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swissworld.org - Switzerland's official information portal

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Historical emigration

Although today Switzerland is a rich country, life has not always been easy, and until World War II there were more emigrants than immigrants. Most of those who left were seeking relief from poverty; some of these had marketable skills. Some left only temporarily, while others made a new life abroad for themselves and their families.

For about 450 years Switzerland's best known exported skill was soldiering. It has been estimated that between 1400 and 1848 more than two million Swiss mercenaries were employed by foreign powers.

Starting in the 16th century, some Swiss emigrated to escape religious persecution. As oppression of the radical Protestant Anabaptists spread, followers - who came from several European countries - migrated ever further. They are best known today as the Mennonite and Amish communities in the USA.

In all some 400,000 Swiss emigrated between 1850 and 1914. In some places in North and South America they founded Swiss colonies, often naming them after their place of origin. Bern alone has 26 towns and villages named after it in the US, Lucerne has 16.

  • The chocolate manufacter Milton Hershey (1857-1945) was the descendent of Swiss Mennonites. His ancestry is not entirely clear, but his roots were probably in Appenzell, from where several members of the Herschey family fled to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.
  • The founder of the Amish community was the Swiss Jacob Ammann, who broke away from the Mennonites in 1693, because he believed they did not interpret the Bible strictly enough. He and his followers took refuge in the Swiss mountains before moving to America

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