In 2011 my brother, father and I journeyed to Switzerland to visit the small town of Valangin in Switzerland. It was like traveling back in time: in 1883 my great-grandfather, Jules Ernest Tissot (1864-1915), left Valangin for the United States. A journey that would take him and his family to Ohio, Wisconsin, to a “soddy” in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, and eventually to California where my grandfather, my father, and eventually I would be born. When visiting Valangin (pop. 481) it was difficult to imagine why anyone would leave: it’s a small, beautiful, close-knit and quaint village snuggled up to a medieval castle with a history going back to the middle ages. Through the foresight of my great-aunt Gaby (Gabrielle Tissot Mulvane, 1893-1982) we have a family tree that traces our ancestors back to 1285 in Valangin. It follows a long lineage of governors, a judge, and a mayor of the village that leads up to my great-grandfather Jules nine generations later. So prominent was our family in the town that our coat-of-arms is on display in a window pane of the town church, rebuilt in 1885. Historically the town occupied a strategic location: protected the road leading to Neuchâtel through the Jura mountains. It was incorporated as the Neuchâtel principality into the Swiss confederation in 1814. Today we still have relatives in the village.
We learned some the town’s history first-hand one day while sitting with my Dad’s second cousins Jean-Jacques and Nicole Aiassa while enjoying a three-hour raclette lunch, complete with new potatoes, pickles, and chilled white wine. Pointing to various houses they described where my great-grandmother, Cecile Franc (1865-1941) lived, where my great-aunt Gaby was born and some of the reasons why they may have left for America so long ago — just like it had just happened yesterday.
One can only imagine what it must have been like for Jules who left Valangin for America in 1883. The uncertainty, the risk, the adventure, what would it take to compel a young man of 19 to leave the long-time home of his ancestors and set out for a new land? His early travels are not well documented but we know he eventually made his way in 1884 to the Sand Hills, in Mirage Flats along the Niobrara River in Nebraska, in part to take advantage of the Homestead Act and claim 160 acres of land. Some of his early life and tribulations has been elegantly captured in Pulitzer Prize winner Mari Sandoz’s book Old Jules, which documents her life with her father, Jules Sandoz, another Swiss emigrant who lived near my great-grandfather. It was a rough life but with potentially high rewards which Sandoz described as her father first saw Mirage Flats:
Now the sandhills flattened away to buffalo-grassed flats…the hills gave way and before him was the silver ribbon of the Niobrara, the wooden slopes barely tinged with palest green, topped by yellowish sand-stone bluffs. Farther on the plain, flatter than the palm of a man’s hand, and reaching into the dim blue hazes each way. But the land straight ahead, the Flats, as the Hunter cook called it, was absolutely bare, without a house, even a tree — a faint yellow-green that broke here and there into shifting aspects of small, shimmering lakes, rudimentary mirages. There, close to the river for game and wood, on the hard land that must be fertile, where corn and fruit tress would surely grow well, Jules saw his home and around him a community of his countryman and other home seekers, refuges from oppression and poverty, intermingled in peace and contentment. There they would grow a place of orderliness, with sturdy women and strong children to swing the hay fork and hoe. [pp. 18-19]
Thirty years before, this land had been American Bison country with millions of animals thundering across the plains and the ancestral home of the Oglala and Brule Sioux tribes. But now all were but a shadow of their former selves: the bison close to extinction and most of the tribes on reservations, with the Pine Ridge reservation 50 miles away in South Dakota. It is a beautiful but unforgiving land: blazingly hot in the summer, heavy snow in the winter. I have often wondered what kind of person would move to this area and what my great-grandfather Jules was like. In one section of Old Jules Mari Sandoz describes him as Tissot “The Black”:
During the late summer Jule’s letters brought three young French Swiss from Ohio…Jules Tissot, nicknamed “The Black” was narrow-eyed, and yellowish skin grew far up between his bony fingers…. Then they talked of the Old Country and of course of women, Tissot the loudest. He was the sort who jerked a peasant girl’s head back by her thick braids and pressed his kisses upon her. “Conquering a women who hates you — a-ah, that is worth the effort!” and the red of his dark lips showed wet… But The Black was a devil of a fellow. [pp. 41-42]
Most of my Swiss cousins are fairly mellow folk but he was definitely more gregarious, which is why he may have set out for America in the first place.
After settling on his homestead in 1887, he built his first house of sod. Initially he farmed but many early attempts were unsuccessful due to drought so he quit farming and went into raising cattle stock. After having two children, Arthur and Mabel, with Jenny Van Kamp from Wisconsin, his wife died in childbirth in 1895. So Jules sent a note home to Valangin: “send me a wife” and out came my great-grandmother in 1897, Cecile Franc, and her daughter Gabrielle. Oh, one can only imagine what a woman she must have been to leave the heartland of Switzerland, take a boat to America, train to the midwest, and horse and buggy out to the Sand Hills of Nebraska to meet and marry Jules and live in a soddy, sight unseen. Together they had two children in Nebraska: my great uncle Jules (Jules Henri Tissot, 1901-1965) and my great aunt Cecile (Cecile Emma Tissot, 1903-1988).
In 1904, the Kincaid Act increased the allotment of land from 160 to 640 acres in western Nebraska resulting in an influx of new settlers. In the spring of 1905 Jules sold thirteen hundred and sixty acres of deeded land and three hundred and fifty-seven head of cattle and nineteen horses, and moved to California where my grandfather Ernest Eugene Tissot (1905-1952) was born. They eventually invested in a farm near Chino in 1910. It was a smart move and the family prospered.
My great-aunt Gaby became a nurse, served in France in WW I in the Red Cross, and wrote about it in her book: A Nurses Experience in World War One. She eventually went on to became Superintendent of nurses at the San Bernardino County Hospital and head of the nurses training program at San Bernardino Valley College. In 1999 a community center was named in her honor.
Despite being only 17 years old, my great-uncle Jules also served in WW I in the the Army as an interpreter (he spoke french, like many of the second generation Tissot’s) and a driver in an ambulance unit, was a charter member of the Chino American Legion, and returned to run the family ranch and eventually become a businessman in Chino.
My grandfather Ernest would become a mechanic in the emerging airplane industry, work for Grand Canyon Airlines, and eventually was Amelia’s Earhart’s mechanic during her famous non-stop flight from Hawaii to Oakland in 1937.
His son, my father, Ernest Eugene Tissot Jr. (1927-2019), would become a decorated Navy aviator in Korea and Vietnam and the Commanding Officer of the USS Enterprise before retiring as a Rear Admiral and working for Northrop International. He was a member of the prestigious Golden Eagles.
So, this is a brief history of our branch of the Tissot family. But it is also the story of America: of pioneers willing to take enormous risks for potentially high rewards; of perseverance under extreme hardship; of the strength and importance of family; and how parents sacrificed their lives to create a better world for their children in the hopes of a better future. And of everything the descendants of Jules and Cecile Tissot accomplished from the tiny village of Valangin, it is no wonder that America, built from literally thousands of such cities across the globe, is the greatest country on Earth.
References and further reading:
- Old Jules by Mari Sandoz
- Jules E. Tissot in Compendium of History Reminiscence & Biography of Western Nebraska, 1909, p. 948
- A Nurses Experience in World War One By Gabrielle Tissot Mulvane (unpublished book)
- Amelia Earhart’s 1935 Story on Becoming First to Fly From Hawaii to California, National Geographic News, 2014
- Past Contact: Mechanics in History, Ernest Eugene Tissot
- Ernest Eugene Tissot Jr. (Wikipedia)