Swiss Saints in St. George: Integration and Isolation

Swiss Saints in St. George: Integration and Isolation
Mormon History Association, St. George Utah
by Paul K. Savage, © 1992, 2011

At the 1861 October general conference, Brigham Young, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter,day Saints, announced that a number of the Saints were soon to be called on a mission; namely, he desired to send “a number of Swiss and other brethren to go into the Southern part of the Territory … to raise cotton, indigo, grapes, figs and such other articles as cannot be raise in the northern counties. Flax, hemp, wool and silk, he observed, we can raise here as well as any other part of the world.”l

Daniel Bonneli, who had arrived the previous year from Switzerland was asked to read the names of Swiss brethren who were selected to be part of the mission. Next, President Young stood and said”regarding the rest of the group to be sent”that “as the brethren did not choose to volunteer for this mission, the Presidency and the Twelve would make the selections, and they would expect the brethren to go and stay until they are released.”2

Numbered arnong the Dixie pioneefs Wefe six families from the Ogden area, some of ~hom had volunteered for the mission subsequent to general conference. But missing from the official lists of missionaries were six additional families from Weber County. These were the families of Hans Ulrich Bryner Sr., his blind son Hans Ulrich Bryner Jr., another son Casper Bryner, son,in,law John Mathis, Heinrich Gubler, and Jacob or Heinrich Schier. These unlisted families were Swiss. Curiously, they did not travel with Daniel Bonelli’s group to Santa Clara, nor did Bonelli number them among the Swiss that were called to Dixie. They travelled instead in the midst of a stream of Yankees and Englishmen3, arriving at the Old Adobe Yard in St. George some time after the other Swiss had found their way to Santa Clara in late November of 1861.4

These six Swiss families in St. George constitute in some ways a forgotten chapter in the history of St. George. Some of them moved away or passed away before they had time to make much of an impact in the new community. But others lived out their entire lives in their Dixie home, playing quiet yet significant roles in the movements of the late nineteenth century.

The question of why these families chose to live in St. George, rather than joining their countrymen in Santa Clara, has not been addressed by Dixie’s historians. The absence of diaries for these settlers has lessened, perhaps, our hopes of ever coming to a complete understanding of their motives. But enough evidence does exist for us to paint a preliminary picture of who these folks were and how they got along in the red soiled desert they called home.

The Bryner and Mathis families were most prominent among the St. George Swiss. They had been numbered among the first converts in German speaking Switzerland, having responded to the preaching of Elder George Mayer in the Spring of 1854, shortly after Heinrich Hug, of whom Dr. Tobler has spoken. Members of the Hug, Bryner and Mathis families comprised the majority of the first emigration party from Switzerland, led to Zion by Elder Mayer in 1855.  Other members of the Bryner and Mathis families followed over the next several years.

Unlike the Hugs, who settled in Salt Lake City, the Bryner and Mathis families made their first home in Lehi, and in 1859 they moved to the new settlement of Plain City near Ogden. Casper Bryner had the distinction of being called to participate in the cotton growing experiment in Dixie 1858 and 1859 under the direction of Joseph Horne. They located, of course, several miles South of here and produced successful crops, thus helping prove to Brigham Young that the Dixie climate would support the culture of cotton. But Casper otherwise made his home near his sister Barbara who had married John Mathis shortly after their arrival in Utah.

In 1860, the Mathis family and the Bryner families were joined by the Henry Gubler family. The following year, Henry’s sister Magdalena would marry Casper Bryner. Henry also had two brothers who were eventually called to the Cotton Mission by Daniel Bonelli, but Henry opted to remain with his sister and the Bryner and Mathis families. At some point prior to the fall.of 1861, Jacob Schier, who was baptized in 1858, also joined the small group of Swiss near Ogden.5 Jacob Schier’s presence in Ogden prior to the Call to Dixie seems to be the only thing to connect him to the other St. George Swiss.

Nevertheless, all of these families decided to stick together when they arrived in Dixie. It is possible that one of the reasons for their decision to stay in St. George was the fact that Santa Clara was already well populated with Swiss by the time the Ogden Swiss arrived in Dixie. The Bryner and Mathis families were more established in Weber County than most of the newly arrived Swiss who were in the Salt Lake area. Hence they were not able to head South as quickly as the Swiss led by BonnelL Perhaps they felt that the best land in Santa Clara would already have been spoken for.

It is not known exactly when the Ogden Swiss arrived in Dixie, but we do know that they were still in the North as late as November 11th, when John Mathis took his wife Barbara’s cousin Magdaiena Wintsch as a piurai wife in the Endowment House, becoming perhaps the first of the German Swiss to enter into the Principle.

Nevertheless, for whatever reason, when it came time to draw for lots in St. George, the Ogden Swiss were there to get their parcels of land. Many of the people were perfectly satisfied with the lot they drew; others did a little trading among themselves.6 The Swiss families seem to be among the group that traded, resulting in the settlement of all the families on the same block~~number six~~in the Southwest Corner of the new city. This block was just below the black ridge, putting them close the Santa Clara River. The soil in the area was heavily laden with alkali and was slightly less populated than the blocks closer to the middle of St. George. Because of the presence of so many Swiss families on the block, it became known as Swiss Block to the inhabitants of St. George. The only non~Swiss family living there was that of James Tarleton Blair, who was also from the Ogden area.

For some reason, nearby block number five was uninhabited and at some point John Mathis was able to purchase or otherwise acquire the use of half of that land for farming and to house his stock. 7 Farm lands outside of the city were also distributed to the cotton missionaries. The first farms for John Mathis and Henry Gubler were apparently located in the Washington field, although there seems to be little public record of their activity there.8 The Bryner families, on the other hand seem to have acquired land in the Santa Clara field. Before too many years had passed however, John Mathis, purchased some of the Bryner land in the Santa Clara field, yet it continued to be known as the “Bryner field.”9

Hans Ulrich Bryner, Sr., the patriarch of the Bryner and Mathis families and one of the more well to do among the Cotton Missionaries, earned a tragic place for himself in the history books. In the Spring of 1862, he fell from a load of hay and struck his back on a ledge. His back had already been injured badly several years before while crossing the plains; this time the injury would be too much for the aging man. He died in a day or so either the 1st or 3rd of March 1862, thus becoming the first Latter~day Saint to be buried in St. George. His body would later be moved to the first iot of the St. George cemetery.10

Unfortunately, that Spring the Mathis household was shocked again with the death of Magdalena Wintsch Mathis, John’s plural wife of less six months. The cause of death is unknown. Sharing his pain was his wife and in~laws who were also her kin. Magdalena’s parents didn’t hear of her death until several years later when they emigrated from Switzerland expecting to find their daughter in Salt Lake City waiting for them; While waiting to cross the plains in Florence, word reached them. Magdalena had died in Dixie. 11

Despite the loss of their loved ones, life had to go on. The work was hard, but the hardy Swiss had never shown themselves as the type to shirk work. Magdalena Gubler Bryner was probably typical of the women on Swiss block; a nephew, calling on her home one morning, “learned that she had given birth to a baby during the night, but was up and about doing her household and farm chores. She always worked in the fields as well as in her home. She helped to build their house … [by carrying] the bricks in her apron.”12

But life wasn’t all work for the Saints. They were, after all, first and foremost a religious people. Accordingly, one of the first undertakings for the people was to organize themselves religiously. On 22 March 1862 the ecclesiastical organization for St. George was established. Swiss block was included in the Saint George second ward~~there were four wards in Saint Georgenand Ute Perkins was called to be Bishop over both the first and second wards. Before the turn of the century, the distinction of being Bishop to the second ward would also fall upon Henry Eyring, who was a German and had married a Bonneli, Walter Granger, and George F. Jarvis.

The Swiss in St. George, like the Swiss in Santa Clara, were not given leadership positions in the Church for several years. Hans Ulrich Bryner Sr.and Hans Ulrich Bryner Jr. both came to Dixie holding the office of High Priest. The other Swiss men were Seventies. But Hans Ulrich Sr. died before St. George was organized ecclesiastically, and Hans Ulrich Jr. was blind and soon moved North to New Harmony. Barbara Mathis would eventually be caiied to serve as a counselior in the relief society presidency and in the late 1880s and in the early 1890s would serve as President. Barbara’s Brother Casper served as a missionary to his native land of Switzerland in 1880 and as a high councilman in his later years. John Mathis became an assistant Sunday school superintendent in the 1880s. Henry Gubler, who died in 1876, appears to have not held a prominent position.13

Nevertheless, they participated in many of the other activities in the new community. They donated funds to build public buildings,14 and when the call came from Edward R. Hunter, Presiding Bishop of the Church, for the residents of Washington County help supply wagons, teams, and supplies for a trip back East to help immigrants cross the plains, John Mathis and his younger brother Henry Mathis who arrived in Dixie in 1862 responded to the call. The church train system, called “the science of Oxteamology” by John W. Young15 , would go on to serve the Church in bringing over eighteen thousand emigrants to Utah between 1861 and the completion of the railroad in 1869.16 Over the course of the next several years, John Mathis and his brother Henry made at least two trips back east17 under the direction of the Church Train System.

The arrival of Henry Mathis in Dixie served to strengthen the Swiss in St. George, for he helped in the construction of their log houses in the winter of 1862. But he and Ulrich Bryner Jr. would soon travel northward and make their homes in New Harmony. Henry Mathis would become a permanent resident of New Harmony and would later help with the construction of roads and telegraph lines. Ulrich Bryner, though blind, entered into the principle of plural marriage in a few years, housing one of his families in Tocquerville where he entered the wine business in partnership with the Naegeli’s. This left on Swiss Block the families of Casper Bryner~~along with his widowed mother~~ John Mathis, Henry Gubler and Jacob Schier. Eventually, the Bryner, Mathis, and Gubler families built adobe homes, although when they were constructed isn’t known.18

Life on Swiss Block does not appear to have been any different than the typical Dixie experience. But the work on the farm was probably less exciting than the controversy on Swiss biock in January of 1864, when Henry Gubler was tried for larceny. There were no witnesses for the defense, but the prosecution suppiied three witnesses: Samuel Worthen, Charles Smith, and Swiss block’s own Jacob Schier. The honorable Hoseah Stout Esq. served as Henry’s defense attorney. No other details of the case are known except that Jesse W. Crosby, acting as jury foreman, returned the following verdict: “We the jurors sworn to try the case of people etc. vs. Henry Gubler for larceny find the
prisoner not guilty.”19

What the alleged crime was in not known, but it appears that Jacob Schier moved away from St. George within the next couple of years, if not immediately. His lot was purchased by Tarleton Blair. Whether Schier’s decision to leave the area was influenced by this falling out with Henry Gubler has not been determined, but life in St. George was hard enough for most folks that they didn’t need much impetus to inspire them to leave. In March 1864 Erastus Snow took an inventory which indicated the level of poverty and out’ migration from St. George. Fifty,four families are listednless than half of the original settlers.20 It deserves mentioning, however, that this census does not include the members of the second ward. Living on the outskirts of the town, it would appear that they were often among the last to hear of public gatherings etc.

Many of the missionaries sent to Dixie participated in various trades, but the St. George Swiss were all farmers through and through. The main emphasis for the settlers in the early years was the cotton crop. Little did anyone suspect that they would have difficulty disposing of it. The Swiss were among the few who knew what to do with cotton. They did their own carding, spinning, and weaving. The process was slow, but their hands were skilled, and using roots for dyes, they managed to produce durable and attractive clothing. Most missionaries, however, hoped to sell their raw cotton up North and were disappointed when buyers were few.

The St. George Swiss were fortunate to have land along the Santa Clara, although the competition for water was the cause of much frustration among the Santa Clara Swiss. The rich soil brought forth good, healthy crops. The St. George Clara Field was especially suited for growing wheat, and it was often to these fields that the people of St. George would look for salvation when the unruly Virgen River refused to cooperate with farmers on the other side of the valley. Appropriately, these plots of land came to be known as the “Wheatfields.” Casper Bryner and John Mathis were among the most successful farmers in the Clara fields,21 but the challenges for farmers in the Virgen River Basin remained considerable. Droughts, Floods, and Grasshoppers took turns playing havoc with crops. One year the grasshoppers, who often did their worst damage in the hills and outlying regions of St. George, got so bad that they even fell upon crops within the St. George city limits. A Newspaper editor writes:

  • These pests continue to trouble us, and notwithstanding all the efforts of the people who have been most energetically fighting them, they have succeeded in destroying considerable wheat. On Wednesday evening they came an army from the hills upon the garden of Mr. C[asper]. Breners in the Southwest corner of the city, and in a few hours destroyed everything in the garden. This is all the damage yet done in the city that we have learned of. It has been said by many that grasshoppers would not injure grape vines but that saying has been proved false, as they destroyed all Mr. Brener’s grapes.22

The other residents on Swiss blocks were probably not spared a similar fate. Still, despite such hardships, the Swiss managed to survive and in favorable seasons were not only successful in raising crops of cotton and wheat, but also alfalfa, or Lucerne as it was called, and barley and various garden vegetables and fruits. They were adept at making wine as well.

The Swiss women, like many sisters, also responded to the encouragement of Brigham Young to engage in the production of silk. Mulberry Trees planted in these 1870s can still be seen on Swiss Block. They also participated in St. George’s attempt at establishing a United Order. The organization was established during the winter of 1873-1874, becoming the first of over one~hundred and fifty organizations based upon the Order of Enoch started under the direction of Brigham Young. Later in 1874 year John Mathis, [T]arlton Blair; and Henry Gubler were added, among others, to the existing list of those desiring to members of the United Order in St. George.23 In August of 1875, members began submitting themselves to baptism and confirmation into the St. George Stake United Order. The first members from Swiss block to receive baptism into the United Order were two teen~aged best friends: Mary Gubler, daughter of Henry, and Lena Mathis, daughter of John and Barbara. On 16 December 1875, the girls’ parents and the other adults on Swiss block were baptized.24 When the United Order failed, the Swiss were also among those who expressed joy over the cooperation but frustration with the distribution.

United Order record books also show that the number of Swiss in St. George had grown since the settlement of Swiss Block over a decade before. Families by the name of Sturzenegger, Schultz, Ruesch, Schmutz, Schiess, Kunztler, Hunziker, and Rohner all received baptism into the St. George United Order.2s Some records suggest that the Sturzeneggers may have settled for a short time on Swiss block,26 but otherwise these families lived scattered throughout the city. Doubtless, these Swiss families shared in the challenges of adapting to life in St. George.

Swiss involvement in community affairs, like their involvement in church leadership, increased only gradually. One of the major barriers for many of the immigrants was language. The residents of Swiss Block had benefitted from a fine education system in Switzerland, and therefore felt strongly about the importance of education for their children. Their younger children had been raised speaking mostly Swiss German, and schooling gave them a much needed opportunity to learn the English language properly. No doubt the English lessons taught to the children in school carried over into the home and became a blessing for the parents as well. Swiss German fascinated some of the children’s schoolmates, who would sometimes line them up against the wall and force them to speak in their native dialect. Later children didn’t learn German in the home, but many did get the opportunity to learn it as missionaries later on. It became a sort of secret language that the adults could use when they didn’t want the children to know what they were taiking about.27

Even after mastering the mechanics of English, the first generation Swiss were unable to lose their native accents. John Mathis, for example, would often worry about whether he was making his molasses “too sick or too sin,” his Swiss upbringing never fully allowing him to master the “th” sound that is so common in English but not in German.28 Entries into the relief society records books, in the late 1880s probably recorded by Barbara Mathis, show an interesting and sometimes almost humorous blend of German and English.29

Language barriers were overcome, however, and the residents of Swiss block eventually participated in most of the major movements of the day. Henry Gubler participated in the affairs of the Rio Virgen Irrigation Company and both Casper Bryner and John Mathis served terms on the board of the Santa Clara Irrigation Company. The also participated in Rio Virgen Manufacturing Company, and Canaan Stock Cooperative. And perhaps most memorably, they assisted with the constructing of the St. George temple. Their hands were unskilled in matters of construction, but they could haul materials. And on at least one occasion, they sent chickens to the workers to eat, while the children grumbled, envying the workers for the meat that would not be available to eat at their own table.30

The families also participated in Polygamy. Casper Bryner took a plural wife in 1869, and would later serve a term in prison for it. John Mathis lost his first plural wife shortly after they arrived in Dixie. But in 1874 he would marry again. John Mathis went to conference in Salt Lake that year, just in time to meet a newly arrived Swiss sister named Sophie Ruesch, a trained medical doctor whom Brigham Young was anxious to send to Dixie to help the Saints there. So Brigham married them. Needless to say, there was quite a stir in the Mathis home when John returned from conference with another wife. This marriage ended in a divorce after several years.

But Sophie Ruesch’s medical training served the Saints well, especially the Swiss in Santa Clara. When her heaith began to faii after a few years, her medical instruments were given to Silas Higgins, who continued to use them for many years.

The Bryner, Mathis, and Gubler families endured the hardships of pioneer life and stayed faithful to their convictions to the end. Henry Gubler passed away in 1876. John Mathis lived to see one of his sons called on a mission to Switzerland, but John died in 1899, just weeks before his return. Casper Bryner died in 1906, just one year after his brother Hans Ulrich Jr. who was in St. George doing genealogy and temple work at the time of his death. Barbara Mathis lived until 1920. She was survived by only four of the ten children to whom she had given birth.

In most regards, the Swiss in St. George seem to have been fully integrated into St. George society. In some respects, however, the first generation Swiss remained somewhat to themselves. Cultural and linguistic barriers arising from their Swiss heritage seem to have been overcome. Yet they were aware that despite the ideal, all men were not equal in their temporal world. The children grew up recognizing that there were “upper crusts” and “lower crusts” in society. The Snows, Woodburys, and Eyrings, for example, were considered the “upper crusts,” and the Swiss Block folks were among the “lower crusts. “31 This distinction was not based on heritage, however, but rather on socioeconomic standing. Farmers would remain farmers, and few would rise to real positions of prominence in society. It is worth mentioning, however, that Sophie Ruesch Mathis’s daughter, recognized that that there was not only an upper crust and a lower crust, but also a crust that belonged to the children of divorced polygamists and those who knew real poverty. But somehow, in the long run, things have a way of equalizing themselves. The children of the lower crust sometimes become the upper crust of a new generation, and vice versa.

Perhaps the important thing for us to remember from all of this is that it is not so important whether we are upper crust or lower crust, rather we should focus on trying to be good crusts. My experience with the folks on Swiss Block would suggest that by and large, they not only tried, but succeeded.


1 Journal History, 7 October 1861, 1.

2 Journal History, 7 October 1861, 2

3 The missionaries who stayed in St. George were comprised of about one-third British Saints, two-fifths from the North-Eastern United States, one-fourth from the South and Midwest, and a handful from Europe. See Larry M Logue.

4 Gubler, “History of Santa Clara–Washington County” in Under Dixie Sun, 161.

5 Little is known about Jacob Schier but the History of the St. George Stake shows that he came from the Ogden area. See History of the St. George Stake, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City.

6 Under Dixie Sun, 295.

7 Reed Mathis of St. George, Interview by author, 19 February 1990, St. George, tape recording. Reed Mathis’ son, great-grandson of John Mathis still lives in a house on Block five.

8 Henry Gubler participated in the activities of the Rio Virgen Irrigation Co.

9 Kent McComb of St. George, interview by author, 19 February 1990, St. George, tape recording.

10 Lura Redd, 7. Genealogical records give the death date as March 1st, but James Bleak records the death date as 3 March 1862: “the first adult death in St. George occurred on Monday 3rd March, 1862 in the departure on Ulrich Bryner Sen., who was born 1806.” James Bleak, Annals, Book A, 100.

11 Grace Mitchell of St. George, interview .

12 Cannon, 689.

13 History of the St. George 2nd Ward, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City.

14 Bleak, Annals, Book A, 86-87.

15 Allen and Leonard, 326-7.

16 John K. Hulmston, “Mormon Immigration in 1860s: the Story of the Church Trains,” Utah Historical Quarterly 58:1 (Winter 1990), 32-48. Allen and Leonard give the number of emigrants assisted by the Church Trains as more than sixteenth thousand.

17 Blanche McComb, “Barbara Ann Bryner Mathis,” 2. See also Utah A Centennial History: Personal and Family Records vol. iii (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., Inc., 1949), 435 which says John Mathis “made several trips across the plains to guide immigrants across the deserts to this newly founded oasis of civilization, Utah.” That these trips were a part of the Church Train System is a logical assumption.

18 Murray Mathis of Price, Utah, interview 20 December 1990.

19 Washington County Court Records, 12 January, 1864. Jacob Schier’s last name is spelled Schearer in the court record.

20 Logue, 8.

21 Albert E. Miller, The Immortal Pioneers: Founders of City of St. George, Utah (n.p.: Albert E. Miller, 1946),80-81.

22 The Cactus, 24 April 1869, quoted in Larson, ( Was Called to Dixie, 133.

23 Bleak, Annals, book B, 330.

24 St. George Stake United Order, Record of Baptisms and Confirmations, August 1875 to 1877, LDS Church Archives. Sophie Ruesch is not listed among those who baptized into the United Order.

25 St. George Stake United Order, Record of Baptisms and Confirmation, Aug 1875 to 1877, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City.

26 Some maps attributed ownership of the lot owned by Jacob Schier to John Sturzenegger. But by 1875, the lot was owned by Tarleton Blair.

27 Murray Mathis, interview.

28 Murray Mathis, interview.

29 Minutes, St. George 2nd Ward Relief Society, LOS Church Archives, Salt Lake City.

30 Murray Mathis, interview.

31 lbid.