1770 – Martin Liberat Beer

Martin Liberat Beer was born January 26, 1770 in Switzerland, most likely in the village of Surrein in Kreis Disentis (Disentis county) which lies in the Val Tujetsch (the Tujetsch or Tavetsch Valley) at the far western end of Canton Graubünden. Martin’s parents were Caspar Beer and Maria Cristina Maler who were both born about 1745. This is as far back as we’ve traced the Beer family.

Martin’s middle name Liberat is Latin for “to liberate.” In some documents he is called Martin Caspar Beer, after his father. Perhaps his full name was Martin Liberat Caspar Beer or Martin Caspar Liberat Beer.


The hamlet of Surrein is situated near the source of the Rhine river. The Vorderrhein (alternately called the Fore Rhine or Anterior Rhine) begins from mountain streams which flow down Badusberge (Mount Badus) to the idyllic Tomasee (Lake Toma) at its foot.

The Vorderrhein then flows northeast past the villages of the Val Tujetsch (Tujetsch Valley) which are clustered on both banks of the river. The Val Tujetsch is the upper part of the larger Vorderrheintal (Vorderrhein Valley) which runs from west to east through the Alps with the Rhine river at its heart. As the Rhine flows east, it passes the villages of Tujetsch and Sedrun and the town of Disentis before arriving at Surrein.

Surrein lies on a valley terrace in the municipal district of Sumvitg (pronounced “Somvich”). The municipality consists of the village of Sumvitg and the smaller hamlets of Surrein, Rabius, Laus and Compadials as well as numerous farm houses. The village of Surrein lies on the south side of the Vorderrhein across the river from Sumvigt and just upstream from the confluence of a smaller tributary, the Rein da Sumvigt. Surrein is nestled in a triangle of land formed by the two streams. Also across the across the river, just east of Sumvitg is the hamlet of Curtins, from which the De Curtins (Des Curtins) family derives its name.

In Roman times, the larger village of Sumvitg was known as Summus Vicus (Supreme Village) and in 1175 it was documented as Summovico (Highest Village). In the Middle Ages, Summovico (Sumvitg) was part of Cadì, the Medieval monastery state of the prince abbot of Disentis. In recent times, Sumvitg was known by its German name as Somvix, until 1986 when it took its current name.

the monastery of St. Martin

The villages of Tujetsch are part of the larger Kreis Disentis, one of five counties of the larger district of Surselva (Romansh for “the high forests”), which in turn is one of fourteen districts of Canton Graubünden.

Kreis Disentis takes its name from the town of Disentis (also known as Mustér) where the Benedictine monastery of St. Martin is located. It lies upstream from Surrein. The German name Disentis is derived from the Latin word desertina, describing the wilderness of this area when a wandering Frankish hermit named Sigisbert built his hut there in the year 700, laying the foundation for the creation of the monastery twenty years later.

The village of Disentis is strategically situated at the intersection of the road which comes from Canton Uri in the east across the Oberalp Pass and the road coming from Canton Ticino in the south through the Lukmanier Pass, one of the lowest and most easily accessible passes through the Alps. Because the road to the Lukmanier pass was used by the German emperors of Das Heiligen Römischen Reiches (the Holy Roman Empire) traveling from the north on their way to Italy, Disentis became a place of international importance in the High Middle Ages.

It was at this strategic intersection that the monastery of St. Martin was founded about 720. It is one of the oldest Benedictine monasteries in Europe. In 940, the valley was invaded by the Saracens, Arabian raiders who had established a foothold to the south in Sicily. The monks had to flee to safety in Zurich before returning later to rebuild the abbey. The Baroque collegiate church, dating from 1712, with its two onion-domed towers and rich stucco work and painted ceilings, is one of the most important sacred buildings in Canton Graubünden.

In 1048, the monastery was put under the direct rule of the Emperor. It became a Reichsklöster or imperial abbey, a religious house within the Holy Roman Empire which was answerable directly to the Emperor and was thus a sovereign and independent territory. This status allowed the Reichsabt or imperial abbot the right to demand various taxes and duties and to levy justice within the monastery’s territory, which in this case included the villages of the Vorderrheintal (Vorderrhein Valley). This Medieval monastery state was known locally as Cadì. The name derived from a contraction of the Latin “Casa Dei,” which means the House of God.

In the later Middle Ages, the farming communities in the valleys became more influential and the power of the monastery decreased, but the abbot of Disentis still played an important leadership role in the founding of the Grauebund (Grey League) in 1395.

Historically Surrein was part of Die Cadi which included the towns of Tujetsch, Medel, Disentis, Sumvitg, and Trun going from west to east as the Rhine flows downhill.

the Tujetsch valley

The Tujetsch valley’s settlement probably began after the foundation of the Monastery in Disentis in the eighth century. Previously, the area of Tujetsch was covered with coniferous forest. The lack of early settlement is testified by the name given to the monastery’s location—Disentis is derived from the latin word desertina, indicating a deserted valley.

The villages of Tujetsch were finally settled sometime around the 12th century by a German-speaking people known as the Walser. The Walser people are named after the upper Wallis valley in Canton Valais in southwest Switzerland. They are believed to have originally lived in southwest Germany and settled the upper part of the Wallis about 1000 years ago. From the upper Wallis, they began to spread south, west and east between the 12th and 13th centuries, which is known as the Walser migrations. The Walsers migrated to the upper regions of Tujetsch in the twelfth century, coming from Valais over the Oberalp Pass.

The Walser people imported the German language to the region. Previously, the language of the region had been Romansh which is believed to have descended from the Vulgar Latin spoken by Roman era occupiers of the region. It is a Rhaeto-Romance language closely related to French and North Italian. The Graubünden district of Surselva is one of the few areas in Switzerland that is still mainly Romansh speaking. The village of Disentis is today one of the most important centers of the Romansh language, especially of its Sursilvan dialect. Jacob Beer’s given name in Romansh was Giachen Martin Beer.


Canton Graubünden, Switzerland’s largest canton or state, occupies the entire southeast of the country and takes in a huge but sparsely populated area that’s the most culturally diverse in Switzerland. The canton borders Liechtenstein and Austria to the north, and Italy to the east and south. It is known as Graubünden in German, Grigioni in Italian, Grischun in Romansh, and Grisons in French.

Sheer rocky Alpine peaks, thick pine-forested highlands, and over a hundred deep, isolated fertile valleys, make Graubünden the wildest and loneliest part of Switzerland, and very difficult to get around in. Glaciers that form between the high mountains launch two of Europe’s great rivers—the Rhine and the Inn—on their long journeys to the North Sea and the Black Sea respectively.

About a third of the canton is productive land with forests, mountain pastures and vineyards. Pomegranates, figs and chestnuts grow in secluded southern valleys.

Early history

Most of the lands of Graubünden were once part of a Roman province called Raetia Prima which was established in 15 BCE. Probably the aboriginal inhabitants, the Raeti, were Celts. The city of Chur, the ancient capital of the region, was once a Roman fortified camp. It became the seat of the Roman Catholic bishop as early as 451 CE and was known as Curia Rhætorum, from which the name Chur derives. The territory nominally passed to the Ostrogoths (493 CE) and to the Franks (537 CE).

In the ninth century, the bishops of Chur began to attain prominence in the region. They allied themselves with the rising power of the Habsburgs— sometimes against the pope—and were declared princes of the empire in the twelfth century. Their power, however, was checked and gradually broken by three local leagues founded between 1367 and 1436.

The Gray Leagues

In 1367, the League of God’s House (Gotteshausbund) was the first of these popular associations to be formed, followed soon by the Gray League or Grauebund in 1395. In 1436 the League of the Ten Jurisdictions (Zehngerichtebund) joined the other two.

The Grauebund was formed by a band of highland shepherds dubbed “the gray farmers” for their homespun gray wool clothing. These so-called gray farmers included those of the Tujetsch villages who breed the smallest sheep in Switzerland, the Tavetscher sheep.

The three loosely allied leagues, composed of communes and feudal lords, came together in 1471 to pledge mutual assistance, and joined with the cantons of the Swiss Confederation for support. The impenetrable landscape of the hinterland was on their side. The united leagues were soon able to seize political power from the church and the nobles. They became an independent alliance known as Graubünden or Gray Leagues.

French control

In 1798, when Martin Beer was 28 years old, his country was invaded by French troops. The French abolished the Swiss Confederation and replaced the loose confederation with the centralized Helvetic Republic. Once Switzerland had been drawn into the French sphere of influence, it could not escape the war that raged through Europe for the next 16 years. In 1799 it was an unwilling battleground as Austrian and Russian troops tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the French. The presence of large numbers of foreign troops impoverished the country.

The region around Disentis was the scene of bitter fights with the invading French, who in 1799 set fire to the village and the monastery after a rising of the local people.

Graubünden changed hands several times between the French and the Austrians in 1799-1800, but the French were eventually victorious. However, the Helvetic Republic soon proved unworkable, and the country slid into civil war. The Swiss were divided mainly between “Republicans” who were in favor of a centralized government, and “Federalists” who wanted to restore autonomy to the cantons. The violent conflict between both sides was never-ending.

In Paris in 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte organized a meeting of the leading Swiss politicians from both sides. The result was the Act of Mediation which largely restored Swiss autonomy and introduced a Confederation of 19 Cantons—the 13 original cantons and six new ones, including Graubünden. This was the first change in Confederation membership since 1513. From then on much of Swiss politics would be about preserving the cantons’ right to self-rule and the need for a central government.

The tide turned against Napoleon after the failure of his 1812 Russian campaign, and the Allies—led by Austria—worked to undermine French influence in Switzerland. The pre-revolutionary authorities took over again in Switzerland at the end of 1813, and under a new Federal Pact signed in August 1815 the cantons recovered their sovereignty in all matters except foreign affairs. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 fully re-established Swiss independence and the European powers agreed to permanently recognize the Swiss neutrality.

1805 – Onna Maria Nescha Decurtins

About 1805, Martin Beer married Onna Maria Nescha (Nescha) Decurtins, daughter of Giachen Decurtins and Onna Hendry. Nescha was born on March 21, 1783, about 13 years after the birth of Martin Beer, and was known in official Latin documents as Anna Maria Agnetis Decurtins. Nescha and Agnetis are both forms of Agnes, the saint who was martyred because she wanted to be a perpetual virgin and refused to marry.

We’ve traced the Decurtins line back to Nescha’s grandfather Gion Decurtins, who was born about 1720. The Hendry line goes back to Nescha’s other grandfather Francestg Hendry, who was born on May 6, 1694. (Francestg looks like a misspelling, but apparently is not as I’ve found other instances of the same spelling in other Swiss names. It is a variation of Franziskus, a name given in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.)


Martin Beer and Nescha Decurtin had nine children, all born in the village of Surrein:

  • Caspar Antoni Beer, born September 11, 1806
  • Maria Barla Cresenzia Beer, born March 21, 1808
  • Maria Cristina Beer, born March 25, 1809,
  • Maria Cristina Beer, born April 15, 1810
  • Maria Barla Cresenzia Beer, born April 2
  • Giachen Martin (Jacob Martin) Beer, born March 18, 1814
  • Giachen Antoni Beer, born April 18, 1817
  • Vigeli Giusep Beer, born August 2, 1819
  • Gion Antoni Beer, born October 2, 1822
  • Maria Barla Cresenzia Beer, born May 23, 1825


At least three of the Beer children emigrated to the United States in the 1850s:

  • Gion Antoni (John Anthony) Beer, emigrated on November 8, 1852 at age 30
  • Giachen Antoni (Jacob Anthony) Beer, emigrated on September 5, 1853 at age 36
  • Giachen Martin (Jacob Martin) Beer, emigrated on February 27, 1854 at age 39

For many people in Switzerland in the mid-1800s, economic conditions were very difficult. Poverty, hunger and lack of employment were impacted by population growth and famine. Hundreds of thousands of Swiss were forced to leave their homeland during the nineteenth century. Most emigrants went to North America, but Swiss colonies were established all over the world. In particular there were waves of emigration in 1816-1817, 1845-1855 and 1880-1885. The three Beer brothers were part of the wave of emigrants from 1845 to 1855.

Local governing councils in the cantons gave people a financial incentive to emigrate—typically 400 Swiss francs (6 months wages for a working man)—in order to have one less mouth to feed during a period of economic recession. The money was given to the emigrants on the condition that they never returned to Europe. If they ever returned to their native land, they were obliged to reimburse it, along with annual interest at 4%, calculated from the day of departure. 

Advertisements appeared regularly in Swiss newspapers, placed by travel agencies catering to the demand for emigration. The more reliable of these agencies offered organized crossings of the Atlantic from Le Havre for 80-100 Swiss francs, depending on the number of passengers. Food on board cost about 40 Swiss francs, and typically consisted of biscuits, flour, butter, ham, salt, potatoes and vinegar. With this the emigrants prepared their own meals. In addition, there was the cost of overland transport in a diligence (a fast French stage coach) to Le Havre (about 60 Swiss francs) and food for the 4 or 5 days spent on the coach.

Clippers crossed the Atlantic in less than 20 days, making the crossing far less of an ordeal than for the earlier pioneers. In 1857, the agency of André Zwilchenbart at Basle advertised regular packet-boat sailings for New York, and 3-mast American ships sailing to New Orleans. 33 years later, in 1880, the same agency advertised steamship passages to North America, Canada and South America.

Groups of people from the same canton tended to travel together. Many towns, particularly in the Americas, are named after the cantons from which their founders came. Highland, Illinois is part of Helvetia Township in Madison County. Helvetia is the Latin name for Switzerland.


We have no record of the deaths of Martin and Nescha Beer.

side note on the Decurtins family

An article on the town of Disentis included a reference to Caspar Decurtins (1855-1916) in a short list of important people from the area. He was born in the village of Truns and was a well known Swiss politician and philosopher. From 1881 to 1905, he was a Member of the Swiss Parliament and was active in matters of social reform. In 1889, he helped found the University of Fribourg in the capital city of the Canton of Fribourg, and in 1905 became Professor of Cultural History there.

Caspar Decurtins was a strong proponent of the Romansh language which is only spoken in Graubünden. In the 1800s, as railways and roads opened up the remote mountain regions of Graubünden, Romansh speakers began to view their language as an economic impediment in dealing with the wider world. Gradually, schools, churches, and communal councils replaced Romansh with German. However by the late nineteenth century, defenders of the language began a Romansh cultural renaissance.

Decurtins was the editor of the Romansh Chrestomathy (a chrestomathy is an anthology used in studying a language) and a promotor of the Romansh renaissance. This movement which led to the recognition of Romansh as the fourth national language in 1938.

This book has been digitized and can be seen online at this link.

I haven’t yet traced the connection of Caspar Decurtins to Nescha Decurtins.