County Seat – Vevay
Area – 224 sq mi
Population – 10,696 (2017)
Founded – 1814
Named for- European nation of Switzerland
Switzerland County Courthouse
212 West Main Street
Switzerland County Tourism
128 West Main St, Vevay, IN 47043, US
The Indiana Territorial Assembly created Switzerland County two years before Indiana became a state in 1814. The legislature named the county for the native land of many of its early inhabitants, Switzerland. The first commercial wineries in the United States were located here, and the county considers itself the birthplace of commercial winemaking in America. Residents celebrate this heritage yearly during the Swiss Wine Festival in late August.
June 11, 1802 – Swiss Colony Lands Selected – Southern Indiana
John James Dufour immigrated to the United States to develop European style wines from American grown grapes. Thus far, American attempts to make a good wine had been a failure. Due to the efforts of John James Dufour, the commercial wine industry in the United States began in Switzerland County, Indiana.
John James Dufour (1763 – 1827)
A native of Canton de Vaud, Switzerland, Dufour studied viticulture for twenty years in Switzerland before coming to the United States in 1796. He had come representing the Vineyard Society of Switzerland and purchased 2560 acres near the future town of Vevay. The members of the organization were considering immigrating to America to make wine, escaping war torn Europe. He landed in Philadelphia in 1796 and embarked on a tour of vineyards across America that included stops at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, St. Louis, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. He eventually ended up at a site on the Big Bend of the Kentucky River about twenty-five miles south of Lexington. He established an experimental vineyard at this site, planting thirty-five varieties of European grapes.
The vineyard proved so promising that in 1800, Dufour wrote to his family, still in Switzerland. Seventeen family members responded, coming to Lexington on July 3, 1801. The family operated this vineyard for a number of years.
Establishment of Switzerland County
Indiana Territorial Governor Thomas Posey appointed Dufour as Assessor and County Surveyor in 1812. Dufour’s next project was to lead an effort to establish a new county with Vevay, which he had founded on June 11, 1802. The Territorial Assembly created Switzerland County in 1814, naming it after Switzerland, the home of many of the new immigrants to the region.
Wine Production in Switzerland County
American grapes would produce wine, but it was wine of an inferior quality. The grapes were tart and the wine they made was almost unpalatable to those that appreciate good wine. Early efforts to grow European grapes had ended in failure. The European grapes succumbed to New World pests and diseases to which they had no immunity. The harsh climate also proved fatal to the tender European vines. Wine drinkers had to drink imported wines that the European vintners had fortified with distilled spirits so they would survive the long voyage across the ocean.
Swiss Colony in the Indiana Territory
Congress was receptive to the idea of establishing a wine industry in the United States and had encouraged Swiss vintners to come to America. Dufour thus found fertile ground for his proposal to Congress to grant him the right to select and purchase four sections of land along the Ohio River in the Northwest Territory to grow grapes. Congress passed the law that allowed Dufour to purchase this land with twelve years to pay it back. This was much more generous than the provisions of the Harrison Land Act of 1800 that allowed only four years to pay the land in the Northwest Territory off. Dufour and his associates selected the site, now Vevay, Indiana on June 11, 1802.
Failure in Kentucky
The vineyard near Lexington eventually failed. Disease eventually killed the vines and the Dufours abandoned the site after selecting several varieties that had survived. These vines they believed to be still European vines, but in truth, they were hybrids. The European varieties had crossbred with the European ones, creating vines that could withstand New World diseases and the harsh climate. The vineyards in the new “Swiss Colony” eventually produced good wines in bulk by 1809. The wines became popular and sold well in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Louisville and Lexington. This flourishing wine industry eventually produced 20,000 gallons of wine a year. By the 1820’s the vineyards succumbed to economic depression and distilled whiskey from Kentucky.
Indiana Wines have once again become a flourishing business and local wineries in the Vevay area and across Indiana thrive. Vevay, laid out by the Dufours in 1813, celebrates this Swiss wine heritage with its Swiss Wine Festival held annually in August.
Prehistoric settlement of Switzerland dates back to about 150,000 years ago. The Romans conquered the tribes that made up the Swiss Alps in 15 BC. The region remained a part of the Roman Empire until the 3rd Century, when Roman strength failed and the region came under the dominion of the German Kings of the Burgundians. Division of the nation and incorporation into the Frankish kingdoms followed and continued until the Holy Roman Empire reunited it around 1000 AD. Several of the cantons unified under the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1353, which existed until Napoleon conquered it in 1798. It was during this tumultuous period that many of the Swiss fled from the region and migrated into the Ohio River Valley to the land that would become Switzerland County. Conflict between the invading French and the Swiss continued until the Congress of Vienna in 1815. It was at this Congress that the nations of Europe agreed to consider Switzerland as a neutral country. A period of internal strife followed which ended when the Swiss drew up a federal constitution loosely modeled on that of the United States in 1748. This federal republic still exists after escaping invasion during both the First and Second World Wars.