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The Romansh weren’t Minnesota’s largest immigrant group, but they made a big impact

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Joseph Wolf Brewing Company, ca. 1914. Photograph by John Runk. The Joseph Wolf Brewing Company was the largest brewery outside of the Twin Cities. It closed in 1925, a casualty of Prohibition. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.

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 in 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. In 1860 Anton Simonett, an early St. Paul resident who later moved to the St. Henry Colony, was the first Minnesota volunteer to be mustered into the First Company of Minnesota Volunteer Cavalry for duty in the Civil 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 founded the Simonet Furniture & Carpet Company in Stillwater after returning from his service in the Civil War. It remained in business for 145 years.

The Romansh community in North St. Paul was in the area 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).

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Al Eph on 08/06/2018 - 11:21 am.

    A very interesting article

    It’s always enjoyable learning about parts of our collective history that may otherwise be forgotten.

    One small correction: In the second to last paragraph, the area described as being in North St. Paul is actually in the north end of Saint Paul. North St. Paul is a separate municipality about seven miles east of this area.

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