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Romansh in Minnesota

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Photograph of the DeGonda Family

The DeGonda family in Le Sueur County, ca. 1916. In 1866, Mary Muggli DeGonda and her five surviving children emigrated from Graubünden to Minnesota. This photograph shows the siblings about fifty years later. Pictured are (left to right, back row): Gion Rest (John) DeGonda; Giachen Antoni (Jacob) DeGonda; and (left to right, front row): Onna Maria Turte (Mary Dorothy) DeGonda Freiberg; Rosa Martina (Rose) DeGonda Simonett; and Maria Aloisa (Louisa) DeGonda Joerg. From the Richard C. DeGonda family papers; used with the permission of Richard C. DeGonda.

Between 1820 and 1910, it is estimated that at least 30,000 people emigrated from the Swiss canton of Graubünden to the United States. Included in this number were Romansh people—members of an ethnically distinct Swiss population—headed for Minnesota. Beginning in 1854, they settled in Stillwater, St. Paul, the St. Henry Colony (Le Sueur County), the Stillwater-sponsored Badus Colony (South Dakota), and other communities throughout the region.

The Swiss canton that is historically home to the Romansh people is called Grischun in Romansh but is better known by its German name, Graubünden. Reflecting the four national languages of Switzerland, it is known as Grisons in French and Grigrioni in Italian. Its capital is the ancient city of Chur, known as Curia during the Roman period.

Romansh people share Rhaetian-Roman ancestry. The Rhaetians moved into the area sometime after 500 BCE and were followed centuries later, in 15 BCE, by soldiers sent to guard the perimeter of the Roman Empire. The Romansh language is derived from vernacular Latin brought to the area by these soldiers. It is a living descendent of Latin and is recognized as one of four official languages of Switzerland. The term “Romansh” refers to both the people and their language.

The name Graubünden means Grey League; it refers to three alliances formed by Romansh leaders between 1367 and 1436 to protect the area and people against political, military, and religious wars. By 1524, the concepts the league supported—cooperative labor, personal freedom, military and political cooperation, and autonomy—were codified in the Constitution of the Free State of the Three Leagues. The Grey League’s commitment to self-sufficiency and mutual support influenced many Romansh immigrant communities and had an impact on their values over time.

In the early nineteenth century, as opportunities for work in Graubünden decreased and economic opportunities in America increased, Romansh people began joining the waves of immigrants from northern Europe coming to the United States. The earliest Romansh immigrants established communities in several eastern states, including Ohio and Wisconsin, in the 1820s and 1830s. In 1848, as news of the California Gold Rush reached Romansh communities in Switzerland, others emigrated to Sacramento and San Francisco.

Graubünden-based immigration boards and societies, such as the Wolf Company, helped Romansh families choose Minnesota as a destination. They sent scouts to determine prospects for settlement and helped immigrants finance their trips. Between 1851 and 1852, two men from Graubünden—Francis Tambornino and Jacob Beer—visited Le Sueur County in search of available farmland. They purchased land in the Big Woods area of Lexington Township and encouraged others to join them.

The first group of Romansh immigrants to come to Minnesota arrived in Stillwater in 1854. Drawn by opportunities in the logging industry, about forty-five families settled in or near the community. Many found work in the business side of the industry; the Minnesota territorial census of 1857 lists Romansh immigrants in Stillwater working as lumbermen, cooks, millers, laborers, carpenters, and clerks. Others moved to rural areas of the county and began farming, continuing the traditional pattern of living in close-knit, self-supporting communities.

After settling in Lexington and Sharon Townships in Le Sueur County, Romansh immigrants in that area established the St. Henry Colony in 1854–1855, and, in 1859, the St. Henry the Emperor Catholic Church. Anton Simonet (1842–1932), an early St. Paul resident who later moved to the St. Henry Colony, was the first Minnesota volunteer to be mustered into Brackett’s Battalion, Minnesota Volunteer Cavalry, for duty in the Civil War. He joined the battalion on September 8, 1861, re-enlisted on January 1, 1864, and rose to the rank of Sergeant before his discharge with the battalion at the end of the war. Residents from all of Minnesota’s Romansh communities followed his example.

Probably the most studied Romansh colony in the United States is the Badus Colony. It was established as an agricultural colony by members of the Stillwater Romansh community between 1875 and 1877. Located in Lake County near Ramona, South Dakota, it was incorporated as a cooperative colony through an organizing document called the Ligia Grischa (an early version of the name Grey League) that spelled out traditional Romansh values of self-sufficiency and mutual support. Members paid to join the organization and worked to help one another establish farms and businesses. In 1886, when the community reached its pre-determined goal of self-sufficiency, the members dissolved the organization.

Romansh immigration to Minnesota continued in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The extended family members of early immigrants often followed their relatives to Minnesota or were sponsored by Romansh community members already living in the state. Most came first to Stillwater, which remained the gateway community for Romansh immigration to Minnesota. Some stayed in the city while others moved to the St. Henry Colony or, pursuing business and agricultural interests, settled elsewhere in the state. Counties with Romansh settlements included Washington, Le Sueur, Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, and Stearns.

By 1880, Romansh people in Minnesota continued in farming-related work and in urban trades such as retail grocery, furniture sales, brewing, carpentry, butchering, barbering, medicine, and domestic service. Among those establishing businesses were brothers Joseph and Martin Wolf, who founded the Joseph Wolf Brewing Company in Stillwater in 1868. It became one of the largest breweries in the state before closing in 1925 as a casualty of Prohibition. Romansh master carpenter Sebastian Simonet, a member of the St. Peter Home Guard during the US–Dakota War of 1862, founded the Simonet Furniture & Carpet Company in Stillwater; it remained in business for 145 years.

The Romansh enclave in St. Paul's North End neighborhood was bounded by Wheelock Parkway to the north, Jackson Street to the West, and Nebraska Avenue to the south (construction of Interstate Highway 35E bisected the neighborhood in 1956). Several community members owned and operated small dairy and cheese farms there; the McDonough Townhomes near Wheelock Parkway were built on the site of the Baerth/Flipp farm.

In the twenty-first century, descendants of Minnesota’s Romansh population live throughout the state but remain united by a shared history and identity. One native of the community, Justice John E. Simonett, is well known for his service on the Minnesota Supreme Court (1981–1994).

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1857 Minnesota Territorial Census, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

1865–1905 Minnesota State Censuses, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

1860–1890 United State Censuses, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

American Inns of Court. John E. Simonett.
http://simonettinnofcourt.org/

“Anton J. Simonet, Civil War Veteran and Pioneer, Dies.” Le Center Leader, April 7, 1932.

Bastel, Joan. “St. Henry Colony: Church’s Last Link to Romanchas.” Mankato Free Press, February 18, 1974.

Bergemann, Kurt D. Brackett’s Battalion: Minnesota Cavalry in the Civil War and Dakota War. St. Paul: Borealis Books, 2004.

Board of Commissioners. Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars: 1861-1865. Vols. I and II. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005.

“Dedication, Souvenir Booklet, St. Henry Catholic Church” [undated]. Le Sueur County Historical Society Archives, Elysian, Minnesota.

DeGonda family records. Personal collection of Richard C. DeGonda.

deGryse, Louis M. “The Swiss.” In They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups, edited by June Drenning Holmquist. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1981.

Encyclopedia Britannica. Graubünden, Canton and Historical League, Switzerland.
https://www.britannica.com/place/Graubunden/

Every Culture. Romansch.
http://www.everyculture.com/Europe/Romansch.html

Freiberg, Amanda A. “The St. Swiss Henry Colony.” Undated. Le Sueur County Historical Society, Elysian, Minnesota.

“Funeral for Two Catholic Sisters Held at St. Joseph.” Le Center Leader, June 25, 1959.

Graubünden Geschichte Seiner Kreise.
http://www.mindspring.com/~philipp/gr_grau.html/

Head, Randolph C. Early Modern Democracy in the Grisons: Social Order and Political Language in a Swiss Mountain Canton, 1470-1620 (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern History). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

“J. A. DeGonda Died Tuesday.” Le Sueur Center Leader, December 22, 1927.

Joseph Wolf Brewery. National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form, 1981. Wolf Family File, Stillwater Public Library, Stillwater.

“Joseph Wolf Company.” Stillwater Trade Times, 1898.

Liquisearch. Switzerland in the Napoleonic Era–Act of Mediation.
http://www.liquisearch.com/switzerland_in_the_napoleonic_era/act_of_mediation/
Maissen, Augustin. The Romansh in America. Syracuse, NY: Utica College, 1963.

Map showing Romansh Settlement Patterns, Le Sueur County, 1898. Le Sueur County Historical Society Archives, Elysian, Minnesota.

My Switzerland. "Old Town Chur".
https://www.myswitzerland.com/en-us/old-town-chur.html/

Official County Plat Book and Farmers’ Directory of Le Sueur County Minnesota. Mankato, MN: Farm Plat Book Company, 1955.

Pauley, Rebecca Davis. The Ties That Bind: The History of the Pally/Palli/Pauley Family. Madison, SD: Self-published, 1983.

Quinn, Todd, Karl Benedict, and Jeff Dickey. “Ligia Grischa: A Successful Swiss Colony on the Dakota Territory Frontier.” Great Plains Quarterly 32 (Fall 2012): 247–260.
http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3808&context=greatplainsquarterly/

Tambornino, Rita M. Tambornino Family Heritage. Decorah, IA: Amundsen Publishing, 1995.

Schelbert, Leo. Historical Dictionary of Switzerland. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Scheller family papers. Personal collection of Therese Scheller.

Simonett, Justice John E. Oral history interview, 2009. Minnesota Supreme Court Historical Society Oral History Project, Minnesota State Law Library, St. Paul.

Switzerland Is Yours. Romansh.
http://switzerland.isyours.com/e/guide/graubunden/romansh.html/

St. Henry the Emperor Church records. Le Sueur County Historical Society Archives, Elysian, Minnesota.

“A Well-Known St. Henry Citizen.” Leader Democrat, January 4, 1917.

Zwicki, Jeanne. A Century of Swiss History. St. Paul: Swiss Benevolent Society of St. Paul, Minnesota, 2013.

Related Images

Photograph of the DeGonda Family
Photograph of the DeGonda Family
Photograph of Simonet Furniture Store
Photograph of Simonet Furniture Store
Photograph of Stillwater, circa 1885
Photograph of Stillwater, circa 1885
Photograph of Joseph Wolf Brewing Company
Photograph of Joseph Wolf Brewing Company
Portraits of members of the Simonet and Wolf families
Portraits of members of the Simonet and Wolf families
Photograph of farmers and threshing machine, ca. 1900
Photograph of farmers and threshing machine, ca. 1900
Photograph of John E. Simonett
Photograph of John E. Simonett
Photograph of highway waymarker for Badus Colony
Photograph of highway waymarker for Badus Colony
Map of languages spoken in Graubunden, Switzerland
Map of languages spoken in Graubunden, Switzerland
Map of Swiss cantons with Graubunden highlighted
Map of Swiss cantons with Graubunden highlighted

Turning Point

In 1854, forty-five Romansh immigrant families emigrate from Graubünden, Switzerland, to Stillwater, Minnesota. The city soon becomes the gateway for Romansh immigration to the state.

Chronology

1852

Two Romansh men from the canton Graubünden in Switzerland arrive in Minnesota; sent to locate farmland for Romansh immigrants, they help found the St. Henry Colony in Le Sueur County.

1854

A group of forty-five Romansh immigrant families arrives in Stillwater, which becomes the gateway for Romansh immigration to Minnesota.

1859

Members of the St. Henry Colony in Le Sueur County found St. Henry the Emperor Catholic Church.

1860

The United States census documents the establishment and growth of Romansh settlements in Minnesota’s Washington and Le Sueur Counties.

1861

Romansh immigrants in Minnesota join the Minnesota Volunteers and serve in the Civil War; Anton Simonet is the first Minnesota volunteer to be mustered in for cavalry duty.

1864 or 1867

Simonet Furniture Store is founded in Stillwater by master carpenter Sebastian Simonet.

1868

Brothers Joseph and Martin Wolf found the Joseph Wolf Brewing Company in Stillwater; it becomes one of the largest breweries in Minnesota before closing in 1925 as a casualty of Prohibition.

1878

The Stillwater Romansh establish Badus Colony in Ramona, South Dakota.

1980

John E. Simonett, a member of the of Le Center Simonett family, is appointed an Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court by Governor Al Quie; he serves until 1994.

1981

The Joseph Wolf Brewing Company building in Stillwater is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1994

Governor Arne Carlson appoints Anne V. Simonett, a daughter of Justice Simonett, Chief Judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals; she is the first woman to hold the office. Two years later he appoints Anne’s sister, Martha, a District Court Judge.

2003

Dave Simonett helps found the Duluth-based, bluegrass-folk-rock band Trampled by Turtles.

2007

Justice John E. Simonett is named one of the 100 most influential attorneys in Minnesota history by the American Judges Association.

2013

The Swiss Benevolent Society of St. Paul publishes A Century of Swiss History by Jeanne Zwicki.

2018

The number of native Romansh speakers is less than 1 percent of the Swiss population and about 15 percent of the Graubünden population. There are no known native Romansh speakers in Minnesota.