William Tell and the Zumbrunnen Family

The town center of Altdorf includes this famous sculpture of William Tell

The market place of Altdorf features this famous sculpture of William Tell.
H. Grob via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Zumbrunnen family originates from the Swiss towns of Attinghausen and Altdorf, in the Canton of Uri, and if you’d ever heard of these towns before it’s very likely because of William Tell, whose famous story takes place in Altdorf.

The Story

The most famous version of the story is a play by Friedrich von Schiller, written in 1804. A summary follows (with spoilers):

In the year 1307, the Austrian tyrants, the Hapsburgs, were seeking to conquer Uri because it lay along an important trade route known as the Gotthard Pass. The Hapsburgs appointed a cruel and brutal man named Hermann Gessler to be their reeve and subjugate the unruly mountain men.

With the promise of sharing the Habsburg wealth, Gessler wins the support of Ulrich von Rudenz, an heir to the Attinghausen Castle that controls the region. Gessler becomes increasingly vicious, erecting a large prison in Altdorf to imprison the increasingly rebellious peasantry. Gessler even savagely blinds an old man who does not reveal the location of his own son, who is among the rebels.

But Ulrich is not the leading noble yet. His uncle Werner, the Baron of Attinghausen, though frail and over 80-years-old, is uncooperative with Gessler. He is a friend of the peasants, and enemy of the Habsburg tyrants, but is too weak to command a force against Gessler. He tries to persuade his nephew and heir Ulrich to support the rebellion.

Walter Fürst is a farmer and peasant leader of the rebels. His daughter Hedwig is married to William Tell, the most renowned crossbowman in all the land whom Fürst hopes to recruit to the cause. En route to meet with his father-in-law, Tell and his son pass the new prison of Gessler and refuse to salute.

As punishment, Gessler orders William Tell to demonstrate his skill with a crossbow by shooting an apple off his own son’s head from one hundred yards away. The town is horrified by the cruelty of this punishment, but Tell successfully hits the apple from 100 yards. Gessler orders Tell sent to prison, but Tell escapes.

Ulrich realizes from this cruelty that Werner of Attinghausen was right all along, and decides to join with the peasant Walter Fürst to support the cause of the people. Before dying Werner foresees the end of the nobles and the rise of the people, and outlines a strategy to Fürst about how to defeat Gessler and predicts that “freedom will wave her conquering banner high.”

Now united, Ulrich, Fürst and Tell launch a plan to free Uri. From a remote distance Tell again demonstrates his marksmanship shooting Gessler through the heart, and leaderless, the Habsburg forces are crushed.

Ulrich joins the peasants, treating them as comrades, and joins in a chant “Long live brave Tell.” The play concludes with Ulrich, recognizing Werner’s wisdom and seeing the dignity of all men, setting free all his serfs.

Fact or Legend?

The museum of William Tell  in Uri, Switzerland

The museum of William Tell in Uri, Switzerland
Roland Zumbuehl via Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-3.0

The earliest versions of the story date to the 1400s, a full century later (although many old records from the 1300s were destroyed in a fire in Altdorf). Historians are not even 100% sure that Tell existed, and the story about the apple is nearly identical to an older folk legend from Denmark.

Although no records survive for Tell, records survive for at least 7 different members of our family living near Altdorf at the time: Burkhard Zumbrunnen, Conrad Zumbrunnen, Heinrich Zumbrunnen, Johan Zumbrunnen, Mechtilda Zumbrunnen and Walter Zumbrunnen who all lived in the late 1200s or early 1300s. They would have been his contemporaries.

Real Ties to the Zumbrunnen

While there is scholarly debate over whether Tell existed, many aspects of the story are indisputably true, and have proven connections to the Zumbrunnen.

  • The people of Uri ferociously resisted the Hapsburgs, and the Zumbrunnen family are known to have participated in this resistance.
  • Werner of Attinghausen is a historical figure, who was a cousin of the Zumbrunnen. His father (also named Werner) appears in historical records alongside Burkhard Zumbrunnen. In 1251, the elder Werner and Burkhard helped forge an alliance with the city of Zürich.
  • Werner really does appear to have lived quite a long time. He was born before 1255 and died as late as 1329. He didn’t actually die in 1307, nor does he appear to have lost control of Uri to the Hapsburgs, as portrayed in Schiller’s play.
  • Werner of Attinghausen, although a baron, really does appear to have (surprisingly) joined a democratic movement among the peasantry in Uri. Between six and eight Zumbrunnen men were elected leaders in this movement over the coming centuries.
  • It’s not clear if there was a spontaneous liberation of serfs as depicted in the play, but the central Swiss cantons really did eliminate serfdom in the 1300s and 1400s.
  • There really was a family of reeves named Gessler who served the Habsburgs. There’s no records of a Gessler in Uri, although this could be explained by him being quickly killed. Several Gesslers were especially unpopular in the late 1300s, so the reeve in the story may have been named Gessler to fit that later political context. If the Hapsburgs really sent a reeve to Altdorf, it’s certainly true he didn’t last.
  • Walter Fürst is a historical figure. His granddaughter or great-granddaughter Hemma Fürst married Walter Zumbrunnen in the mid- to late-1300s.
  • Johann Von Rudenz (rather than Ulrich) was a son-in-law of Werner Von Attinghausen, who eventually did inherit some of his property, including the Rudenz Castle. (In the 1600s, this castle was acquired by Johann Heinrich Zumbrunnen.) He is left out of the play, but in fact Werner’s son Johann Von Attinghausen inherited the castle first, until his death in the 1350s.
  • The people of Uri fought, and won, several great military victories over the Habsburgs, and the alliance between the alpine mountain valleys really did develop into the modern independent nation of Switzerland. The men of Uri won a major battle over Hapsburg forces in the Battle of Morgarten in 1315 (it’s likely Zumbrunnen men of age fought in this conflict). Heinrich Zumbrunnen fought and died in the 1339 Battle of Laupen against the Habsburgs. In 1386, Walter Zumbrunnen (the husband of Hemma Fürst) fought in the Battle of Sempach against the Hapsburgs.
  • Tell’s story certainly inspired generations of Swiss men, many who preserved the tradition when they moved to America. Early Swiss immigrants in Ohio (not far from where Henry Zumbrun lived) decided to move west and found Tell City, IN in honor of Tell in the year 1856. This was about the same time that Henry Sylvester Zumbrun moved from Ohio to Indiana.
  • The play is much more fun to read knowing that one’s ancestors lived through the events surrounding it!

    William Tell painting, possibly by Paul Bril

    William Tell painting, possibly by Paul Bril


  • William Tell by Friedrich Von Schiller, translated into English by Theodore Martin.
  • “In Search of William Tell” by Robert Wernick in Smithsonian Magazine (August 2004).
  • “Tell, Wilhelm” (in German) by François de Capitani in The Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  • “When Switzerland Needs a Hero, It Calls William Tell” by John Letzing in The Wall Street Journal (November 25, 2013). An amusing story about how William Tell has been reimagined as a comic book hero.

    1. […] three founders of the republic. (Hemma’s ancestor Walter is one of the main characters in the story of William Tell. Walter was approximately the right age to be Hemma’s grandfather or great-grandfather.) He […]

    2. […] prosperity of his country. (This Werner is one of the main characters in the famous play about the Swiss hero William Tell, and is thus himself one of Switzerland’s most famous patriots.) The hereditary zeal in his […]

    3. Amazing amount of work done here Josh Zumbrunnen . My Great Grandfather came to the USA from Switzerland in the late 1800′s . I have the exact date somewhere. His Name was Christian Zumbrunnen and he settled in Monroe County Ohio

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