1814 - Giachen Martin Beer
Jacob Martin Beer was born Giachen Martin Beer in the village of Surrein, Kreis Disentis (Disentis county) in Val Tujetsch (the Tujetsch or Tavetsch Valley) at the far western end of Canton Graubünden, Switzerland on March 18, 1814. His name was registered at birth both as as Giachen Martin Beer and Jacobus Martinus Beer.
Jacob Martin was the Anglicized name which he used as a U.S. citizen, Giachen Martin was his Swiss Romansh given name, and Jacobus Martinus was the way his name was recorded in Swiss official records which were written in Latin.
Alternative spellings and language variations are not uncommon in Canton Graubünden. Today, it has three official languages: German, Italian and Romansh. The many valleys of Graubünden were conquered in 15 BCE by the Romans. Romansh is a direct descendant of the Vulgar Latin or lingua rustica spoken by Roman era occupiers, which has survived for over 1600 years in this remote and isolated mountainous region.
Jacob was one of nine children born to Martin Liberat Beer (born in 1770) and Onna Maria Nescha Decurtins (born in 1783). We've traced the Beer family tree back to Jacob's grandfather, Caspar Beer, born about 1745.
Today, the hamlet of Surrein where Martin Beer was born lies on a valley terrace in the municipal district of Tujetsch (or Tavetsch). The Tujetsch district is situated in the Val Tujetsch (Tujetsch Valley), which is situated near the source of the Rhine river.
The Vorderrhein (alternately called the Fore Rhine or Anterior Rhine) begins from mountain streams which flow down Badusberge (Mount Badus) to the idyllic Tomasee or Lake Toma at its foot. The river then flows northeast past the villages of the Tujetsch valley which are clustered on both banks of the river. Val Tujetsch is the upper part of the larger Vorderrheintal (Vorderrhein Valley) which runs from west to east with the Rhine river at its heart.
The villages of Tujetsch are part of the larger Kreis Disentis, one of five counties of the larger district of Surselva (Romansh for “the high forests”), which in turn is one of fourteen districts of Canton Graubünden.
As the Anterior Rhine flows northeast from Tomasee, it passes Sedrun, the major town of Val Tujetsch, where the parish church is situated, built in 1205.
the monastery of St. Martin
Downstream from Sedrun is the town of Disentis (also known as Mustér) where the Benedictine monastery of St. Martin is located. The German name Disentis is derived from the Latin word desertina, describing the wilderness of this area when a wandering Frankish hermit named Sigisbert built his hut there in the year 700, laying the foundation for the creation of the monastery twenty years later.
The village of Disentis is strategically situated at the intersection of the road which comes from Canton Uri in the east across the Oberalp Pass and the road coming from Canton Ticino in the south through the Lukmanier Pass, one of the lowest and most easily accessible passes through the Alps. Because the road to the Lukmanier pass was used by the German emperors of Das Heiligen Römischen Reiches (the Holy Roman Empire) traveling from the north on their way to Italy, Disentis became a place of international importance in the High Middle Ages.
It was at this strategic intersection that the monastery of St. Martin was founded about 720. It is one of the oldest Benedictine monasteries in Europe. In 940, the valley was invaded by the Saracens, Arabian raiders who had established a foothold to the south in Sicily. The monks had to flee to safety in Zurich before returning later to rebuild the abbey. The Baroque collegiate church, dating from 1712, with its two onion-domed towers and rich stucco work and painted ceilings, is one of the most important sacred buildings in Canton Graubünden.
In 1048, the monastery was put under the direct rule of the Emperor. It became a Reichsklöster or imperial abbey, a religious house within the Holy Roman Empire which was answerable directly to the Emperor and was thus a sovereign and independent territory. This status allowed the Reichsabt or imperial abbot the right to demand various taxes and duties and to levy justice within the monastery's territory, which in this case included the villages of the Vorderrheintal (Vorderrhein Valley). This Medieval monastery state was known locally as Cadì. The name derived from a contraction of the Latin "Casa Dei," which means the House of God.
In the later Middle Ages, the farming communities in the valleys became more influential and the power of the monastery decreased, but the abbot of Disentis still played an important leadership role in the founding of the Grauebund (Grey League) in 1395.
the Tujetsch valley
Further downstream from Disentis are the cluster of tiny villages that include Surrein. Its neighbors are Sumvitg, Cumpadials, and Rabius.
In Roman times, the village of Sumvitg was known as Summus Vicus (Supreme Village) and in 1175 it was documented as Summovico (Highest Village). In the Middle Ages, Summovico (Sumvitg) was part of Cadì, the Medieval monastery state of the prince abbot of Disentis.
The village of Surrein lies on the south side of the Vorderrhein across the river from Sumvigt and just upstream from the confluence of a smaller tributary, the Rein da Sumvigt. Surrein is nestled in a triangle of land formed by the two streams.
The Tujetsch valley’s settlement probably began after the foundation of the Monastery in Disentis in the eighth century. Previously, the area of Tujetsch was covered with coniferous forest. The lack of early settlement is testified by the name given to the monastery's location—Disentis is derived from the latin word desertina, indicating a deserted valley.
the Walser people
The villages of Tujetsch were finally settled sometime around the 12th century by a German-speaking people known as the Walser. The Walser people are named after the upper Wallis valley in Canton Valais in southwest Switzerland. They are believed to have originally lived in southwest Germany and settled the upper part of the Wallis about 1000 years ago. From the upper Wallis, they began to spread south, west and east between the 12th and 13th centuries, which is known as the Walser migrations. The Walsers migrated to the upper regions of Tujetsch in the twelfth century, coming from Valais over the Oberalp Pass.
The Walser people imported the German language to the region. Previously, the language of the region had been Romansh, descended from the Vulgar Latin spoken by Roman era occupiers of the region. Romansh is a language closely related to French and North Italian. The Graubünden district of Surselva is one of the few areas in Switzerland that is still mainly Romansh speaking. The village of Disentis is today one of the most important centers of the Romansh language, especially of its Sursilvan dialect.
Canton Graubünden, Switzerland’s largest canton or state, occupies the entire southeast of the country and takes in a huge but sparsely populated area that’s the most culturally diverse in Switzerland. The canton borders Liechtenstein and Austria to the north, and Italy to the east and south. It is known as Graubünden in German, Grigioni in Italian, Grischun in Romansh, and Grisons in French.
Sheer rocky Alpine peaks, thick pine-forested highlands, and over a hundred deep, isolated fertile valleys, make Graubünden the wildest and loneliest part of Switzerland, and very difficult to get around in. Glaciers that form between the high mountains launch two of Europe’s great rivers—the Rhine and the Inn—on their long journeys to the North Sea and the Black Sea respectively.
About a third of the canton is productive land with forests, mountain pastures and vineyards. Pomegranates, figs and chestnuts grow in secluded southern valleys.
Most of the lands of Graubünden were once part of a Roman province called Raetia Prima which was established in 15 BCE. Probably the aboriginal inhabitants, the Raeti, were Celts.
The city of Chur, the ancient capital of the region, was once a Roman fortified camp. It became the seat of the Roman Catholic bishop as early as 451 CE and was known as Curia Rhætorum, from which the name Chur derives. The territory nominally passed to the Ostrogoths (493 CE) and to the Franks (537 CE).
In the ninth century, the bishops of Chur began to attain prominence in the region. They allied themselves with the rising power of the Habsburgs— sometimes against the pope—and were declared princes of Das Heiligen Römischen Reiches (the Holy Roman Empire) in the twelfth century. Their power, however, was checked and gradually broken by three local leagues founded between 1367 and 1436.
The Gray Leagues
In 1367, the League of God’s House (Gotteshausbund) was the first of these popular associations to be formed, followed soon by the Gray League or Grauebund in 1395. In 1436 the League of the Ten Jurisdictions (Zehngerichtebund) joined the other two.
The Grauebund was formed by a band of highland shepherds dubbed “the gray farmers” for their homespun gray wool clothing. These so-called gray farmers included those of the Tujetsch villages who breed the smallest sheep in Switzerland, the Tavetscher sheep.
The three loosely allied leagues, composed of communes and feudal lords, came together in 1471 to pledge mutual assistance, and joined with the cantons of the Swiss Confederation for support. The impenetrable landscape of the hinterland was on their side. The united leagues were soon able to seize political power from the church and the nobles. They became an independent alliance known as Graubünden or Gray Leagues.
In 1798, when Matin Beer was 28 years old, his country was invaded by French troops. The French abolished the Swiss Confederation and replaced the loose confederation with the centralized Helvetic Republic. Once Switzerland had been drawn into the French sphere of influence, it could not escape the war that raged through Europe for the next 16 years. In 1799 it was an unwilling battleground as Austrian and Russian troops tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the French. The presence of large numbers of foreign troops impoverished the country.
The region around Disentis was the scene of bitter fights with the invading French, who in 1799 set fire to the village and the monastery after a rising of the local people.
Graubünden changed hands several times between the French and the Austrians in 1799-1800, but the French were eventually victorious. However, the Helvetic Republic soon proved unworkable, and the country slid into civil war. The Swiss were divided mainly between "Republicans" who were in favor of a centralized government, and "Federalists" who wanted to restore autonomy to the cantons. The violent conflict between both sides was never-ending.
In Paris in 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte organized a meeting of the leading Swiss politicians from both sides. The result was the Act of Mediation which largely restored Swiss autonomy and introduced a Confederation of 19 Cantons—the 13 original cantons and six new ones, including Graubünden. This was the first change in Confederation membership since 1513. From then on much of Swiss politics would be about preserving the cantons' right to self-rule and the need for a central government.
The tide turned against Napoleon after the failure of his 1812 Russian campaign, and the Allies—led by Austria—worked to undermine French influence in Switzerland. The pre-revolutionary authorities took over again in Switzerland at the end of 1813, and under a new Federal Pact signed in August 1815 the cantons recovered their sovereignty in all matters except foreign affairs. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 fully re-established Swiss independence and the European powers agreed to permanently recognize the Swiss neutrality.
Giachen Martin Beer
This was the period of Swiss history into which Jacob Martin Beer was born on March 18, 1814. His father Martin Liberat Beer had been born on January 26, 1770. Liberat is Latin for “to liberate.” In some documents he is called Martin Caspar Beer. Perhaps his full name was Martin Liberat Caspar Beer or Martin Caspar Liberat Beer. He was 44 when Jacob was born.
Jacob’s mother Nescha Decurtins was born Onna Maria Nescha Decurtins. She was known in official Latin documents as Anna Maria Agnetis Decurtins. Nescha and Agnetis are both forms of Agnes, the saint who was martyred because she wanted to be a perpetual virgin and refused to marry. Nescha Decurtins was born on March 21, 1783 and was 31 at Jacob’s birth. She and Martin were most likely married around 1805.
Jacob was the fifth of nine children born to the couple.
Records show that the last five children were all born in the village of Surrein. There is no reason to doubt that the first four were born there as well.
Surrein is an agricultural community in a fertile valley—wheat, potatoes and flax are grown and dairy cattle are raised.
We have no other information about Jacob Martin Beer in Switzerland after his birth until his emigration to the United States.
1854 - emigration
The Port of New York passenger lists show Jacob Beer arriving in New York on February 27, 1854. His age was 39.
He sailed from Le Havre, France on a ship named Le Havre captained by A. B. Mulford.
Jacob was listed simply as a farmer from Switzerland—one among many farmers who were traveling on the ship. He traveled in steerage.
What we do know is that there were significant economic incentives to make him leave Switzerland sometime around the mid-1850s and travel to the United States.
The restoration of the largely autonomous cantons in 1803 was an obstacle to economic development, as each canton once again minted its own money, levied tolls and customs and had its own system of weights and measures. Doing business between cantons was as complicated as doing it with foreign countries. Development was also hindered by the fact that people were restricted from settling in a canton other than their own.
In 1848 a new national constitution was adopted, which gave the country a more centralized government and created a single economic area. The new government abolished internal tolls, unified weights, measures and the currency, and took charge of the postal system.
Advertisements appeared regularly in Swiss newspapers, placed by travel agencies catering to the demand for emigration. The more reliable of these agencies offered organized crossings of the Atlantic from Le Havre for 80-100 Swiss francs, depending on the number of passengers. Food on board cost about 40 Swiss francs, and typically consisted of biscuits, flour, butter, ham, salt, potatoes and vinegar. With this the emigrants prepared their own meals. In addition, there was the cost of overland transport in a diligence (a fast French stage coach) to Le Havre (about 60 Swiss francs) and food for the 4 or 5 days spent on the coach.
Clippers crossed the Atlantic in less than 20 days, making the crossing far less of an ordeal than for the earlier pioneers. In 1857, the agency of André Zwilchenbart at Basle advertised regular packet-boat sailings for New York, and 3-mast American ships sailing to New Orleans. 33 years later, in 1880, the same agency advertised steamship passages to North America, Canada and South America.
Groups of people from the same Swiss canton tended to travel together. Many towns, particularly in the Americas, are named after the cantons from which their founders came. Highland, Illinois is part of Helvetia Township in Madison County.
From New York City, Jacob Beer traveled to Highland in Madison County, Illinois.
Highland is a city in Madison County, Illinois about 32 miles east of St. Louis. As the oldest and largest Swiss settlement in Illinois, Highland attracted some 1,500 Swiss settlers and at one point was home to more Swiss immigrants than any other U.S. city.
In April 1831, Kaspar (Caspar) Köpfli, together with his son Solomon and friend Joseph Suppiger, led fourteen German-speaking settlers from the Köpfli and Suppiger families to America to establish a Swiss settlement in the western United States. Köpfli (1774-1854), a well-to-do doctor from Sursee, Canton Lucerne, saw Europe's problems as being caused by overpopulation, and decided to establish a settlement in the United States so that Swiss families could start a new, more hopeful life.
The trip from Switzerland to Paris took sixteen days. Seven more weeks were required to sail from France to New York, and another month was spent to cross the country from New York to St. Louis. After reaching St. Louis, they began the search for farm land. On a trip through Illinois, they were attracted to an area called Looking Glass Prairie and decided to settle there. They purchased 1,000 acres at $2.70 an acre and founded the township of New Switzerland. The township was soon renamed Helvetia, the Latin name for their Swiss homeland. In 1833, seventeen more emigrants arrived from Sursee, and in 1835 about fifty more came.
On October 15, 1836, the town of Highland was founded to serve the farms of the township. The site was selected by Solomon Köpfli, Joseph Suppiger, and James Semple, then speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. In honor of Semple, who was of Scottish heritage, the town was named after the Highlands of Scotland rather than the Alpine region of Switzerland. The name Highland seems a bit incongruous on the flat prairie of Southern Illinois.
At the time, the area of Helvetia Township was isolated. No road to St. Louis had yet been constructed. Everything needed for daily life was brought across the prairie in carts drawn by oxen. Streams had to forded. The first homes were rude log cabins.
On August 22, 1840, sixty-eight new settlers arrived from Canton Graubünden. By 1841, the population had grown to 120. In 1843, the first settlers arrived from French-speaking regions of Switzerland, increasing the village to about 60 families.
The Evangelical Church in Highland, which today is known as the Evangelical United Church of Christ, is the oldest Protestant church in that town. In 1840 the Basel Missionary Society of Switzerland sent 158 ministers to the United States to serve among the German and Swiss immigrants. The Rev. Joseph Rieger was one of the first two to begin this ministry. He founded the church in Highland that year as Der Deutsche Protestantische Gemeinde (the German Protestant Congregation). The first sanctuary and school were constructed three years later in 1843. In 1850, they purchased a stone school house (built in 1844) from the town for use as a new sanctuary.
On December 26, 1843, the Roman Catholics in and around Highland met and decided to build their own church. The cornerstone was laid on May 1, 1844 and the wood frame building was completed in 1846. Originally known as Der Deutschen Katholischen Kirche (the German Catholic Church), this congregation is now St. Paul's Catholic Church.
Soon, the Ochonicky family's Swiss ancestors arrived in Highland. In 1847, Maria Ammann came from Küssnacht in Canton Schwyz. Seven years later, her future husband Jacob Beer emigrated from Surrein in Canton Graubünden. And in 1855, Valentin and Luzia Clementz arrived from Praden, Canton Graubünden.
1856 - Beer-Ammann marriage
On February 15, 1856, Jacob Beer married Mary Ammann in Madison County two years after his arrival in Highland. The marriage was performed by Ad Glock, a Justice of the Peace. Jacob was 41, Mary was 20.
Anna Maria Josepha Regina Ammann
Mary Ammann was born Anna Maria Josepha Regina Ammann on March 23, 1837 in Küssnacht, Canton Schwyz, Switzerland to Karl Franz Paul Ammann and Maria Anna Sidler. She was christened the same day at St. Peter and Paul Catholic church in Küssnacht. Her godparents were Peter Sidler and Anna Maria Ehler. (See Karl Ammann and Maria Sidler.)
Until 2004, the town of Küssnacht had been known as Küssnacht am Rigi to distinguish it from Küsnacht am Zürichsee (spelled with one "s"). Küssnacht is in Canton Schwyz not far from the city of Lucerne on Lake Lucerne. The other town is in Canton Zürich on Lake Zürich. The "am Rigi" indicates that Küssnacht is situated at the foot of the Rigi mountain, known as the "Queen of the Mountains." Küssnacht means “Kissing Night.”
The print at the right shows the town in 1754 with Mount Rigi in the background. In 1800, the town had a population of about 2,000.
Canton Schwyz is located in central Switzerland. About three quarters of the total area is considered productive land. Most of the land is hilly rather than mountainous, making it suitable for agriculture.
Canton Schwyz was one of the original founders of Switzerland in 1291. In that year Schwyz joined with two other cantons located on the shores of Vierwaldstättersee (Lake Lucerne) to form a confederation of resistance. They were prompted to do this by the death of the German Emperor, Rudolf of Habsburg, because they feared that his successor might try to take away the rights and freedoms they had been granted and impose an outside governor.
Küssnacht is famous as the place where Wilhelm (William) Tell, the hero of Swiss legend, was active just a few years later. Around 1308, Tell refused to recognize the authority of the Habsburg local governor/bailiff/sheriff Hermann Gessler and won his freedom by shooting an apple on his son Walter's head. He later killed Gessler with his crossbow in an area around Küssnacht known as Hohlen Gasse (Hollow Lane).
Canton Schwyz took the leadership in the confederation early on. By 1320 the name of the canton was applied to the whole of the confederation. It was only in 1803, however, that the name Schweiz as derived from the canton of Schwyz became the official name of Switzerland. The flag of Switzerland is derived from the banner of Schwyz.
The official language in Canton Schwyz is German, although the people speak the Swiss German dialect of central Switzerland. The majority are Roman Catholic.
Karl Ammann and Maria Sidler
The Ammanns and the Sidlers were two of the bürger (burgher) families in Küssnacht. The term “bürger” refers to a citizen of a medieval city (burg) and one who is often part of the mercantile class. Both families have a coat of arms dating from the 1400s. (Ammann on the right, and Sidler below)
Maria’s parents, Karl Franz Paul Ammann and Maria Anna Sidler, moved from Küssnacht to the Highland, Illinois in 1847. We have no record of the trip. The immigration date is from later census records. In 1850, Karl’s brother, Joseph Karl Martin Amman and his wife Anna Katharine (Catherine) Barbara Sidler, emmigrated to the United States and also settled in Highland. Maria and Catherine were sisters. According to the 1900 census, at the end of her life Maria Beer/Baer was living with her Aunt Catherine. Both were widows.
Eight children had been born to Karl and Maria by 1847. We have a record that two died in infancy. We don’t know for sure how many family members made the voyage to America.
Maria Ammann soon became known as Mary.
Jacob Beer and Mary Ammann
Jacob and Mary met in Highland and were married on February 5, 1856 in Madison County, Illinois. The marriage was performed by Adolph Glock, a Justice of the Peace.
Jacob and Mary had nine children, three (perhaps four) of whom died in childhood. The names shown below are spelled Baer instead of Beer. Sometime around 1860, the Beer family began spelling their last name Baer.
All the children were baptized at St. Paul Catholic Church in Highland. In 1854, a new brick church was built and on Easter Sunday, 1856, the first services were held. The parochial school of St. Paul Catholic Church was founded in 1856.
I don’t have any information about the family’s religious background, but Canton Schwyz was mainly Roman Catholic while Canton Graubünden was mainly Protestant. Although Mary had her children baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, many of the family funerals were performed in the Evangelical Church in Highland.
1860 - 1869
The 1860 Federal Census shows Jacob Baer (46), a laborer, living in Highland with his wife Mary H. (23) and their daughter Louisa (3). Jacob’s place of birth is listed as Germany while Mary’s is Switzerland.
1870 - 1879
The 1870 Federal Census shows Jacob Baer (55), a laborer, living in Highland with his wife Maria (32) and their children Louisa (13), William (7), Matilda (6), Margaret (3), and Mary (1). William died five years later at age 13.
In 1878, Louisa Baer married Henry Oscar Tonsor of Alton, Illinois. Henry was the owner of a wholesale liquor company and was considered a prominant member of Alton society.
A 1912 publication by William T. Norton, titled Centennial History of Madison County, Illinois, and its people: 1812 to 1912, included a biographical sketch of Tonsor. (Note the spelling of Baer as Bahre)
1880 - 1889
The 1880 Federal Census shows Jacob Bear [note the spelling] (66), a laborer living on Pitzoltzi (Pestalozzi) Street in Highland with his wife Mary (49) and their children Matilda (16), Mariett [Margaret] (14), Mary (11), Julius (8), Bertha (7), and Carl (5). Mary died the following year at age 12.
1890 - 1899
No census record is available for 1890. The Federal Census of 1890 was destroyed by a fire at the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C. on January 10, 1921. The surviving fragments of 1,233 pages list only 6,160 of the 62 million people counted. Some fragments exist for Illinois, but not for Madison County.
All the census records list Jacob’s occupation as a laborer, but on his death certificate he is listed as a farmer, so perhaps he was a farm laborer, rather than a laborer who worked in town.
Jacob Baer died at age 77 on March 19, 1891 in Highland, Illinois. The cause of death was listed as “marasmus senilis,” an archaic medical term meaning a progressive weakness or atrophy due to age which the doctor said he had been suffering from for a long time. Complications were “affections of the bronchi and lungs” which had affected him for about three weeks. His funeral was on March 20 from the Evangelical Church. He was buried in the City Cemetery of Highland.
A rough English translation of the obituary printed in a local German newspaper reads “Jacob Beer came to Highland in 1854. He died after a long illness, and was bed-ridden for three weeks. He married in 1854  and had nine children, four already deceased.”
We have records of the deaths of three of Jacob’s children during his lifetime—Maria Elizabeth in 1860, William in 1875, and Marie in 1881. His youngest daughter Bertha died before 1900, so perhaps she actually died sometime before Jacob's death in 1891 when she would have been 18.
The 1900 census shows Marie Baer (63) living with Cath (Catherine) Ammann (82) on Pestalozzi Street in Highland. Both were widows. Catherine, Mary’s aunt, is listed as the head of the household. She was born Anna Katherina Barbara Sidler on September 24, 1817 in Küssnacht. Catherine was the sister of Mary’s mother, Maria Sidler Ammann, and was the widow of Josef Ammann, who was the brother of Mary’s father, Karl Ammann.
The 1900 census for Helvetia Township (Highland) was taken in June. The Ammann/Baer household was enumerated on the 11th and 12th by census taker Leo Ammann.
Mary Baer died a little over two weeks later on June 28, 1900 at age 63 of heart failure. Her funeral was on June 29th from the Evangelical Church, and she was buried beside her husband in the City Cemetery of Highland.
The interesting thing is the spelling of the last name—Beer and Baer. Beer is the name Jacob is listed under on the ship’s manifest in 1854 and it is how it is spelled on his marriage license in 1856. A city directory in 1866 also lists him that way. The census records of 1860, 1870 and 1880 spell it Baer (Bear in 1880). The 1900 census also spells Mary’s name as Baer. But at the end of Jacob’s life, the death certificate and his obituary again list him as Beer. I believe all of Jacob’s children adopted the Baer spelling and it became official for their descendants.