Serendipity Strikes Again

The definition of serendipity is the occurrence of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. I’ve experienced serendipity three times since I embarked on my search for ancestors…lucky me.

Recently, my husband Dave and I took a Viking River Cruise to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary. It started in Amsterdam and ended in Lucerne, Switzerland. I had always wanted to know from where my grandfather’s Schwegler family had come. The cruise down the Rhine  River was everything we thought it would be. Life aboard the longship was relaxing if we had stayed on board. Instead, every day we stopped at an interesting city. We visited windmills, cathedrals, castles, German pubs, the Black Forest, and more. Our sore feet were a testament to all of the historical sites we saw.

I would love to tell you about these wonderful sites and fantastic food we tasted but that is not part of this story. Rather, I will tell you about the beautiful city of Lucerne and the serendipity I experienced.

Chapel Bridge

Chapel Bridge in Lucerne

We arrived mid-morning to a lovely day and immediately went on a walking tour of Old Town Lucerne. There we saw the Chapel Bridge that straddles the Ruess River. Regrettably, much of the bridge was destroyed by fire in the 1990s. It was rebuilt in the original style with the water tower remaining from the initial construction. It’s a magnificent bridge and if viewed from the area of the train station, one can see Mount Pilatus behind it. As we strolled over the bridge, I wondered if my great-great-grandfather had ever walked over the original bridge. He was born in Wolhusen, not too far from Lucerne.

The following day we awoke to overcast skies with the threat of rain. That was disappointing as our trip included a cruise on Lake Lucerne, a ride on the steepest cogwheel railroad in the world to the top of Mount Pilatus and a ride down the mountain in a gondola. We gathered at the pier not too far from the train station and waited for our guide. As I looked around, I wondered again if my grandfather had stood at the edge of the lake or walked the streets of Lucerne. I wondered if he and his children had traveled down the Ruess River as they emigrated from Switzerland. Of course, the city has changed, but many of the old buildings were there in the mid-1800s when he lived in the area.


Sonja Schwegler on the Left

It was a raw day to be taking a tour. We headed inside the boat and settled in seats to watch the shoreline go by. Our tour guide sat next to me at our table. Occasionally we would venture outside to take a picture or two. The tremendous thing about all the tours we took with Viking was we had headsets, and our guides were able to explain the history of the place and point out items of interest. We didn’t have to huddle around them hoping to hear what they had to say. I was intent on what our tour guide was describing to us when I happened to look down at her name tag. No joke, my breath caught as I saw her name was SONJA SCHWEGLER. Oh my gosh! I had never encountered anyone, other than my cousins, who possessed the last name of Schwegler. I can’t tell you how excited I was as I informed Sonja that my mother’s maiden name was Schwegler.

Of course, Sonja had a job to do, but she was so kind to spend some time with me at the top of Mount Pilatus after lunch. We shared some of our family information.  I found out that Sonja was married to Martin. She was from Austria, and Martin’s family was from Willisau, the community next to Wolhusen where my Schwegler’s lived. Even though it was cloudy and snowy on top of Mount Pilatus, the clouds cleared enough for Sonja to point out the area where the Schwegler’s came from and where they live today. She related how poor the area was in the 1800s. The first-born sons inherited the land, there were few jobs, and many people were forced to leave Switzerland. I wondered if that was what happened to my great-great-grandfather Joseph.

As we descended the mountain in the gondola, we could hear the tinkle of the bells on the cows below. The bells, an iconic symbol of Switzerland, caused me to wonder if Joseph farmed and put bells on his cows.


You Can See the Alps in the Background

After we had left the mountain, we toured through the beautiful country-side of Switzerland. Rolling hills, with villages perched on their edge, were picturesque. At different points, we could view the tops of the Swiss Alps peaking over the hills and smaller mountains. We visited a dairy where the farmer explained the workings of his farm. Switzerland has done a great job of preserving their family dairy farms.

We ended the day with a tour of a company that produces cheese and we even helped make cheese. Afterward, we enjoyed a fondue dinner. It was a great, tiring day. The next morning, we left for home.

Sonja and I exchanged email addresses and promised to stay in touch. We have no idea how Martin and I are related but I know there is a connection. My serendipitous meeting with Sonja and what she shared with me, have inspired in me the confidence to begin my search for ancestors in Switzerland.

And there is a rest of the story. To read Joseph’s story click here and you will discover what I learned about the Schwegler’s in Switzerland.


Joseph and His Three Wives Named Anna

My great-great-grandfather, Josef Antonius Aloisius Schwegler was born in the little village of Wolhusen, Canton Lucerne, Switzerland on 11 February 1829 almost one hundred and ninety years ago. His father Petrus Josephus Antonius, a shoemaker, was married to Barbara Meyer. The little family consisted of three boys and four girls, Barbara Gertrude, Ana Maria Catharina Elisabetha, Petrus Paulus, Maria Josepha, Maria Josepha, Casparus, and Josephus Antonius Aloisius. Maria Josepha, born in 1822, most likely died in 1824, before her sister, also named Maria Josepha, was born in 1825. Of the seven, Josef was the youngest child.

A Swiss Cow with Bell

During the 19th-century poverty, hunger and the lack of job prospects drove many rural Swiss to the cities or to seek their fortunes in America.¹1 Being the youngest boy, Joseph would not inherit any land his father may have owned, so he left his hometown of Wolhusen for the big city of Lucerne. No longer would he hear the everyday tinkle of the bells on the cows as they moved in the meadows or the tapping of the hammer as his father made shoes.

It is in Lucerne that Josef most likely met his wife, Maria Aña Josepha Walburgis Bieri, my great-great-grandmother. Aña, as she was called, was born on 17 November and was baptized on 18 November 1831 in the beautiful Catholic Church of St. Leodegar in Lucerne. She was born to Josephus Bieri and Walburgis (Studer) Bieri of Entlebuch.

St. Leodegar Church
Church of St. Leodegar in Lucerne

Josef and Aña married on 13 September 1858 in the Church of St. Leodegar. Joseph was a porter for the railroad, and Aña was a seamstress. Lake Lucerne was a favorite destination for people who could afford to travel for pleasure. Joseph assisted passengers at the railway station and handled the loading, unloading, and distribution of luggage and packages.

What a joyful day it was when Aña gave birth to their son, Julius, on 31 January 1859. As one life began, the other ended when Aña died the next day on the 1st of February. Aña and Joseph had only been married four-and-a-half months. Aña was twenty-seven years old.

Widowers didn’t stay single for very long in those days. With a small infant to raise and a job to put food on the table, Josef needed a wife and soon married Anna Brun on 22 October 1860. Their first son Franz Anton was born on 17 January 1862. Josef must have been very anxious during his son’s birth because of the memories of losing his first wife three years earlier. Franz was baptized the same day at the Church of St. Leodegar.

Anna Maria Elisabetha Brun was born in Schachen to Nicolas Brun and Josepha (Schúrman) Brun on 20 September 1839. Schachen is a town located between Wolhusen and Lucerne. She was twenty-two when Franz was born.

SS Hansa
S. S. Hansa

Sometime in the spring of 1863, Joseph and Anna decided to leave Switzerland. They left with their two children Julius and Franz and Joseph’s older brother Petrus (Peter). One would think that they would have taken a boat down the Ruess River, that runs through Lucerne, to the Rhine and eventually landing in Rotterdam. However, because Joseph was a porter for the railroad, the family traveled by rail to Bremen. The family was one of the forty-one percent of German and East European emigrants who left via the port of Bremen between 1850 and 1891.3 Traveling in steerage, the family left Bremen for Southampton, England, where they boarded the S. S. Hansa to New York. Four-hundred and eighty passengers shared the steerage area with the Schweglers.

There was little privacy in steerage and less room. “The ceiling height of the between-decks was usually 6 to 8 feet. The bunks, made of rough boards, were set up along both sides of the ship. Each bunk was intended to hold from three to six persons, and these were often called family bunks. The bunks had straw mattresses or mattresses stuffed with straw. Emigrants had to bring their own pillows, blankets, and other necessary bedclothes. Lice and flees thrived in this environment.” The average length of time to travel was forty-four days.  The Schweglers arrived in New York on 20 July 1863.

So why did Joseph and Anna leave the country of Switzerland and emigrate to the country that was in the midst of a Civil War? Most likely because masses of people in Switzerland were reduced to pauperism between 1840 and 1860. A push for tourism in Switzerland began in 1863, but the economic impact of the increased tourism didn’t reach Lucerne soon enough to improve Joseph’s wages as a porter.

Joseph, Anna, Julius, Franz, and Petrus arrived in New York City on 20 July 1863. According to family lore, they went immediately to Centralia, Illinois. No deeds for land ownership have been found so it is possible that Joseph rented land to farm. While in Illinois, Anna gave birth to Joseph who was born on 17 May 1864. Anna died sometime thereafter. Once again, the family was without a mother.

In the fall of 1866, Joseph purchased land in Gasconade County, Missouri. It is here that he met his third wife, Anna (Fehner) Kalteweihr, a wealthy widow. They married 22 March 1867. Two sons, Hann and Benjamin were born to this union. Hann was born in 1867 and died in infancy. Benjamin was born in 1868.

Joseph died 28 February 1870. Julius did not get along with his step-mother Anna and moved out of her home as soon as he was able. It took until February of 1887 for Joseph’s estate to be finalized. Julius was twenty-seven years of age.

Sometimes there is truth in the stories that our elders tell. Julius always said that Joseph’s second wife Anna was not his mother. He was correct. What we didn’t know was that Joseph was married to three women, all named Anna.

Note: On the names…it’s amazing how names morph over time. Josef becomes Joseph, Aña becomes Anna, Petrus becomes Peter, and Franz becomes Francis and becomes Frank. Is it Schwagler or Schwegler? Is it Meyer, Mejer, or Meier? All of these names have appeared in records but are for the same people.

*Dave and I took a Viking River cruise down the Rhine River to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary. We added a few days to Lucerne, Switzerland to the trip. Unfortunately, I didn’t know enough about researching genealogical records in Switzerland and really didn’t have the time to pursue family records while there. It wasn’t until we got home that I began to do some research. With the help of an archivist in the Lucerne Archives, who sent me the birth and marriage record for Joseph, I was able to piece together the family in Switzerland. Little did I know that the church that I took a picture of, from our boat trip on Lake Lucerne, was the church where Joseph married Anna Brun, and where Joseph and Francis were baptized. I wish I had known that before I went.

Petrus Josephus Antonius Schwegler (1796-?) m. Barbara Mejer (?)

Barbara Gertrude Schwegler (1816-?)
Ana M. Catherina Elisabetha Schwegler (1818-?)
Petrus Paulus Schwegler (1820-?)
Maria Josepha Schwegler (1822-1824)
Maria Josepha Schwegler (1825-?)
Casparus Schwegler (1827-?)
Josef Antonius Aloisius Schwegler (1829-1870)

¹1Switzerland in the 19th Century,