It is one of the founding cantons of Switzerland; Switzerland's Standard German name, Schweiz, is derived from the name of the canton, and the flag of Switzerland from its coat of arms. For the history of the name, see Schwyz. The Swiss Federal Charter is on display in Schwyz. Northeast of the town of Schwyz is the Einsiedeln Abbey.
In June 2008, Schwyz was the only one of Switzerland's 26 cantons to vote in favor of a failed measure that would have subjected Swiss citizenship applications to a popular vote.
Prehistory to the Roman era
The earliest traces of humans in Schwyz are from the Upper Paleolithic and Early Mesolithic or about 12,500 BC. An excavation of the karst caves in the Muotatal (Muota valley) revealed numerous sites, some dating back to the Younger Dryas period (c. 10,000 BC). The alpine meadows at Bödmeren, Twärenen and Silberen were stone age hunter-gatherer camps. Ibex and red deer bones along with charcoal indicate that the animals were butchered and cooked in these camps. In 2009 the first stone age tool in the canton, a stone drill, was discovered.
During the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age there were a number of pile dwellings and other settlements around the lakes of the canton. The two settlements at Hurden in Freienbach are part of the Prehistoric Pile dwellings around the Alps, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Hurden sites are related to the western Cortaillod culture (c. 4500-3500 BC). Sites on the island of Lützelau and the shore zone at Freienbach are eastern Pfyn culture (4000-3300 BC) and Corded Ware culture (2750-2450 BC). During the Bronze Age several bridges were built between the promontory of Endingen in Rapperswil, St. Gallen and the settlements at Hurden. Over 200,000 posts and seven bridges have been discovered, along with several settlements and ritual sites. On the Schwyz side of the lake, ten different settlements from 4300-2700 BC have been discovered.
However, after 1200 BC there is very little evidence for further Bronze Age settlements in the canton. Only eight Iron Age sites have been discovered in the canton from the 8th to 1st centuries BC. During the Roman era a Roman Vicus was established at Kempraten in Rapperswil around the massive bridge at Seedamm (near the Bronze Age bridges) which crossed into Schwyz. A Gallo-Roman temple was built on Ufenau island around AD 200 on the site of the present chapel of Sts. Peter and Paul. A few Roman coin hoards were discovered at Küssnacht and Rickenbach bei Schwyz and Küssnacht may have been the site of a Roman estate.
Early middle ages
In 561 Schwyz became part of the Ducatus alamannorum and remained relatively independent under the Alemanni dukes until the second quarter of the 8th century. The Alemanni began to settle into the valleys around 680, but for centuries the Germanic speaking Alemanni and the Romansh speaking Gallo-Romans coexisted. Romansh remained the main language in Einsiedeln until the 10th century.
In the 8th and 9th centuries the land was under the Counts of the Zürichgau. The low-laying land along Lake Zurich was relatively easy to reach and was settled throughout the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, the Muotathal area was used by seasonal herders but there were very few permanent settlements. Küssnacht was first mentioned in the 9th century, but it is likely that there were earlier settlements. The forests around Einsiedeln were lightly settled. A visit of the Irish monks, Gallus and Columbanus in 611 is mentioned in the Gallusviten. However, their missionary efforts were unsuccessful in Schwyz. In the late 7th century Christianity began to spread into the region. The church at Tuggen was first built around 680/700, while the Aisleless church at Schwyz was built after 700. In the following centuries, the monasteries at Säckingen, St. Gallen and Reichenau all became centers of spreading the faith. In 948, Einsiedeln Abbey was consecrated on the site of Saint Meinrad's murder in 861 in a high valley near Schwyz. When Einsiedeln Abbey was founded, it was granted many farms, villages and isolated churches helping to spread Christianity into the high valleys.
With the extinction of the Kyburgs and the decline of the Lords of Rapperswil in the second half of the 13th century, the Habsburgs attempted to claim sovereignty over the Kyburg and Rapperswil lands in Central Switzerland. They succeeded in acquiring the parishes of Schwyz, Steinen, Muotathal and Morschach and in 1283 the patronage over the monastery of Einsiedeln. In 1240, Emperor Frederick II granted the Schwyz valley imperial immediacy for services that they had rendered to the Emperor.
While the farming villages of the valleys drew closer together, the expansion of the Habsburgs and changing relationships between the farmers of the alpine valleys and the monasteries led to conflicts such as the Marchenstreit between Schwyz and Einseideln Abbey. The Marchenstreit started around 1100 over grazing rights around the Mythen mountains and dragged on, with court cases and violent raids, until about 1350.
The eternal alliance
Perhaps on 1 August 1291, the cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden entered into an Eternal Alliance that would eventually become the Swiss Confederation. The Federal Charter of 1291 was probably prompted by the death of Rudolf I of Habsburg on 15 July 1291 and created a defensive alliance. The Rütlischwur (Oath of the Rütli) was another alliance between the Forest Cantons in or around 1308 and brought the cantons closer together. The canton of Schwyz took the leadership in the confederation early on. As early as 1320 the name of the canton was applied to the whole of the confederation. It was only in 1803, however, that the name Schweiz as derived from the canton of Schwyz became the official name of Switzerland. The flag of Switzerland is derived from the banner of Schwyz.
With the Eternal Alliance, the three cantons remained politically independent, with a central council to deal with disputes among the members, and with promises of military assistance. The cantons became de facto independent from the Habsburgs at the same time as the Habsburgs were attempting to expand into the Forest Cantons. When the century-old Marchenstreit between Schwyz and Einseideln Abbey led to a Schwyz attack on the Abbey in 1314, the Habsburgs, as patrons of the Abbey, had an opportunity for military action against them.
The Confederates of Schwyz — supported by the Confederates of Uri, who feared for their autonomy, but not supported by the Confederates of Unterwalden — expected the army in the west near the village of Arth, where they had erected fortifications. The size of the Confederate army is also disputed, with some chronicles placing it at 1,500, while others state that it was 3,000-4,000. Even if the Confederate army outnumbered the Habsburgs, they were an untrained militia against a force of well-equipped and trained knights.
The Confederates prepared a road block and an ambush at a point between Lake Aegeri and the Morgarten Pass where the narrow path led between the steep slope and a swamp. When the Austrian army entered the ambush, the Confederates attacked from above with rocks, logs and halberds. The knights had no room to defend themselves and suffered a crushing defeat, while the foot soldiers in the rear fled back to the city of Zug. About 1,500 Habsburg soldiers were killed in the attack.
After the victory at Morgarten, the Forest Cantons met at Brunnen on 9 December 1315 to renew the promise of mutual military assistance. The Pact of Brunnen, which emerged from the meeting, changed the pragmatic defensive alliance into a full confederacy. During the following forty years, five nearby cities (Lucerne in 1332, Zürich in 1351, Glarus and Zug in 1352 and Bern in 1353) joined the Pact and began the Growth of the Old Swiss Confederacy.
Old Swiss Confederation
As the Confederation expanded, Schwyz took a leading role in the new organization. The aggressive, expansionist foreign policy of Schwyz led to its name being applied to the entire Confederation. Even in the 14th century, the chronicles of the surrounding countries referred to the Confederation as Schwyzer or Schweizer (the modern German spelling).
With its exterior borders secured, Schwyz began to acquire rights and land in the neighboring valley. In 1386, Schwyz invaded and occupied the town of Einsiedeln, and by 1424 the monastery was under Schwyz' control, though it retained some independence. Between 1386 and 1436, Schwyz brought under its direct control the entire March District, which became part of the Canton. In 1424, Küssnacht became part of the Canton. Villages and lands along Lake Zurich, including Wollerau and Pfäffikon (in 1440), Hurden and Ufenau Island all became part of the Canton in the 14th and 15th centuries. King Sigismund granted Schwyz the right to High Justice over Schwyz, Einsiedeln, Küssnacht and March in 1415 as a reward for their military support against Frederick IV of Habsburg. The gradual expansion of Schwyz meant that each village entered the Canton under different agreements and not all the provinces were granted the same degree of autonomy. One unique case was the town of Gersau which, while located near Schwyz, became a protectorate of the Confederacy and a semi-independent state in 1359. Gersau remained a free city-state and republic until 1817 when it was merged into Schwyz.
In 1385, Zürich, Zug and Lucerne attacked several Habsburg stongholds and in the following year Lucerne entered into alliances with several Habsburg cities in an attempt to pull those cities into Lucerne's sphere of influence. In response, Leopold III of Austria gathered an army and prepared to invade the Confederation. After a minor battle, a short-lived armistice was declared, but by early July 1386 the Habsburg army was on the move toward the Lucerne city of Sempach. On 9 July 1386 a Confederation force from Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden met the Austrian army in the Battle of Sempach. While the Habsburg knights initially drove the lightly armored Swiss back, around mid-day the Swiss gained the upper hand and killed Leopold and forced his army to retreat. Much like the Battle of Morgarten, Sempach helped cement the Confederation into a further unified federation. While Schwyz gained no territory from the battle, both Bern and Lucerne gained significant territories at the expense of the Habsburgs.
In 1402/3 Schwyz signed an alliance with Appenzell, which was seeking independence from the Abbey of St. Gall. In May 1403, the Abbot and the Habsburgs sent a force to defeat the rebellious Appenzellers while Schwyz and Glarus sent troops to defend their ally. On 15 May 1403, the Abbot's forces entered the pass leading to Speicher, and outside the village of Vögelinsegg they met the Appenzell army. A detachment of about 80 Appenzellers started the attack from a hill over the valley, with about 300 soldiers from Schwyz and 200 from Glarus moving around the flanks of the army. When the League's cavalry charged up the hill, they met 2000 Appenzellers and were forced to retreat. During the retreat, about 600 horsemen and many of the 5000 infantry were killed by the Appenzell army. The League signed a peace treaty with Appenzell at Arbon, but the peace was short-lived. Appenzell formed an anti-Habsburg alliance, the Bund ob dem See, with several cities including Bregenz. In 1408 the Habsburgs besieged Bregenz, and the Bund, including Schwyz, marched out to support Bregenz. However, when they met the Habsburgs, the Bund was decisively defeated and the Bund collapsed. Schwyz paid the Habsburgs off to avoid an attack and Appenzell retained some independence but eventually became an associate of the Confederation.
In 1440-46, Schwyz and six other cantons fought against Zurich and the Habsburgs in the Old Zürich War. The eventual peace brought Zurich back into the Confederation and forced them to cancel their treaty with the Austrians. After the war, Schwyz acquired the villages of Wollerau and Pfäffikon (now in Freienbach) and shared control of Uznach and Gaster (both now in St. Gallen) with Glarus. The war also showed that the confederation had grown into a political alliance so close that it no longer tolerated separatist tendencies of a single member.
In the 15th century, Schwyz joined Uri and Nidwalden in attempting to expand south of the Gotthard Pass to gain the revenue from trade over the pass. By the 16th century they controlled, as a federal condominium, the Riveria valley, the Blenio valley, the Maggia valley and the towns of Bellinzona, Lugano, Mendrisio and Locarno.
In 1480, Heinrich von Gundelfingen collected a number of local legends into a book called the Herkommen der Schwyzer und Oberhasler (Traditions of the Schwyzer and Oberhasler) which claimed that the land had been settled by 6,000 Swedes and 1,200 East Frisians after they rescued the Pope from a barbarian attack in 400 AD. The central elements of the myth, the Swedish origin and the rescue of the Pope became central elements in the Schwyzer state mythos. By 1531, this special relationship to the Catholic faith and the Pope was specifically mentioned in a resolution that passed in the Landsgemeinde. This resolution was passed against the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation and the tensions following the First War of Kappel two years earlier. Soon thereafter, the Catholic cantons refused to help the Three Leagues (Drei Bünde) in Graubünden in the Musso war against the Duchy of Milan, Zürich promptly considered this a breach of contracts between the confederacy and the Three Leagues and declared an embargo against the five alpine Catholic cantons, in which Bern also participated. While the Tagsatzung had successfully mediated in 1529, on this occasion the attempt failed, not least because the reformation leader Huldrych Zwingli was eager for a military confrontation. The Catholic cantons declared war on Zürich on 9 October 1531. On 11 October 1531, Schwyz, Uri and Zug decisively defeated the army of Zwingli. Hundreds of soldiers were killed, including Zwingli himself. Schwyz remained staunchly Catholic following the war.
Throughout the time of the Old Swiss Confederation, the direct democracy of the Landsgemeinde in Schwyz was seen as the most important political institution in the canton and the municipalities of the canton. The Landsgemeinde generally met on the last Sunday in April. Mayors and other government officials were elected, new laws were discussed and voted on and traditional rights were reconfirmed. The Landsgemeinde usually met at Ibach outside Schwyz town, though there were several alternative locations. In the towns, the Landsgemeinde was made up of all land holding males or citizen. By the 16th century this class had begun to develop into an elite class that tended to lead the Landsgemeinde and be appointed as mayors. Below the citizens there was a class of residents, who were allowed to use the common land but had limited rights or political power. In the 16th century it was possible for a resident to buy his way into citizenship, however by the 17th century this had become almost impossible. To pay for the Second Battle of Villmergen, Schwyz allowed residents to once again buy citizenship. The Landsgemeinde meetings sometimes collapsed and led to riots. There were often many parties represented and the alliances and factions changed quickly and unpredictably. Schwyz was often characterized as an due to the unyielding Catholicism along with the political chaos of the Landsgemeinde.
Helvetic Republic to the federal state
During the years leading up to the 1798 French invasion of Switzerland, the spiritual leadership of the Canton often preached against the anti-Catholic parts of the French Revolution. In the Landsgemeinde in the spring of 1798, the leadership spoke out strongly against the French and urged the people to take an uncompromising position against the newly created Helvetic Republic and the limited freedom of religion in the Republic.
In response, the Cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden raised an army of about 10,000 men led by Alois von Reding to fight the French. This army was deployed along the defensive line from Napf to Rapperswil. Reding besieged French-controlled Lucerne and marched across the Brünig pass into the Berner Oberland to support the armies of Bern. At the same time, the French General Balthasar Alexis Henri Antoine of Schauenburg marched out of occupied Zürich to attack Zug, Lucerne and the Sattel pass. Even though Reding's army won victories at Rothenthurm on 2 May 1798 and Morgarten, Schauenburg's victory near Sattel allowed him to threaten the town of Schwyz. On 4 May 1798, the town council of Schwyz surrendered. Reding surrendered to the French on 13 May.
To help break the political power of the Inner Cantons, Uri (without the Leventina but with the Urserental), Schwyz (without March and Höfe), both half-cantons of Unterwalden, Zug, the Republic of Gersau and Engelberg Abbey were merged into the Canton of Waldstätten. The new Canton only had 4 seats in the Tagsatzung instead of the 16 that its members had held before the invasion. Initially the victorious French army only lightly occupied the old core of the Canton of Schwyz, but plundered the Einseideln Abbey. However, after a failed uprising in Nidwalden in the fall of 1798, Schwyz was forced to hand over all weapons and to provide supplies and housing to French troops. The heavy demands of the occupying French led to the uprising known as the Hirthemmli War in April 1799. After the French suppressed this uprising, they moved the capital of the Canton of Waldstätten to Zug.
In summer and autumn of 1799, the outbreak of the War of the Second Coalition brought renewed fighting to Schwyz. In mid-August the French General André Masséna drove the Austrian-Russian army out of the Schwyz valley. By the end of September they were fighting in the March valley. Simultaneously, the Russian General Alexander Suvorov crossed the Kinzig Pass with his army and began fighting the French in the Muota valley. Suvorov was unable to force his way out of the Canton and was eventually driven over the Pragel Pass to Glarus. The destruction and looting from both armies stripped the Canton of food and ruined fields, causing hardship and death among the Schwyzer during the following winter.
Joseph Thomas Fassbind compiled a history of the canton during this period, published in the 1830s.
After the 1803 Act of Mediation, Schwyz regained its independence and most of the changes introduced by Napoleon were reverted. The old subject lands were converted into full and equal districts and the formerly independent towns of Gersau and Reichenburg joined the new Canton of Schwyz. The loss of power in the old core of Schwyz led to resentment and tension in the Canton. After the abolition of the Act of Mediation in February 1814 the old core tried to usurp the leadership role in the Canton and strip the right to political participation from the former subject lands. The old subject lands resisted this and the old core was forced to agree to the 1814 Constitution which granted equal rights to all citizens. However, they were able to include the provision that the two-thirds of the seats would come from the old core of Schwyz. Furthermore, the highest cantonal authorities came from the old core. While the new constitution removed the legal difference between citizens and residents, residents were not allowed to use the extensive land owned by the citizen's community. Tensions continued to escalate until in the Landsgemeinde of 1829, the residents from the former subject lands were driven out of the assembly. The former subject lands saw this as a clear threat to their equality, and encouraged by the July Revolution of 1830 the four outer districts; March, Einsiedeln, Pfaeffikon and Küssnacht signed a new constitution which guaranteed, among other things, proportional representation. The leaders of the old core saw this as a threat to their authority and rejected the new constitution. On 9 March 1831 the outer districts seceded from Schwyz and formed the Canton of Outer Schwyz with the capital in Einseideln. In 1832 they established a new constitution, government and courts. In spring 1833, the Swiss Tagsatzung acknowledged the new canton, but insisted that they work toward reunification.
The conservative government of Schwyz was dissolved and a new provisional government and constitution established. The first attempt at a constitution, which split the district of Schwyz in two and moved the cantonal capital away from Schwyz, was narrowly defeated on 27 January 1848. The second constitution, which removed the mentioned points and merged the former districts of Wollerau and Pfäffikon in the district of March, was then approved by the electorate on 27 February 1848.
The new constitution of 1848 reformed the government of the Canton. Perhaps the greatest change was that it abolished the Landsgemeinde, which had formerly been the supreme authority. It split the government into three branches, legislature, executive and judiciary and created a three-tier structure of municipalities, districts and canton. It created proportional representation and allowed the population to vote on laws and constitutional amendments.
With the end of the Landsgemeinde in the new constitution, the cantonal elections on 3 December 1848 brought a conservative majority parliament. However, the cantonal councils then selected a liberal-conservative and liberal government. The government had the difficult task of reunifying the canton and supporting the new federal government, which 75% of Schwyzer opposed. Over the next few years the new government focused, almost exclusively, on integrating the Canton into the new Confederation. Federal forgiveness of the Sonderbund War debt in 1852 and hosting the Federal Officers Festival in 1856 and the Federal Shooting Festival of 1867 all helped to reintegrate the Canton.
A conservative ballot initiative in 1854 failed to reestablish the Landsgemeinde and abolish the districts, while a liberal initiative in 1866, which attempted to expand personal rights, also failed. In the early 1870s, the conservatives gained power in the cantonal government. In 1874, the Swiss Federal Constitution was completely revised, which created conflicts with the Schwyz cantonal constitution. It was revised in 1876 and accepted by 73% of voters. The new cantonal constitution limited the scope of the cantonal council laws and extended the requirements for mandatory referendums.
In the mid-1890s, the liberals began to push for another constitutional revision. Their revisions included language that would give the government authority over the monasteries and their assets. The conservatives fought back with a platform of protecting the religion of most Schwyzer. In response, the government created a second version, which dropped the controversial religious portions but was otherwise unchanged. This new constitution, which required elections every four years, the popular election of all members of parliament, proportional representation in the cantonal councils and full religious freedom, was approved on 23 October 1898. This constitution remained in force, with amendments, until 2011.
Between 1833 and 1950 the population of the Canton doubled from 38,351 to 71,082 people, though this increase was slower than the national average. The railroad to Küssnacht allowed that town to grow much faster than average between 1870-1914. At about the same time, a wave of immigrants from Europe (mostly from Italy) moved into the Canton and a larger group of Schwyzer emigrated to the United States. On a per capita basis, Schwyz had the third highest emigration rate in Switzerland as people left for jobs. During late 19th and early 20th century, internal migration also changed the composition of the population. In 1860 almost 80% of the residents lived in the village of their birth, by 1950 it was only 50%.
The First World War was very hard on the residents of the Canton. The cantonal authorities did little to prevent war time profiteering and prices for food and other necessities skyrocketed. At the same time, extensive unemployment and low wages led to starvation and poverty. Some of the major industries in Schwyz at the time were tourism and the textile cottage industry, both of which collapsed, so the Canton suffered disproportionately. In 1918, Schwyzer troops were called up to join the Federal Army in suppressing striking workers in the Canton of Uri, in Rapperswil and in the Zurich Oberland. When the Spanish flu broke out in the army camps many Schwyzer soldiers died. The poverty and death led to a polarization of politics and the Conservatives used the slogan of "flu-dead soldiers" until the mid-1930s.
During the Second World War, Schwyz was generally insulated from the effects of the war. Several fortresses were built on the Rigi, in the Sattel Pass and on the Etzel and the Linth plains as part of the National Redoubt fortifications. During the war, Schwyz was twice the center of national attention. Once in 1941 on the occasion of the 650th anniversary of Confederation and in 1942, with the arrest of the owner of a dairy and mill for the extensive black market operations.
Between 1950 and 2010, the population doubled again to 146,730 people in 2010. During this period Schwyz showed one of the highest growth rates among the Swiss cantons. The highest growth was in the Outer Schwyz region. The Höfe district grew from 7,573 in 1950 to around 27,000 people in 2010. In 2004, Freienbach replaced Schwyz as the largest municipality in the Canton.