In 1848 Knox County’s “Swiss Colony” began when Rev. Adrien Chavannes and his family settled on a 275-acre farm four miles north of Knoxville. During the next sixty-five years over seventy-five families settled in the Knoxville area, engaging in various agricultural and business pursuits. These immigrants included both French-Swiss, who came from the Canton of Vaud in the Lake of Geneva area, and German-Swiss who came from several cantons: Appenzell, Bern, Glarus, Schwyz, and St. Gallen. These immigrants were farmers, cheese makers, gardeners, teachers, ministers, and government officials. In Switzerland, most of them had lived in large multifamily stone houses, many with attached farm buildings, and the small log and mainly single-family frame houses and detached farm buildings of East Tennessee contrasted greatly with those to which the immigrants were accustomed.
The first Swiss immigrants took ten weeks to reach East Tennessee, traveling by char a bancs (bench wagon), diligence (stagecoach), and train to Le Havre, France. They sailed to New York (forty-one days), where they took a steamer to Charleston, then a train to Dalton, Georgia, and a wagon to Chattanooga, and then made their way by steamboat up the Tennessee River to Kingston, where another wagon took them to an early Swiss and German settlement in Wartburg.
The German-American East Tennessee Colonization Company, founded in 1844 to promote land sales in Wartburg, attracted many German and German-Swiss immigrants. Arriving in 1848, the French-Swiss were “disagreeably surprised” by Wartburg’s poor market and infertile soil, and they soon relocated to Knox County, where the Chavannes, Gouffon, and Sterchi families settled. During the next several years Knox County’s Swiss population increased with the arrival of the Buffat, Esperandieu, Truan, Bolli, Porta, Rochat, Berney, Getaz, Andre, LeCoultre, Seilaz, Tauxe, Falconnier, Felix, Guignard, and Babelay families. By 1850 the Swiss comprised the largest European ethnic group in Knox County. There were thirty-five to forty French-Swiss families and an equal number of German-speaking Swiss, including the Aebli, Benziger, Koella, Leopold, Metler, Schaad, Scheitlin, Staub, Steiner, Tobler, Wohlwend, and Zurcher families.
Within a matter of years the Swiss and their descendants became an important part of East Tennessee’s social, political, and economic life. The Knox County Courthouse (1885) and the Knoxville Market House (1897) were built by David Getaz of Stephenson and Getaz, Architects and Builders. Swiss politicians included Peter Staub, founder of Staub’s Opera House and twice mayor of Knoxville (1874 and 1881), and Alfred Buffat, founder of Buffat Mill and Knox County trustee (1904-6). In the early twentieth century, Edward Terry Sanford, son of Swiss immigrant Emma Chavannes Sanford, was appointed a United States Supreme Court justice (1923-30).
Important Knoxville businesses started by the Swiss include Buffat Mill, Sterchi Bros. Furniture Stores, Chavannes Lumber Company, Gouffon Transfer Company, Schaad Lumber Company, A. J. Metler Hauling and Rigging, Babelay Greenhouses, and Rochat Realty Company.
Most of the French-Swiss immigrants were members of the Open Brethren, a fundamentalist Christian group which had withdrawn from the National Protestant Church of Switzerland in 1824. The Open Brethren had a simple, scripture-based, laity-oriented practice of faith. Their worship service was characterized by spontaneous Bible-reading, prayer, and hymn-singing without musical instruments as they sat in a circle facing one another. The Open Brethren existed in Knoxville for fifty-six years, but their descendants became members of other Protestant denominations, a step which further assimilated them into East Tennessee culture. In 1870 some of the Open Brethren became Plymouth Brethren, a group which today numbers about 125 members, almost all of Swiss descent.