As a historian, I know I shouldn’t do this, but we’re going to skip ahead in time a full millennium. Unfortunately, we only have three weeks, and the records are spotty. As we move south from Italy and north to Switzerland, we’re fast-forwarding a thousand years to the seventeenth century.
The very earliest records I have put my family roots in central Switzerland. We began our exploration pulling into Bern Bahnhof on a train, dragged our bags to a car rental place, and headed south in a van into the rural environs of the canton. Almost immediately, we found some familiar names: Schwarzenburg, Schwarzsee, and Schwarzengg. We drove through Schwarzenburg, stopping at the local castle for a picnic lunch.
Then we headed to Guggisburg, where Jacob Beiler, an immigrant ancestor was born. In the German language, a “beil” is an axe, and a “beiler” was someone who makes axes, or uses them to cut wood. He immigrated to America on October 8, 1737, on the Charming Nancy, ending up in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and then to the Kishacoquillas Valley. Somewhere along the way, the family changed the spelling to “Byler.” That’s the maiden name of my grandmother Anna Mae Byler Swartz, who is currently ninety-eight years old. We saw quite a few recent “Beyeler” gravestones in Guggisburg’s cemetery. They’re probably her eighth cousins! On the day we visited, there happened to be a big festival with lots of cheese, beer, singing, storytelling, and fun.
From Guggisburg, we headed to beautiful Lake Thun. This is semi-famous for a scene in the TvN drama Crash Landing on You. But we were more interested in a constellation of villages—Reutigan, Diemtigen, Sigriswil, and Oberhofen—on the shoreline. Nicholas Raber was born in Diemtigen in the early 1600s. Jacob von Gunten came from Sigriswil, where he served as a corrichter, a judge of the ecclesiastical court, which decided what punishments should be given to lawbreakers. And the earliest date on my homemade ancestral fan chart—1622—comes from Reutigan, where Hans Buttschi was born; Oberhofen, the village across the lake from Reutigen where Margaret zum Bach was born; and the city of Thun, where the happy couple was married. This was one of the most captivating places we’ve been on our trip, and I wondered how I ended up growing up on the flat plains of Ohio.
I had grown up thinking that my ancestry was German—and that’s true to an extent. Many of the ancestors—and their children—I just mentioned did end up in Germany or in the Palatinate (eastern France and southwestern Germany) for reasons I’ll explain in my next post. And almost everyone spoke German. But it turns out that almost all of them originated in Switzerland.
That’s not hard to believe as we walk around in 2022. The cemeteries are full of Schwartzes and Beyelers and Joders. And everyone looks like us. When people talk with us, they don’t begin with English, assuming that we’re American like Italians did in Rome last week. Every gray-haired Swiss lady looks like my mother, and when we were shopping in an Aldi Suisse supermarket the other day, Lisa approached at least four Swiss dudes from the side and back thinking they were me. It’s a little disorienting, but I guess I’m Swiss!