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Home   >  Living in Orsières  >  History
A Short History

At the centre of a huge commune which covers 165 km2 and borders both Italy and France, the village of Orsières is the fruit of an arranged marriage : that of the route over the Saint Bernard Pass (or Mont Joux as it was then) and the River Dranse. From Bourg-Saint-Pierre to Martigny the Celts’ (the local tribe were the Véragres) track later became a roman road and then a royal thoroughfare always following the same route with a single bridge over the river: in Orsières.

This bridge was of great strategic significance so a fortified house was built to guard it. This castle gave the name "Châtelard" to the hamlet around it. A little lower down another village grew sufficiently important to be called a borough - "Le Bourgeal".

But it was on the east bank of the river that the village grew most, with three churches successively occupying the same spot and a long street of shops stretching out whose colours today bear witness to the wealth of bygone years.

The town that now bears the name of Orsières is first mentioned shortly before the year 1000 AD. Bishops and brigands (highwaymen), emperors and adventurers, pilgrims and merchants often passed through. But, in 972 AD, the gangs of Saracens who were pillaging the area around the Mont Joux and holding travellers to ransom, seized Mayeul, a Papal Councillor and Abbot of Cluny, not far from the bridge in Orsières. The story of this kidnapping put Orsières on the map, but the hostage takers were chased out of the Alps shortly afterwards. The bears, which were common in the area, gave Orsières its name and its coat of arms.

Up until the 13C Orsières was home to the Entremont "vidomat". An administrative reshuffle by the Count of Savoy put the community under the jurisdiction of the Lord of the Manor of Sembrancher, while everyday business was overseen by a bailiff, an office which, with few changes, became that of the President of the Commune at the end of the “Ancien Régime” or Old Order.

At the junction of two alpine valleys, Orsières is the gateway to Aosta and Italy over the Great-Saint-Bernard or from the Val Ferret or Champex up into the mountains around the Mont Blanc. One can’t leave without admiring the 14C bell tower and the century old church. Nearby those interested can visit Champex where the Alpine Garden is a rare jewel in the setting of the lake or they can explore the Val Ferret, stopping to admire the restored water mill at Issert. Also close by are the sunny balcony that is home to Verbier and the Nature Reserves of the Haut Val de Bagnes, the Combe de l’A and the Val Ferret.

Hôtel des Alpes / photo : André Métroz
Hôtel des Alpes / photo : André Métroz
Rue de la Montoz / photo : André Métroz
Rue de la Montoz / photo : André Métroz
Rue de la Commune / photo : André Métroz
Rue de la Commune / photo : André Métroz
Coat of Arms

Argent on a bear sable, salient, armed and langued gules

The Orsières Coat of Arms is appropriate as the name is derived from the Old French « orsière, oursières » meaning a bear’s den or an area teeming with bears. The first known Coat of Arms is engraved on the 1498 Thaler (a silver coin, the forerunner of today’s dollar) and the Stumpf Chronik of 1548 contains a copy.

From “Les communes valaisannes et leurs armoiries” (Ed. Ketty & Alexandre, 1985)

The Orsières bear has been drawn in various positions, a tribute to the animal’s agility and to the loacls’ indifference to its antics. Diagonal, like the Bernese bear on Mathieu Schiner’s thaler, it has reared up in Jan Stumpf’s copy in his 1548 “Swiss Chronicle”.

The banner of the “Echo d’Orny” choir, founded in 1899, shows the bear in a more animal posture which is haw a naïve painter had drawn it in 1745. Less assuming, a bear on all fours also appealed to the parish. This is a walking bear or bear passant to use the heraldic term, but is there a reason why it faces right whereas the Commune’s bear faces left? Finally, around 1940, Mr Genoud, the local surveyor, drew the erect, svelte and stylish bear we know today.

From “Orsières ma Commune” by René Berthod

Le Tahler de Nicolas Schiner
Le Tahler de Nicolas Schiner
Bois de la "Chronique de Stunpf", 1548
Bois de la "Chronique de Stunpf", 1548
Bannière de la société de chant Echo d'Orny
Bannière de la société de chant Echo d'Orny
L'Ours de Berne
L'Ours de Berne
The Commune's Archives

The archives are housed in the Town Hall in Orsières.

They are kept in a vaulted room which is reached throught the secretary’s office. The room contains :

  • 18 parchemnt rolls catalogued from Pg R 1 to Pg R 18. The longest roll is 34.3 m long and the second longest 18.26 m ;
  • 396 parchments, dating from 1228 to 1798, catalogued from Pg 1 to Pg 396. The most recent parchment dates from 1790, Pg 201 b ;  
  • books, catalogued L 1 to L 190 ;
  • papers, catalogued P 1 to P 806 ;
  • the Judges’ Archives, catalogued J 1 to J 169 ;
  • some Notaries’ Minutes, catalogued M 1 to M 12.

These documents can be consulted by prior arrangement during the opening hours of the Commune's office.

Mr René Berthod is presently in charge of the archives.