Far up among the Alps, in the very heart of Switzerland, are three
districts, or cantons, as they are called, which are known as the
Forest Cantons and are famous in the world's history. About two
thousand years ago the Romans found in these cantons a hardy race
of mountaineers, who, although poor, were free men and proud of
their independence. They became the friends and allies of Rome,
and the cantons were for many years a part of the Roman Empire, but
the people always had the right to elect their own officers and to
When Goths and the Vandals and the Huns from beyond the Rhine and
the Danube overran the Roman Empire, these three cantons were not
disturbed. The land was too poor and rocky to attract men who were
fighting for possession of the rich plains and valleys of Europe,
and so it happened that for century after century, the mountaineers
of these cantons lived on in their old, simple way, undisturbed by
the rest of the world.
In a canton in the valley of the Rhine lived the Hapsburg family,
whose leaders in time grew to be very rich and powerful. They
became dukes of Austria and some of them were elected emperors.
One of the Hapsburgs, Albert I, claimed that the land of the Forest
Cantons belonged to him. He sent a governor and a band of soldiers
to those cantons and made the people submit to his authority.
In one of the Forest Cantons at this time lived a famous mountaineer
named William Tell. He was tall and strong. In all Switzerland no
man had a foot so sure as his on the mountains or a hand so skilled
in the use of a bow. He was determined to resist the Austrians.
Secret meetings of the mountaineers were held and all took a solemn
oath to stand by each other and fight for their freedom; but they
had no arms and were simple shepherds who had never been trained
as soldiers. The first thing to be done was to get arms without
attracting the attention of the Austrians. It took nearly a year
to secure spears, swords, and battle-axes and distribute them among
the mountains. Finally this was done, and everything was ready.
All were waiting for a signal to rise.
The story tells us that just at this time Gessler, the Austrian
governor, who was a cruel tyrant, hung a cap on a high pole in the
market-place in the village of Altorf, and forced everyone who passed
to bow before it. Tell accompanied by his little son, happened to
pass through the marketplace. He refused to bow before the cap and
was arrested. Gessler offered to release him if he would shoot an
apple from the head of his son. The governor hated Tell and made
this offer hoping that the mountaineer's hand would tremble and
that he would kill his own son. It is said that Tell shot the apple
from his son's head but that Gessler still refused to release him.
That night as Tell was being carried across the lake to prison a
storm came up. In the midst of the storm he sprang from the boat
to an over-hanging rock and made his escape. It is said that he
killed the tyrant. Some people do not believe this story, but the
Swiss do, and if you go to Lake Lucerne some day they will show
you the very rock upon which Tell stepped when he sprang from the
That night the signal fires were lighted on every mountain and
by the dawn of day the village of Altorf was filled with hardy
mountaineers, armed and ready to fight for their liberty. A battle
followed and the Austrians were defeated and driven from Altorf.
This victory was followed by others.
A few years later, the duke himself came with a large army,
determined to conquer the mountaineers. He had to march through
a narrow pass, with mountains rising abruptly on either side. The
Swiss were expecting him and hid along the heights above the pass,
as soon as the Austrians appeared in the pass, rocks and trunks of
trees were hurled down upon them. Many were killed and wounded.
Their army was defeated, and the duke was forced to recognize the
independence of the Forest Cantons.
This was the beginning of the Republic of Switzerland. In time
five other cantons joined them in a compact for liberty.
About seventy years later the Austrians made another attempt to
conquer the patriots. They collected a splendid army and marched
into the mountains. The Swiss at once armed themselves and met
the Austrians at a place called Sempach. In those times powder
had not been invented, and men fought with spears, swords, and
battle-axes. The Austrian soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder,
each grasping a long spear whose point projected far in front of
him. The Swiss were armed with short swords and spears and it was
impossible for them to get to the Austrians. For a while their cause
looked hopeless, but among the ranks of the Swiss was a brave man
from one of the Forest Cantons. His name was Arnold von Winkelried
(Win'-kel-ried). As he looked upon the bristling points of the
Austrian spears, he saw that his comrades had no chance to win
unless an opening could be made in that line. He determined to
make such an opening even at the cost of his life. Extending his
arms as far as he could, he rushed toward the Austrian line and
gathered within his arms as many spears as he could grasp.
"Make way for liberty!" he cried-- Then ran, with arms extended
wide, As if his dearest friend to clasp; Ten spears he swept
within his grasp. "Make way for liberty!" he cried-- Their keen
points met from side to side. He bowed among them like a tree,
And thus made way for liberty.
Pierced through and through Winkelried fell dead, but he had made
a gap in the Austrian line, and into this gap rushed the Swiss
patriots. Victory was theirs and the Cantons were free.