Obwalden is one of the two valleys, along with Nidwalden, that make up Unterwalden. Throughout its history, the political situation and the exact amount of independence has varied widely. Between 1291 and 1309, Unterwalden joined the nascent Swiss Confederation. During that time Obwalden was known as Unterwalden ob dem Kernwald and Nidwalden was Unterwalden nit dem Kernwald. Unterwalden's votes in the Tagsatzung were split between the two valleys. Between 1798 and 1803 it became the District of Sarnen in the Canton of Waldstätten. From 1803 until 1999 it was the half-canton of Obwalden. In 1999, the new Federal Constitution eliminated the half-canton designation and made Obwalden a full canton, though they still shared representation in the Council of States and only had half a vote. Due to the complex history of Obwalden there will be some overlap between the histories of Obwalden, Nidwalden and Unterwalden.
The earliest archaeological traces in Obwalden is a stone knife from the 8th millennium BC, which was found in Brand by Lungern. Two Horgen culture sites from the 4th millennium BC have been found in the Canton. An ax and two bone blades were found in Giswil and a hammer-ax was found in Wilen. It appears that the valleys in Obwalden were at least temporarily inhabited during this time, but no evidence of agriculture or permanent settlements have been found.
An Early Bronze Age grave in Foribach in Kerns implies that there was a settlement in the surrounding area between 2000 BC and 1700 BC. There may have also been a settlement along the shores of Lake Sarnen during the same period. Between 1500 and 1100 BC there were several other settlements, including houses in the Rengg Pass and high alpine herding camps above the pass. Many of the place names in the canton have Celtic or Gallo-Roman roots.
Around 700, the Alamanni began to migrate into Obwalden. They initially settled around the lakes while the Gallo-Romans lived up on the plateau. The Alamanni influence is noticeable around Lake Sarnen and the Kerns plateau where many place name end in -ingen, -wil and -hofen. The Gallo-Romans remained around Mt. Pilatus, the Giswilerstock and in the Melch valley. During the 8th to 11th centuries, the two populations intermarried and eventually all became Germanized. By the 9th century it was part of the Second Kingdom of Burgundy. It became part of the Holy Roman Empire following the winter military campaign of 1032-33 by Emperor Conrad II. Obwalden was given to the Counts of Lenzburg from Aargau. The counts built a castle on Landenberg hill to help them control the land.
Early middle ages
During the Early Middle Ages, much of the land in Obwalden was controlled by monasteries (especially Murbach-Lucerne and Beromünster Abbey). The monasteries began to spread their authority and parishes into Obwalden during this time. St. Peter's Church in Sarnen was first mentioned in 1036, but was built on top of an 8th-century church. St. Mary's Church of Alpnach was probably built in the 8th or 9th century. The churches in Kerns, Sachseln and Giswil all became parish churches by the 12th century and a church was mentioned in Lungern in 1275. During the 14th century, Engelberg Abbey began to acquire rights over the parishes in Obwalden. By 1415 the Abbey had de facto control over the appointment of parish priests in the entire valley. In 1460, this became de jure authority over all the parishes in the valley.
In the early 12th Century the Counts of Lenzburg granted a large part of their lands in Obwalden to their monastery at Beromünster. In 1210 the Lenzburg castle at Landenberg was abandoned. However, in the 13th century several small castles were built for the minor nobles. The Kellner of Sarnen (Obedientiaries of the main family) lived in the Lower Castle in Sarnen. In Giswil the Lords of Hunwil lived in Hunwil Castle while the Meier of Giswil, a Ministerialis (unfree knights in the service of a feudal overlord) family, lived in Rosenberg Castle. In Lungern, the Lords of Vittringen had a castle.
The political community of Sarnen (de Sarnon locorum homines) were first mentioned in a Papal bull in 1247, when they and the citizens of Schwyz were excommunicated for supporting Frederick II against their ruler, Rudolf of Hapsburg-Laufenburg. In 1257, the Habsburgs had to grant their landlord rights in Obwalden to several of their vassals, all minor nobles. During the 13th century, Obwalden was home to a unified local political organization with enough autonomy to act against the best interests of their nominal rulers. The nobility in the canton were all minor nobles with limited power. This changed on 16 April 1291 when Rudolph I of Habsburg bought the Unterwalden (containing both Obwalden and Nidwalden) from Murbach Abbey. This made him the chief landowner, the count and the emperor over the valley. Fearing a loss of their freedoms, on the 1 August 1291 Nidwalden (Obwalden is not named in the text of the document, though it is named on the seal appended to it) formed the Eternal Alliance with Uri and Schwyz. This alliance is considered the beginning of the Swiss Confederation and modern Switzerland.
The Old Swiss Confederation
Initially the Eternal Alliance was a mutual defense pact between the three cantons, each of which was independently ruled. In 1304 the two valleys of Obwalden and Nidwalden were joined together under the same local deputy of the count. In 1309 Emperor Henry VII confirmed to Unterwalden all the liberties granted by his predecessor, though the exact terms are unknown. The Emperor also granted the valleys imperial immediacy which placed Unterwalden on equal political footing with Uri and Schwyz.
In 1314, Duke Louis IV of Bavaria (who would become Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor) and Frederick the Handsome, a Habsburg prince, each claimed the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Confederates supported Louis IV because they feared the Habsburgs would annex their countries as Habsburg property. War broke out over a dispute between the Confederates of Schwyz and the Habsburg-protected monastery of Einsiedeln regarding some pastures, and eventually the Confederates of Schwyz conducted a raid on the monastery.
In support of their allies, Unterwalden joined the Confederates in the Battle of Morgarten and drove back an invasion of the Brünig Pass. After the decisive Confederation victory over the Habsburgs, Unterwalden renewed the Eternal Alliance in the Pact of Brunnen. During the 14th century, the communities in Obwalden grew increasingly powerful at the expense of the nobility. The formerly powerful Kellner of Sarnen family retired from politics after 1307. The White Book of Sarnen mentions the conquest of the Lower Castle in Sarnen, the home of the family, which may explain why they left politics. The Strättligen and Ringgenberg families married into the Lords of Hunwil and used the power of the dynastic marriages to reduce Habsburg power to a vague suzerainty in the 1330s and 40s, though the Habsburg still owned some land in Obwalden. During the early 14th century, an organization of livestock farmers developed in the Hunwil lands. Throughout the century, their political power grew as they acquired more land and grew wealthy. The organization eventually became an alternative political structure and following conflicts between the organization and the Hunwil nobles, in 1382 the Landsgemeinde excluded the Hunwils from holding political or court offices. During the 13th and 14th century Obwalden established its own local governance, despite having had a joint assembly with Nidwalden up to around 1330.
During the 14th century, Obwalden participated in several other wars with the Swiss Confederation, including the Battle of Sempach in 1386 and the Gugler war in 1375. It peacefully acquired Alpnach in 1368 and Hergiswil in 1378. In 1403 Obwalden joined Uri to invade the Leventina area (today located in the canton of Ticino) to establish new markets for cheese and cattle. They conquered the Val d' Ossola in 1410. In 1419 the Confederation bought Bellinzona. Milan attacked the city three years later in 1422 after an offer to buy Bellinzona was rejected by the Swiss Confederation. The troops from Uri and Obwalden were quickly driven from the city and later defeated at the Battle of Arbedo on 30 June 1422. This defeat drove the Confederates out of Bellinzona and the Val d' Ossola and Leventina. An attempt to pull the Entlebuch region away from Lucerne ended with the Obwalden supported Entlebuch leader Peter Amstalden arrested, tried and executed in 1478. In 1500, Nidwalden, Schwyz and Uri conquered Ticino again and ruled until 1798. While Obwalden participated in the conquests of Aargau (1415), Thurgau (1460), and Locarno, (1512), and in the temporary occupation of the Val d' Ossola (1410–14, 1416–22, 1425–26, 1512–15) it was never able to incorporate any captured territory or grow.
During the Burgundian Wars (1474–77) Unterwalden, like the other Forest cantons, hung back through jealousy of Bern, but came to the rescue in time of need. Following the Swiss victories in the Burgundian Wars the Old Swiss Confederation was nearly torn apart by internal conflict when the city cantons insisted on having the lion's share of the proceeds since they had supplied the most troops. The country cantons resented this and the Tagsatzung or leadership of each of the cantons met in Stans in Nidwalden in 1481 to resolve the issues. However, they were unable to resolve the issues and war seemed inevitable. A local hermit, Niklaus von der Flüe from Obwalden, was consulted on the situation. According to legend he requested that a message be passed on to the members of the Tagsatzung on his behalf. The details of the message have remained unknown to this day, however it did calm the tempers and led to the drawing up of the Stanser Verkommnis. As part of the Verkommnis Fribourg and Solothurn were admitted into the confederation.
The Landsgemeinde of Obwalden stood firmly against the Protestant Reformation. When attempts to resolve the conflicts between the Protestant and Catholic cantons in the Tagsatzung and during the disputation of Baden (1526) were unsuccessful, Obwalden adopted an aggressively pro-Catholic stance. In 1528, they sent troops over the Brünig Pass to try to force the Bernese Oberhasli region to hold the old faith. The Obwalden invasion and the Bernese response, which drove them out of Bern, were part of the general unrest leading to the First War of Kappel in 1529. While the First War of Kappel ended in a peace treaty without loss of life, two years later the Second War of Kappel ended in the death of reformer Huldrych Zwingli and a victory for the Catholic side. However, since about half of the Confederation remained Protestant, the Catholic cantons began to make alliances with neighboring Catholic leaders including France and Spain. Most of the leading political families in Obwalden became pro-French.
Under the Helvetic Republic
During the 1798 French invasion, Obwalden still had a strongly pro-French government. The von Flüe had grown wealthy and politically powerful in mercenary service in France. The clergy saw France still as supporters of the Catholic Church. On 1 April 1798, Obwalden became the first of the original Swiss cantons to accept the Helvetic Republic. However, it was then forced by its neighbors to reject the new Republic and resist the French. When the French armies crushed the rebellion, the old Forest Cantons were merged into the single Canton of Waldstätten. Obwalden became the district of Sarnen in this new Canton. The leadership of the new district were supporters of Helvetic Republic and the French army.
After the collapse of the Helvetic Republic, the Act of Mediation of 1803 dissolved Waldstätten and in the 15th section specifically divided Unterwalden into the half-cantons "ob dem Wald" and "nid dem Wald". The leading "Helvetiker" or supporters of the Republic lost the favor of their fellow citizens. However, a large portion of the councilors before 1798 were also civil servants under the Republic and were re-elected by the Landsgemeinde in 1803. While the politicians remained the same, there were several important changes in the half-canton. The major change was that every resident of the canton gained equal rights, where before there had been citizens and resident aliens each with different rights. Other changes included raising the voting age from 14 to 20 and requiring military service at age 20.
From the Helvetic Republic to the founding of the Federal State
In 1815 the monastery of Engelberg and the municipality of the same name joined Obwalden. The cantonal constitution documents of 19 and 24 November 1815 partially guaranteed the traditional rights of the Abbey and its surrounding community. Then, in 1816, the constitution was altered to include Engelberg as a municipality in the canton. During the Restoration period the government began to roll back many of the reforms of the Helvetic Republic. In the 1830s and 40s, Landammann Nikodem Spichtig began to expand the power of his office. In 1840, a coalition of liberals and radicals gained the majority in the Federal Diet. They introduced a number of reforms and proposed a new constitution that included many radical reforms. In response to this radical government, the Catholic and conservative cantons, including Obwalden, formed the Sonderbund or separate alliance in 1843. When the radicals attempted to dissolve this separate alliance in 1847, they started the Sonderbund War. Though Obwalden participated in the War, the Sonderbund council surrendered before the Federal army reached the Canton.
After the Sonderbund War, the old government was replaced with a liberal government. In response to the wide ranging powers that Landammann Spichtig had held, the new government eliminated some levels of government and replaced lifetime appointments to Landammann with term limits. Spichtig was seen as having pulled Obwalden into the Sonderbund, and he was driven out of office and politics.
In 1850, the Catholic Church was recognized as the only cantonal religion. However, in 1867 the cantonal constitution was completely rewritten. It changed the organization of the government and allowed the Reformed churches some rights, including the right to run their own schools. The 1867 constitution also weakened many of the special privileges that the Landmann held. In 1902 the constitution was rewritten again and it allowed citizens to demand a referendum on any law. In the following years a number of initiatives and referendums were submitted, some of which succeeded. In 1909, an initiative was approved which allowed 1,200 citizens to demand a secret vote on constitutional revisions. In 1922, the power of the Landsgemeinde was weakened further with the introduction of secret ballots on constitutional, legal and tax laws.
The last complete revision of the cantonal constitution was in 1968. This revision addressed a number of small issues and clarified a number of laws, but there were no major changes. In 1972, women were first allowed to vote in cantonal elections and in 1983 the voting age dropped to eighteen. The Landsgemeinde was finally abolished in 1998.