Avoided Swiss Military Service

Family dissolved in the great melting pot.

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My great-grandparents, Simon and Catherine Zeltner, immigrated to America in 1884 with their four children. They came from the Canton of Solothurn in Switzerland. According to my father, Simon did well for himself in Switzerland. He was a weaver and owned a silk factory. In addition, he brewed quantities of wine and whiskey for sale. Economics was not the factor influencing his coming to America. My father recalled that as a child he heard his grandfather speak of "the fever." In the 1880s an immigration fever apparently swept much of Europe. Simon was caught up in this desire to come to the new frontiers of America. In addition, Simon did not want his sons to be drafted into the Swiss military service.

My Great-Grandmother Catherine did not "catch" the immigration fever. She fought against coming to America, engaging in tears and tantrums in Switzerland before the trip; she continued her emotional binges in America. She was never happy here, and she refused to learn the language. Her grandchildren considered her disagreeable.

Simon had at least two brothers. John came to America some years before Simon and settled in St. Joseph, Missouri. He was a mason, hauling sand and rock from the Missouri River. The other brother went to the state of Washington and owned land where the city of Seattle was built. He made a fortune selling off his land and became a hero to the family because he was rich. My father heard about him constantly during his childhood but never saw him; he did not come to Missouri and Kansas to visit his poor relatives.

When I was a child, my Grandfather Gus told me many times of the sea voyage from Le Havre. Once, standing on deck, his new hat blew off and floated over the waves while he helplessly watched. The family feared Ellis Island. They worried that some unknown health problem would prevent their entering the country. These fears were unnecessary, as they were a hardy bunch.

After the family cleared Ellis Island, they were assigned a guide who spoke German. This guide accompanied them to New York and on the immigrant train west, never leaving them until they reached St. Joseph, Missouri. They "wintered" with the John Zeltner family. In the spring the family moved to a farm in Doniphan County, Kansas, and lived happily ever after-more or less. Everyone concentrated on learning the language, except contrary Catherine. For six months they all went to school to learn English. They must have worked diligently because my Grandfather Gus spoke without a European accent.

It seems strange to me, but apparently the Simon Zeltner family came to America and never looked back. They dissolved in the great melting pot. My father could not remember that they maintained any sustained correspondence or ties with Switzerland. They never exhibited any desire to return for a visit. My grandfather once told me that when they saw the flat, fertile land of Kansas, it was a love affair at first sight. Even after the Great Depression, when Gus could have afforded to travel, he told me he had no desire to return. Perhaps they were intoxicated with America's freedoms. Who really knows what visions danced in their heads.

Bernice Zeltner Rounds
Severance, Kansas


Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.