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A Swiss California Journey

Professor Jurg K. Siegenthaler.

(American University)

Almost anywhere you go in the US you will hear the story of another Swiss immigrant's efforts and triumphs.

Traveling west to California in October, we traced the path of a Zurich mechanic who settled there in the mid-1870s, struggled to survive, had a large family, and never returned home.

The story is actually much more intricate and intriguing than my summary suggests, and has been captured by letters that Jakob Otto Wyss and his family members wrote back to Switzerland over a lifetime. They have just been published in a book by the Swiss American Historical Society (SAHS), titled Postmaster in Klau: Letters from California.

Otto Wyss trained as a mechanic and was a technology enthusiast. He pursued opportunities in the French part of Switzerland, then Paris and Manchester. But he was not spared the political and economic turbulence of the times. In Paris he had his first experience of interesting work, enjoyed a world fair and state-of-the-art museums before suffering the consequences of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune in 1870-71.

Moving on to Manchester, Wyss was hit by the recession that shook up the industrialized world in the 1870s. Even as he crossed the Atlantic in 1873, business was down in New York and San Francisco, his next stops.

After the Gold Rush

It was mining wealth that led to the rise of California and San Francisco, then the only city in the West - remember the Gold Rush and General Johann August Sutter (1803-1880)? And it was the subsequent slump in mining that led to their decline. In his own time, Otto Wyss found a niche in this industry doing technical drawings for a mercury mine owner. As operations were unsteady, he finally decided to settle down as a farmer near a mine in out-of-the-way Paso Robles, off the central California coast.

It is from here that we read the most moving of his letters written to parents and siblings back home: about the rough farm work, on technical improvements made by the resourceful Otto, on the death of three sons from diphtheria within the space of a week, on the economy and war and peace, or about becoming postmaster, justice of the peace and school board president.

Both of his wives were from Switzerland as well. Ottilie, who died prematurely, and his second spouse Seline also wrote and lend the invaluable women's perspective of immigrant pioneers in the back country: the burden of making do with few manufactured goods, slaughtering and smoking one's own meat, sewing one's own clothes, protecting chickens from the foxes, or combating illness and the abuse of alcohol.

Ties to the homeland

All along, the letters reflect close practical and emotional ties to Switzerland. Each week, the so-called "Bürkli Paper" arrived and was carefully studied (this was the Zürcherische Freitagszeitung, a weekly paper that ran until 1914). Farm and financial advice was exchanged, progress in Switzerland and California compared, World War I politics discussed.

Otto traveled back to Switzerland once in his old age, enjoyed the company of his family there, but concluded that he could never return: "I need elbow room in the wide country:" He had gotten used to the open spaces and challenges of California. We get the sense, too, that he liked the stark beauty of the land. His five daughters did well in their educational pursuits. The future looked good to them.

At the launch of the new book in San Francisco and Paso Robles, many descendants of the Swiss and California branches of the family were present, some meeting for the first time. They and their guests journeyed, through vineyards and olive trees, up to the mine and ranch site, where traces of the farm are slowly vanishing. Not so the memories that were exchanged.

Past to present

We took extra time to travel back up north. It's a good thing to take in both the past and the present of California. For one, you sense the vastness, where it took Otto Wyss days by steamer from Cambria up to San Francisco and seven days back by horse and buggy.

The route is also one of footsteps along the Camino Real, from mission to mission established by the Franciscans in the 18th century. If you ever take that route, stop at San Antonio de Padua: it is remote, perfectly still, and glorious to look at. Walk the cloisters and take in the wall paintings and implements that tell you about the joy and sadness of the Indians, Spanish friars, and Mexicans whose land this was.

Now, of course, California has many metropolises and 37 million inhabitants. It has huge farming and high tech - and Hollywood, along with its natural beauty. (It also gets earthquakes, one of which we happened to feel ourselves on our last evening there.)

It's important politically next year: the Democrats count on it to vote their way as a counterweight to the Republican non-coastal West and the South. So thank you, California, we love you.

by Jurg Siegenthaler

The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of swissinfo.


Every month retired professor, Jurg Siegenthaler, compares and contrasts aspects of life in Switzerland with that of his adopted homeland, the United States.

He emigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1967, and is now a retired university professor living close to Washington, DC. He is a graduate of Bern University (Dr.rer.pol., 1966).

His fields of teaching and research encompassed economic history, social theory and social policy analysis. Throughout his career, he has maintained close comparative research interests in the US and Switzerland.

He is associated with the Institute for Socio-Financial Studies, a research non-profit that has done a lot of work improving financial literacy at the community level.

Since his retirement, Jurg Siegenthaler has broadened his involvement in community organizations and in the arts. He is married and lives with his wife Linda in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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