Switzerland occupies 15,300 square miles in the Alps Mountains in central Europe. It is bordered by France on the west, Italy on the south, Austria on the east, and Germany on the north. In 2002, the population was estimated at 7,283,274. About 80 percent of the population is Swiss: The country has three official languages that are the mother tongues of a given percentage of all Swiss: German (65 percent), French (18 percent), and Italian (12 percent). The largest ethnic minorities are Yugoslav (4.7 percent), Italian (4.6 percent), and Portuguese (1.9 percent), most of whom came as laborers. The chief religions are Roman Catholic and Protestant, though much of the population is only nominally religious. Switzerland, the former Roman province of Helvetia, traces its modern history to 1291, when three cantons created a defensive league. Other cantons were subsequently admitted to the Swiss Confederation, which obtained its independence from the Holy Roman Empire through the Peace of Westphalia (1648). As a mountainous, resource-poor country, Switzerland exported its troops as mercenaries as a means of generating wealth, while at the same time maintaining national neutrality in time of war. Switzerland has not been involved in a foreign war since 1515. The cantons were joined under a federal constitution in 1848, with each retaining significant autonomous powers. A world banking and commercial center, Switzerland is also the seat of many United Nations and other international agencies. In an effort to crack down on criminal transactions, the nation’s strict bank-secrecy rules have been eased since 1990. Stung by charges that assets seized by the Nazis of Germany and deposited in Swiss banks in World War II (1939–45) had not been properly returned, the government announced on March 5, 1997, a $4.7 billion fund to compensate victims of the Holocaust and other catastrophes. Swiss banks agreed on August 12, 1998, to pay $1.25 billion in reparations.
Among the earliest Swiss immigrants to North America were German Mennonites, perhaps as many as several thousand, who began settling in the Pennsylvania colony during the late 17th century (see Mennonite immigration). As more Swiss came in succeeding decades from a variety of religious and linguistic traditions, they spread widely throughout the colonies, though the greatest concentrations were in New York colony. Between 1700 and 1776, about 25,000 Swiss immigrants settled in the United States, most coming for economic reasons, although the linguistic and cultural differences between the various cantons were a hindrance to social mobility within their own country. Swiss immigration continued in a small but steady stream throughout the 19th century. Even in the 18th century, the Swiss blended well with their neighbors, often joining Moravians or other groups of “plain people.” Between 1851 and 1880, average annual immigration was almost 2,500, and families gradually moved into Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and other Midwest destinations. During the 1880s, the number jumped dramatically to almost 8,200 per year before slipping back to about 3,000 per year between 1891 and 1930. As with all European countries, immigration was almost halted during the Great Depression (1930s) and World War II (1939–45). Between 1971 and 2000, Swiss immigration was steady, averaging a little less than 1,000 per year.
Almost all the earliest Swiss settlers to Canada were mercenaries, who had first been hired by either the French or the English to help protect their holdings. A handful came in this way at various times in the 17th and 18th centuries, though there were no large Swiss settlements established. The greatest Swiss contribution to Canadian settlement came in the person of Frederick Haldimand, who joined the British army in 1756 and distinguished himself during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), rising to the position of lieutenant general. In 1777, Haldimand was appointed governor of Quebec and given the formidable task of finding homes there for some 10,000 Loyalists, mostly farmers from the Pennsylvania and New York backcountry, who had begun to congregate in Montreal and Quebec after 1775. Haldimand eventually resettled more than 6,000 Loyalists in the wilderness of western Quebec (modern Ontario), north of the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario. Two Swiss regiments were brought to Canada during the War of 1812 (1812–14), and many of the soldiers stayed on, principally in Ontario. A significant number of Pennsylvania Mennonites of Swiss descent immigrated to Upper Canada (later Ontario) as early as the 1780s, forming the basis of a developing German-speaking community. Swiss immigration to Canada tended to be small but steady, with the immigrants easily assimilating with other cultural groups. In 1871, the census showed just under 3,000 Swiss in Canada and about 4,500 10 years later. It is estimated that between 1887 and 1974 about 35,000 Swiss immigrated to Canada, though a significant but undetermined number returned to Europe. As in the case of the United States, Swiss immigration in the post–World War II era has been small but consistent. Of 20,020 Swiss immigrants living in Canada in 2001, 3,695 came between 1961 and 1970; 3,985, between 1971 and 1980; 3,450, between 1981 and 1990; and 5,025, between 1991 and 2000.