Newly Swissed Online Magazine

Tales from the Armoire – A Multi-Part Series on Finding Identity through Family History (Part 4)

Geneva & Points West

I drove down the Avenue d’Aïre on a gray and rainy Autumn day. I made a right turn on a small lane that surrounded a former manor home and many newer apartment blocks. I passed many small urban garden plots and parked my car in front of a blue street sign that read Chemin Henri de Büren.

Tales from the Armoire

I put on my coat and made my way down the damp street towards the gate at the front of the property. Entering the grounds, I walked towards the large building which had been a beautiful home many years before. I tried to imagine it, the barn and the grounds in their former splendor. I was at La Châtelaine.

Tales from the Armoire

Tales from the Armoire

Tales from the Armoire

Henri Louis de Büren purchased La Châtelaine in 1889, then on the outskirts of Geneva after the sale of Vaumarcus castle. He moved his family to Geneva primarily to provide better services, and social opportunities for his three deaf children who were growing into adulthood. While Geneva would be the new Swiss home of my ancestral line, not all of Henri's children would remain in Switzerland.

Philippe de Büren

Philippe, Henri's second son, would emigrate to Argentina in 1891 to join a Swiss colony in Córdoba. Whether his emigration was at the urging of his father or of his own accord is unknown. Philippe's move to South America seemed unusual to me for someone whose family was by all accounts very well off. While puzzling, his desire to travel west was not unprecedented.

The first member of the family to travel to the Americas was Arnold Louis de Büren. He left Bern in 1810 to join the ill-fated New Fribourg colony near Rio de Janeiro. He would only stay a year before returning to Bern.

Louis Amedé and Frédéric de Büren

His two sons Louis Amedé and Frédéric also had Wanderlust and would emigrate to the United States in 1829 in search of an American utopia. They eventually settled in Madison, Indiana, a small town on the Ohio River.

Louis took a wife and became a farmer, finding 19th century rural life in the United States more challenging than he anticipated. His brother helped on the farm for a time, before moving on to the Catholic University in Vincennes, Indiana, where he taught German. Frédéric is said to have returned to Switzerland at some point in the 1870s. Louis stayed.

His descendants live today mostly in the Southern U.S. and go by the name of Van Buren. The family name was changed at some point whether by clerical error or at Louis' behest to appear more American. A Dutch version of the Buren name was certainly more recognizable, given that Martin Van Buren's presidency was of that era.

Henri Louis de Büren

The most famous voyage by far, however, was made by Henri Louis de Büren, a botanist, adventurer and artist. He is the same man who would be the future owner of La Châtelaine. He left the Castle of Vaumarcus in his late 20s in 1852 and would not return until two years later. His voyage took him through the United States, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Brazil.

Tales from the Armoire

It seems fairly certain that Henri Louis regaled his children with fanciful tales of the Americas when they were small. I can only surmise that once his son Philippe knew that Vaumarcus castle would not be his to lord over, asked for money to purchase land in Argentina.

While Philippe made a life for himself on the Argentine Pampas, the original property of La Châtelaine would start to be slowly partitioned and sold off. The largest part was sold first to the city of Geneva for the new Gas Works. The property would be sold in its entirety in 1915.

Philippe de Büren had seemingly done well for himself in Córdoba, but his emigration to Argentina was not a one-way journey. He would return to Geneva in 1911 with his wife and seven children for their education. He had planned on staying in Geneva until his oldest son Henri, my grandfather, was of age to return to Argentina and take over the ranch.

Tales from the Armoire

Tales from the Armoire

For reasons that are still unclear, my grandfather was sent from Geneva by his father to work on a Swiss farm near Fresno, California, in 1923. It appears it was meant to give my grandfather the skills he needed to run a big agricultural enterprise. Skills he would take with him back to the ranch. After Fresno, he went north to San Francisco where he fell in love with a young French woman. As I grew up in the Bay Area, he never got on the boat to Buenos Aires.

I feel I was born where I was supposed to be

Being born in the U.S. has given me a unique perspective on my Swiss identity and I could not see my life any other way. That being said, walking around former family property in Switzerland can be bittersweet.

La Châtelaine is no different, but there is a silver lining, the urban gardens. Henri Louis de Büren, a noted botanist, took great pride in his agricultural exploits, and so it is fitting that these gardens still flourish today. They demonstrate that often what we love endures in ways we could not have anticipated.

Their symbol gives me strength to share my love for family history, and storytelling, not for what it says about me, but what is says for the timeless emotional and cultural connection we all share.

For more in-depth coverage on my family heritage, please visit my family blog @


Jean-François is a dual Swiss and American national who is passionate about his own family roots as well as the preservation of Swiss cultural traditions in the US. He is an active writer, blogger, and strategic partner to Swiss cultural organizations in the United States and abroad. Jean-François lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he heads a small design and branding consultancy.


  • Wonderful to read, to see, to feel…I grew up in Geneva, and share many of your feelings :)



  • Hello JF! Good post! And the pictures, a nice treasure. I have a question, that picture of the llamas and the Andes, was made by Henri? because the man in the back, he looks like a gaucho. This year i almost went to Geneve, but finally i went to Torino, and Geneve is still pending. Nice greetings from Spain!

  • Hello Cousin! Great post. I love what you are doing for the family history. You definitely have a way with words. Just reading this feels like sharing the adventure.
    Big kisses from Geneva


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