A Pioneering Spirit: My Family’s Coming to Canada Story

In 1847, Anton and Magdalena Zurbrigg left Switzerland to start a new life in Canada. Their pioneering spirit is honoured in a Zurbrigg family reunion—an annual tradition that dates back nearly a hundred years.

Keeping history alive - Zurbrigg family photoPhoto: Courtesy Peter Wyatt

I am an avid reader with a particular interest in writings about Canada. One of the most arresting and controversial descriptions of our nation that I’ve ever come across was penned by Pico Iyer, a writer of British-Indian descent who once described Canada as “a nation of beautiful mongrels.” Admittedly, it is difficult to get past the perception of “mongrel” being a slur; however, given that the “crossing of different breeds or types” is central to its definition, I believe the term highlights a worthy truth about us. With more and more people checking into their ancestry via websites, DNA testing or the time-honoured tradition of traipsing around cemeteries, it’s more apparent than ever that we are all mongrels in some shape or form. The immigrant mix that shapes me includes the English-Scots-Irish triad, as well as Dutch, German and Swiss roots. In the case of my grandchildren, Chinese and Japanese elements are enriching the mix. This past June, as we do every year, several score of cousins and I gathered to celebrate the immigrant family from Switzerland that helps make us the beautiful mongrels we are.

My maternal great-grandfather came to Canada as one of the children in a family that left the picturesque valley of Frutigen in the canton of Bern, Switzerland, in 1847. I have stood in that alpine valley and was left stunned by its beauty, trying to imagine how my forebears could have left so magnificent a homeland. Yet they seem to have been eager to do so. The steeply sloping pasture land there could be subdivided only so many times as new generations came of age; they resented a compulsory military service that could result in mercenary deployment; and they were entranced by reports of the available land and personal freedom available in Canada.

And so Anton and Magdalena Zurbrigg, together with their seven children, travelled by stagecoach from their mountain valley to the port of Le Havre, France. Magdalena was ill, and she travelled in a basket slung under the cart. This arrangement seems to have slowed them, for—in a heart-wrenching disappointment—their boat to New York had weighed anchor less than an hour before their arrival, and they had to wait another two weeks for the next one. They were to experience a great loss when they finally were on board a ship: their daughter Susan died on the voyage and was buried at sea.

Besides the loss of Susan, family history records trying conditions in steerage; when the passengers ran out of their own provisions, they had to buy food (mostly hardtack) from the ship’s steward. Arriving off New York after a proverbial 40 days at sea, they were puzzled that the boat was not docking. Finally, a crew member tipped them off that the captain was delaying their landing until all the remaining food on board had been sold. It was the mothers who rose up in revolt, threatening to throw the captain overboard if he did not enter the harbour immediately. In the end, they were 49 days at sea. Finally on dry land, they took to the road again, travelling to settle near New Hamburg in Canada West, now Ontario.

A Harsh Existence

As might be expected, the pioneer experience was far from easy. Early on, the family lived in the house of Anton’s brother, Peter, an earlier immigrant, and his family; the illness of Magdalena continued, and she died before two years had passed. Anton remarried, but the arrival of desperate news from Magdalena’s family in Frutigen became one of the most unsettling events of the family’s first decade in Canada. Letters addressed to Anton arrived, reporting that the father, mother and an elder brother in the family had died in rapid succession, and that the remaining children could not continue to pay the debt on their farmstead. Magdalena’s family had been reduced to poverty, and was asking Anton to send money to help them.

One of my cousins still has this correspondence—two letters dated in the year 1856, sent in envelopes marked “In Haste” and “No Delay.” As we read the letters today, we imagine that life for Anton’s own family was not much above subsistence, and wonder what anguish he may have experienced at receiving this news. The fact that we still have the letters today indicates that Anton took them to heart, since he never discarded them. We hope that he was able to send something back, just as new immigrants to Canada send money “home” today.

One of the benefits of a continuing family reunion is that the stories and artifacts of the past are carried forward. Zurbrigg reunions have been held since 1925, until very recently always on July 1. Early on, the family gathered at farmsteads in the Listowel, Ontario, area. I remember the wild delight of jumping in a hayloft with rural cousins I scarcely knew. Now we meet at community centres or churches. Genealogy is a big part of the reunion record-keeping; the family tree once could be reproduced on a single, if huge, sheet of paper that was then rolled to carry, but this is no longer possible. The Zurbriggs went forth from Frutigen and multiplied!

My mother was seven when the reunion was first held. Growing up in St. Marys and Stratford, Ontario, she would have met many of her Zurbrigg cousins in settings other than the reunion—at school, athletic events or young peoples’ gatherings. This proximity of cousins has been lost for many, as families have moved away from the family epicentre near Listowel, and connections have grown distant as new generations grew up. We wonder how much longer we will have a strong enough constituency to continue the tradition. For those with a love of history, and a zest to know about family roots, the reunion will continue to have an attraction. One thing is sure: we are all looking forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of the reunion in 2025. If you are a Zurbrigg reading this, see you there!

In the photo above: Peter’s great-grandfather, John Zurbrigg and family, including his wife Lydia seated at right beside him. Peter’s grandfather, Harry, who initiated the family reunion in 1925, is standing at the back on the far left.

Next, check out the fascinating results from five Canadians who took the AncestryDNA test.

Originally Published in Our Canada

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