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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 6.

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

Week 6 – Maps.

Some years ago, my husband came across an 1896 publication of the Société Neuchâteloise de Géographie in a second-hand bookshop. It drew his attention because it contained a map which showed sailing routes and times from Europe to various parts of the globe, and in our family history research we had already come across distant relatives who had emigrated overseas. I decided to use this map (a portion of which is shown below) as a starting point for this week’s blog and to write about one of my husband’s distant relatives whose reason for emigrating I found particularly interesting.

Auguste Roulet was born in Les Ponts-de-Martel on 6 February 1782 and belonged to a family which had lived locally since at least early 1500s. He was baptised and confirmed in the Swiss Reformed church but converted to the Mennonite faith and married Marie (or Maria) Stähli on 1 January 1814. Marie, whose Mennonite parents had migrated to Neuchâtel from the canton of Bern, was born in Les Ponts-de-Martel on 6 September 1792.

Auguste and Marie’s oldest son to survive past infancy, Philippe, was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds on 16 April 1828 and like his siblings grew up bilingual: Neuchâtel is a French-speaking canton and French was his father’s mother tongue, but the small local Mennonite community was made up principally of Swiss German-speaking migrants who retained their own dialect among themselves.

When Philippe was a child, the modern-day canton of Neuchâtel was ruled by Friedrich-Wilhelm IV of Prussia, but following the revolution of 1848 it became a republic and was one of the first parts of Switzerland to accord liberty of worship to the Mennonite church and grant citizenship to its members. However, with rights came obligations, and in 1852 the Mennonite community officially lost their exemption from the military service which was compulsory for all able-bodied Swiss men. As pacifism was a tenet of their faith, this obviously posed a problem, and some started to look overseas as a solution.

Philippe didn’t leave immediately, but in 1867 he and his young family set sail for America. Did he foresee the approaching Franco-Prussian war, when military service could mean active involvement for the Swiss army, or did he have other reasons? Perhaps he was in contact with other Neuchâtel Mennonites who had already left and encouraged him to join them? He had married Marianne Schindler in 1859 and left Switzerland with her and their four young children, one of whom would die before their ship reached America.

Iron-hulled ships with compound steam engines and screw propulsion now crossed the Atlantic in 8-9 days, only a little slower than the routes shown on the 1896 map, but first the Roulet family had to travel overland from Switzerland to their port of departure. They travelled on the Medway, which left from Antwerp (“Anvers” on the map above), but they may have joined the ship at Le Havre, which was most common starting point for Swiss emigrants. They arrived in New York on 2 May 1867, before embarking on an arduous journey by train to Pulaski, Iowa, a little over 1,000 miles away.

There had been a Mennonite presence in Pulaski since 1850 and a church was constructed in 1864: Philippe would become its minister soon after his arrival. Sadly, Marianne didn’t live long enough to enjoy their new life in America. Having lost an infant on the voyage, she gave birth to three more children in Iowa, but died at the age of 42, when her youngest son was just three months old. Philippe married a second time to Fanny Honderich in 1872 and had nine more children: the youngest, Philip, was born when he was 61 years old.

Philippe’s oldest sister, Marianne, married Christian Schlunegger in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1848 and they emigrated to Pulaski with their children and grandchildren in 1874 when they were in their early 60s. (Their surname was anglicised to Slonaker.) The youngest sister, Julie Roulet, married Christian Peter Aeschlimann, and their youngest daughter Sophie Julie also emigrated to Pulaski, where she married her cousin Christian Schlunegger/Slonaker.

I have to wonder if these courageous emigrants really knew what their journey would involve, even if they were in contact those who had preceded them. Did they have access to maps showing just how far way their destination was, or did they head into the unknown sustained by faith? In either case I can only admire their courage and determination.

I’ve written more about the canton of Neuchâtel as well as the emigration of Mennonites (and other groups) from the canton on our personal family history website.

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