In the not-so-rich history of surnames in Paznaun, “Walser” has a very particular place. Trisanna History explains what makes this name so special.
Walser is actually the name of an ethnic group. A farming people originally from the Upper Valais region of Switzerland, they left their settlement area more than 700 years ago. They struck out in small groups in all four directions to settle throughout the Alpine region. The municipality of Galtür is the most easterly of all the Walser settlements – and Walser have lived here since 1320. Why they put down roots right here in what were then the very uneconomical heights of Paznaun remains a mystery to historians to this day. And the precise reasons for their emigration away from Valais are also unexplained. Was Valais overpopulated at the time? Was it afflicted by natural disaster, or had the climate changed so much that life had become difficult?
What is certain is that the Walser were one of the few self-sufficient ethnic groups back then. They were free to build communities and govern themselves independent of feudal lords. This was probably also due to the remoteness of their settlements, which were often only accessible by mule track up until the very recent past. Living in isolation, they were able to maintain their customs and language into modern times. The language only began to disappear gradually under the influence of industrialization and tourism in the 19th century.
There is some controversy over who is entitled to call themselves a Walser these days. According to the historian Georg Jäger, former president of the Walser Association, a true Walser masters the dialect and speaks it in the town as well as in the valley. However, there is no disputing the fact that the Walser have strongly influenced the culture of Paznaun, and of everywhere where they have settled. As farmers and mule drivers they developed working tools which are still used today throughout the region. Perhaps the most famous of these is the “rittbrätt”, a form of transport consisting of a wooden board with leather straps.
So you could say that the Walser invented the snowboard back then.