Christoph von Graffenried

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Stained glass window in the Worb parish church (1730).

Christoph von Graffenried (15 November 1661 – 1743) led a group of Swiss and Palatine Germans to North Carolina in British North America in 1705. He later authored Relation of My American Project, an account of the establishment of New Bern.

Biography[edit]

Early life and marriage[edit]

The well-to-do patrician family originally established themselves in the neighborhood of Bern at the time of the founding of the city on the Aar river in 1191 by Berchtold V, Duke of Zaringen.[1]

Christoph von Graffenried was born November 15, 1661 at the family home, Schloss Worb, in Worb, in the German-speaking part of the Canton of Bern. He was the eldest son of Anton von Graffenried (1639–1730) and Katarina Jenner (? -1669).

On April 25, 1684, Graffenried married Regina Tscharner (1665–1731). Regina also came from an accomplished and respected family, her father, Beat Lewis Tscharner, having been a member of the Assembly and her grandfather, Samuel Tscharner, having been Governor and later Mayor of Chillon. Regina and Christoph had four sons and seven daughters. In 1702, he acquired the position as bailiff of Yverdon.

In the New World[edit]

Graffenried met Franz Ludwig Michel, who had discovered silver mines in Virginia and owned land in the New World. He told Graffenried what glorious places North Carolina and Virginia were, and he advised him to move to North Carolina. With the idea of paying off his debts and making money on the cheap land of North Carolina, Graffenried left his debts to his father and secretly departed for London to make arrangements to move to the New World.

When in London, Graffenried met with explorer John Lawson, who was publishing a book entitled A Voyage to Carolina. Lawson was the Surveyor General of North Carolina. Lawson promised to show Graffenried and his settlers a perfect place to establish a community. In 1709, Graffenried next met with the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, who granted to him ten thousand acres (40 km²) on the Neuse and Cape Fear Rivers.[2] They also gave him the title Baron of Bernberg, after the settlement he was supposed to found.

Graffenried recruited a group of German refugees from the Palatine region, which had been ravaged by French warfare and an extremely harsh winter, and Swiss immigrants. After severe hardships in their own countries, they were willing to try starting over in North Carolina. He sailed with the colonists to North Carolina in 1710. On the sea, the settlers were attacked by French privateers who stripped them of everything they brought. (On a similar voyage of nearly 3000 German Palatines from London to New York, nearly one-third died during and shortly after the trip; shipboard illnesses killed many already weakened by the harsh conditions of that winter.)

Once in the New World, the settlers sold everything that remained, except the clothes on their backs. John Lawson took them to a site at the junction of the Trent and Neuse Rivers, which they named New Bern. The first season, the settler's crops did not do well. Graffenried returned to Europe to get supplies and additional settlers. He returned to the colony unscathed.

In addition to a lack of food and supplies, there was great tension between the settlers and the Tuscarora Native Americans of the Neuse River region. They were separated by language and culture, especially related to their differing concepts of land and property rights. The Tuscarora were an Iroquoian-speaking people, distantly related to the Five Tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy based in central and western New York. The settlers had unwittingly planned their new settlement on the site of an old Tuscarora village. In 1711, Graffenried and the settlers evicted a group of Tuscarora from nearby lands without payment, and Graffenried assumed the title "Landgrave of Carolina." Retaliatory raids by the Tuscarora, under a leader named Hancock, led to deaths and damage to the settlement.

An artist's depiction of the torture of Christoph von Graffenried and John Lawson by the Tuscarora, 1711

During the summer of 1711, Graffenried, along with John Lawson, took a trip up the Neuse River. Graffenried wanted to crossbreed European grapes with wild, native grapes and start a vineyard. The Tuscarora took captive Graffenried, John Lawson, and an enslaved African whom they had entrusted with their baggage.

While in captivity, John Lawson and Graffenried were given three separate trials, each in a different Tuscaroran village. One found the men not guilty; the other two pronounced them guilty of wrongful crimes against the Tuscarora. The Tuscarora decided to kill them but, after extended discussion over several weeks, the elders decided Graffenried would be released. He wore such fine clothes they mistook him for the governor of North Carolina.

They thought if they let the "governor" go, the colony would let the incident pass. They informed him they were planning an attack on all the settlements in North Carolina (when this took place, it was known as the Tuscarora Indian War). The next day, the natives killed Lawson after ritual torture. Graffenried was released on condition that no new European settlements should be made without the sanction of the native chiefs. When he finally reached New Bern, he found it abandoned and in flames.

Return to Bern[edit]

Having lost his fortune, Graffenried returned penniless in 1714 to Bern, Switzerland. He owed a great deal of money to the Proprietors of North Carolina, who had funded his settlement expedition. He sold his part in New Bern to Thomas Pollock for 800 pounds. In an attempt to pay off his debts, Graffenried soon wrote a book entitled Relation; it was his apology and explanation as to why his settlement failed. He included several documents, among them a letter written to the governor of North Carolina and a layout of the settlement of New Bern. An artist, he included sketches of early colonial North Carolina.

Graffenried also wrote that Lawson brought his death upon himself. He said that Lawson was a money grubbing land speculator, and that he thought Lawson wanted the colony to fail because he was the one who had told them how good the land was. Graffenried died unhappy and in debt in 1743.

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