voyages—usually in steerage—often were grimmer than anything endured by the Koepflis and Suppigers seventy years earlier.
That experience was first exposed, then romanticized, and most recently trivialized by its depiction in a hundred films and novels. The reality of an ocean crossing in crowded ships seldom survives its recreation. The Koepflis' journey was not harsh, owing to luck and their own careful preparation. They had paid extra for roomier accommodations aboard the LaFrance and their attitude toward less favored passengers was sympathetic but condescending. (Their fellow passengers, they found, "would be considered outcasts of humanity" back home.)
Based on their experience, they offered detailed advice to those who might follow, about the purchase, storage, and choice of foods (including an admonition to beware of the wine merchants around Paris and Havre where "one seldom finds pure wine"), cook stoves (the one they had was "an infernal torture machine"), clothing, and seasickness ("seasickness kills nobody"). In the end, they point out, "Shipwrecks, strikes by lightning, water spouts, lack of water and food, and sickness have their counterparts on terra firma."
The Koepflis and the rest of the original party of fourteen were German and middle class and their letters and diaries betray all the familiar prejudices of that breed. At their leave-taking, Salomon K. notes, "I am grateful when displays of emotion are held in check." They were unimpressed, as Germans still are, by the French, whose roads were rutted, whose peasants were degraded ("everywhere the same poverty and lack of cleanliness among the common people"), whose food was only tolerable ("with the same ingredients we could have done far better in Switzerland"). They liked Americans rather better.
The Koepflis in short were a kind of immigrant which is often overlooked. Well-provisioned, well-read, adept both at planning and coping with the exigencies of a complex trip, they depart in every respect from the stereotypical immigrant except their optimism. Like so many of the socially disaffected and politically repressed educated classes of Europe in the nineteenth century, their motives in coming to the U.S. were not to escape want. Instead they sought to recover something lost in a Europe riven by overpopulation, war, and bad government, specifically what the editor describes as "a regenerated Switzerland" which offered material prosperity and political liberty.
Both the travel accounts and the later letters describing the clan's early experiences in Madison County are marvelous—detailed, practical, economical in a literary as well as a practical sense. This is travel writing of a surprising high order. Unlike many reporters they did not sensationalize; that kind of excess was as alien to our Swiss friends as any other. The result is that the modern reader gets a vivid sense of the journey and arrival—the cheap lodgings, the stagecoach rides, the haggling at ports with venal sea captains, the cold of that first winter, along with a hundred observations about the size of cattle and the cost of wood and how many bushels one might expect from cleared land. Practical prose, every word, but some passages—the description of a prairie fire is a good example—offer more than mere description and approach art.
The modern reader will find much to remind him that even in America some things don't change. In New York City, "Everything . . . is expensive." And the newcomers were amazed that land near the cities was not farmed to raise garden produce, "which surely would be profitable." They explain this neglect by the fact that "the land has long been in the hands of speculators who hold it for sale at high prices."
The transplantation was not made without doubt. Second thoughts are frankly recorded, recriminations recalled. The patriarch had to remind his children that they were building for a future, that "one has to practice denial for a few years" in a new country. They acquired land quickly and worked hard, and while they, like their compatriots scattered across the new world, missed the language and customs of their homeland, they found the landscape fecund, the weather salubrious, and the freedom invigorating. As a result, theirs are somewhat more flattering about Illinois than many pioneer accounts.
Their success is explainable in large part to their realization that such an enterprise requires communal effort, at least in the beginning. The lazy and. the unattached could survive in America, but seldom would they thrive: However, the Koepflis were careful to urge independence from companions as well as interfering governments. In an 1833 letter to relatives back home, Salomon K. warned against buying provisions or pooling money in common. To travel with companions "in a completely cooperative manner is like burdening them with the devil. Arguments . . . usually follow in a few days." The Koepflis, like so many idealistic political liberals, had originally dreamed of communal undertakings in the new world. But communes often fell victim to the crossing itself. "This one claims that he is being deceived," Salomon writes, "that one insists he has been cheated, and soon there is . . . such enmity that when the group arrives in America most of its members fervently long to settle as far from their faithless, selfish, thievish traveling companions as possible." The intense individualism of the U.S. culture was not born here, but the new country made it possible for people to express it.
The letters comprise what brother Salomon called "a well-meant warning" to friends and relatives contemplating similar trips. By no means discouraging, they are frank about the difficulties of such undertakings, and as such constitute a 'valuable counterbalance to the often too-glowing accounts by the authors of the more popular emigrant guides.
The new volume underwent an intriguing journey of its own. The editor notes that the countryside near Highland was the site of the largest Swiss community established in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. The experience was well-recorded in five works published by the founders variously in Lucerne, Sursee, and Highland in the 1840s and 1850s. These accounts subsequently were nearly forgotten. He blames their neglect on the fact that the works, written in German, were not translated, that the Swiss emigration was not large and thus easy for scholars to overlook, that such accounts have been relegated to the jumble pile of "local history." Happily, four of those five accounts have been translated and published since 1970, of which Journey to New Switzerland is the latest. It was edited by John C. Abbott, director of Lovejoy Library at Southern Illinois University's Edwardsville campus, gracefully translated by Raymond Spahn, that school's emeritus professor of German, and made into a handsome book by the S1U Press. Each has reason to be pleased. ●