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How the Swiss founded a Mormon town

The mural depicts the voyage of Swiss Mormon pioneers courtesy Julie Rogers

Ask just about anyone from Santa Clara, Utah, about “the call” and there’s no mistaking what you mean: The time the Swiss Mormons rolled in and changed everything.

In fact, there was no real town to speak of in this remote corner of the American southwest before the Stuckis, Hirschis, and Toblers—some 85 Swiss pioneers in all—unloaded their covered wagons and began to build.

The epic journey the Swiss pioneers began 150 years ago this spring has now been immortalised in a mural hanging in Santa Clara’s Town Hall. Two documentary filmmakers are making a movie, having followed Utah artist Julie Rogers around as she put paint to history, using today’s descendants of those Swiss pioneers as models.

“The Swiss were the ones who made Santa Clara into a town,” said Kathleen Nielson, chair of the local heritage commission. “There was nothing in town to commemorate that.”

It was not an easy task. Shunned, ridiculed and often chased out of town, they were the first Swiss Mormons—indeed some of the first Mormons at all—who traded relatively comfortable lives in the Alps for the hard, sun-seared folds of an unknown land. To make matters worse, the outbreak of the American Civil War would greet them.

“I still cry when I think how hard it must have been to leave such a beautiful place,” said Sherri Graff Anderson, a fourth-generation descendant of the Swiss pioneers who lives with 16 grandchildren in Santa Clara, population of around 6,800 today.

 “Living here, I know what a desolate place they were going to. They had no clue.”

Answering the call

Swiss families began making their way to Utah in 1860 and 1861, 30 years after the Mormon church was officially organised. They sold their farms and businesses in mostly German-speaking Switzerland to follow missionaries across the Atlantic to a place where Mormons could marry often and worship freely.

The Swiss converts joined hundreds of other new Mormons from all across Europe. Many of them travelled to Liverpool, where they boarded a three-decker clipper called the Monarch of the Sea. It was the largest ship in the history of the Mormon migration, with some 995 people aboard.

Once in New York, the Swiss settlers took trains west to prairie states like Iowa and Nebraska. It was a risky journey with the Civil War raging and trains coming under attack.

From there pioneer life began in earnest as they loaded up covered wagons and handcarts to begin the 1,000-mile journey into the Utah desert. They passed through a wild, rugged landscape, with buffalo once stampeding through their convoy.

The Swiss had barely arrived in Salt Lake City – the new Mormon capital – when leader Brigham Young decided to send settlers into the harsh landscape of southern Utah, about 200km northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada, where farms could provide cattle and cotton.

“Young knew that this was a hard mission with many unpleasant conditions,” Nellie Ray and Nellie Gubler write in History of Santa Clara: A Blossom in the Desert. “That the mission might prosper, Young selected some of the most stalwart pioneers who had never known defeat.”

The Swiss answered the call.

Connection to the past

Flip through the 572-page tome on Santa Clara’s history and you learn everything that happened next: the devastating flood that wiped everything out; a teenage girl’s agonizing death after a gunshot wound to the thigh; how John Itten traded the last bits of his Bern estate for ten instruments to form Santa Clara’s first brass band.

In the end Swiss determination prevailed. They coaxed cotton and grapes from the stubborn soil and milled the willows into homes. Some of the old buildings still stand today.

Bringing the story to life in an eight-by-two-metre painted mural took Rogers about six months. The odyssey begins on the left, with Swiss chalets set against mountains, and ends on the right, with the red Utah dirt bearing fruit and community.

In between are pictures and symbols of the journey itself—a ship, a wagon train—but all of it seems to centre around a family in the middle. A child gathers fruit, a woman clutches her heart, and a man stands with palms splayed as if to absorb his faith.

All of them are real people: “I wanted this mural to belong to them,” Rogers said. So she recruited Swiss descendants in Santa Clara as models.

“Sometimes they’d stand for me for hours while I worked on painting their face or hand. For me, it was about conveying a feeling.”

“We were drawn to this unbelievable tale and how Julie was bringing it to life,” said Liz Thomas, a filmmaker turning a documentary on the project with business partner Marcy Brown.

“Once you start digging in and learn about the pioneers’ lives and how they gave up everything in this gorgeous country to come here in the name of faith, it can get very emotional.”

The mural has also helped the descendants of those first Swiss pioneers to understand a little more about their roots, says Paul Graf, a Utah lawyer, whose family came from the St Gallen and Appenzell regions.

Some have made the trip back to Switzerland to visit their forefathers’ villages, see how their names were struck from local church registers and to make surprising connections about how Swiss ways still infuse their lives so many years later.

“Their lifestyle, habits and ways had been carried here,” Graf said. “Growing up we used to always eat little dumplings on holidays. It wasn’t until I went to Switzerland that I realised ‘little dumplings’ are called spätzli and you can eat it anytime you want.”

Santa Clara, in far southwestern Utah, sits in a narrow valley near the confluence of the Rio Virgin and Santa Clara Creek.

Low hills rise to the south with flat, tableland to the north. The original town site is tiny, just 1.2km wide, leaving one main street. It is one of several communities in Utah with strong Swiss roots.

The Swiss influence is unmistakable in Santa Clara. Besides the Swiss Days festival and the Swiss Bank Storage (for RVs and boats), the names of the citizenry provides the most tangible link to the past. Some of the earliest settlers were the Ence family of Mettlen, the Grafs of Rebstein, Hirschis of Neuchâtel, Moosmans of Muhleberg, Roulets of Payerne, Stahelis of Amriswil, Toblers of Appenzell, and the Wittwers of Schangnau. Many of those family names exist today, in some cases anglicised.

The first Mormon missionaries arrived in Switzerland in 1850, when Thomas Stenhouse was sent there from work in Italy.

He was later joined by George Mayer in 1853, who began a three year mission “which greatly impacted the people of Switzerland”, according to the book, History of Santa Clara.

In 1854 Mayer baptised the Bonelli family, from Bussnang near St Gallen. Seven years later, Daniel Bonelli would lead the Swiss pioneers south to Santa Clara.

Today Mormons in Switzerland total approximately 7,000 with 40 congregations gathering in 27 meeting houses. The first European temple for the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church, was built in in Zollikofen, near Bern, in 1955. The total Mormon community numbers around 14 million today.

Mormons pursue a rigorous policy of proselytising, but Mormon missionaries in Switzerland have come into the spotlight in recent months. A change in Swiss law would treat them as paid-employees after 2012, meaning a de facto ban would come into force. Mormons pay their own expenses when on missions. 

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR