Family celebrates transatlantic reunion

A gathering of the clan in Hägendorf

More than 150 years ago, brothers Franz and Anton Röthely fled poverty in Switzerland for a new life in America.

This content was published on May 20, 2005 - 16:18
Urs Maurer,

All ties to their homeland were cut – until American Joe Roetheli set off to find his Swiss ancestors. His search has culminated in a transatlantic family reunion.

"Welcome to your Hometown" – read the English sign over the church in Hägendorf in canton Solothurn.

Also greeting the large group of Americans who travelled to Switzerland last month was the local yodelling club and the music society, the latter performing American songs.

The Americans’ marathon trip around Switzerland had left them impressed with the cleanliness of their ancestral homeland, its diversity and food. But it was thanks to one member of the group that their ties to the country have been rekindled.

Curious about finding his roots, Joe Roetheli did not have much to go on beyond his father’s comments that their ancestors had been "probably Swiss" and had come from "somewhere around Zurich".

Phone book

So, while on a business trip to Switzerland in 1993, he copied down the addresses of all the Roethelis in the Zurich phone book.

Back home in Springfield, Virginia, he mailed out a pile of letters.

Eventually, with help from the canton of Solothurn archives and a local official in Hägendorf – a certain Max Rötheli – Joe’s genealogical investigation was brought to its satisfying conclusion.

Finally, he knew who he was descended from, and in the process, discovered an epic account of a family’s journey of hope and despair that would end happily a century and a half later. It was the kind of story that could be written about many American families.

Roetheli's Swiss ancestor was Franz Röthely of Hägendorf, who in 1854 along with his brother Anton and 15 family members emigrated to the US heartland in hopes of a better life.


Poverty was widespread at the time, and the village of Hägendorf, where Franz and Anton were born and raised, was unable to cope with its many needy families.

So the community offered those who wished to emigrate to the United States the cost of the journey, and occasionally even start-up cash - "so that they won’t come back," according to documents.

Among the 115 immigrants who left Hägendorf on 17 March 1854 were Franz Röthely, his wife and their six children, and his brother Anton Röthely, his wife and their seven children.

The journey

The immigration records Joe unearthed indicated that his forefathers arrived on the Roger Stewart at the port city of New Orleans, Louisiana, on 25 May 1854.

From there they travelled up the Mississippi River to Hermann, Missouri, where they planned on settling permanently.

But fate would deal the Röthelys a terrible blow.

A cholera epidemic then raging in Hermann claimed almost the entire family, with only three of Franz’s children, five-year-old Franz Jr, seven-year-old Anton, and baby Eve, surviving.

Joe was able to determine that all American Roethelis are descendants of the five-year-old who survived.

Name change

Tracing seven-year-old Anton, who also would have kept the Röthely name, proved far more difficult.

Joe’s persistence paid off, however.

Anton, it turns out, had fought as a Union soldier in the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Because he could neither read nor write, his family name was transcribed variously in different Army records of the period.

By the end of his soldiering days, "Anton Röthely" had become "Anton Rettle" in official records.

In 1994, the American Roethelis and the American Rettles, somewhat astonished, met for the first time. Two years later the Roetheli family reunion took place, with 140 descendants.

The guest of honour of the 1994 meeting was a teenage Swiss relative from Hägendorf, Thomas Rötheli, who happened to be in the US doing an exchange year at an American high school.

Roethelis, Rettles and Röthelis

Fittingly, Switzerland was chosen as the setting for the third reunion – which took place last month.

The American Roethelis and Rettles were joined in Hägendorf by the Swiss Röthelis, who had travelled from all over Switzerland for the big event.

Among them was Serge Roetheli, who had just completed his own epic journey (see related story), spending five years running around the world to raise money for poor children.

And the reunion bore fruit. The families agreed to start a Swiss-American student exchange programme for their members.

They also laid a memorial stone dedicated to the two immigrant brothers in the adjoining forest, which in the 19th century had been denuded to help pay for passages to America.

Key facts

In 1854 brothers Franz and Anton Röthely emigrated to the US with their families.
On May 25, 1854 they arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Only three children of the original 17 family members survived a cholera epidemic.
The Roethelis are descendents of Franz. The Rettles are descendents of Anton.
In the US, the names are written "Roetheli" and "Rettle." In Switzerland, the name is written "Rötheli".

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