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. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.