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Political history and modern state of the inhabitants of the Alps
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Political history and modern state of the inhabitants of the Alps

Little is known of the early dwellers in the Alps, save from the scanty accounts preserved by Roman and Greek historians and geographers. A few details have come down to us of the conquest of many of the Alpine tribes by Augustus.

The successive emigration and occupation of the Alpine region by various Teutonic tribes from the 5th to the 6th centuries are, too, known only in outline, because to them, as to the Frankish kings and emperors, the Alps offered a route from one place to another rather than a permanent residence.

It is not until the final breakup of the Carolingian Empire in the 10th and 11th centuries that it becomes possible to trace out the local history of different parts of the Alps.

Table of contents
1 The Western Alps
2 The Central Alps
3 The Eastern Alps

The Western Alps

In the case of the Western Alps (minus the bit from the chain of Mont Blanc to the Simplon, which followed the fortunes of the Valais), a prolonged struggle for control took place between the feudal lords of Savoy, the Dauphine and Provence. In 1349 the Dauphiné fell to France, while in 1388 the county of Nice passed from Provence to the house of Savoy, which also then held Piedmont as well as other lands on the Italian side of the Alps. The struggle henceforth was limited to France and the house of Savoy, but little by little France succeeded in pushing back the house of Savoy across the Alps, forcing it to become a purely Italian power.

One turning-point in the rivalry was the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), by which France ceded to Savoy the Alpine districts of Exilles, Bardonneche (Bardonecchia), Oulx, U.enestrelles, and Châtean Dauphin, while Savoy handed over to France the valley of Barcelonnette, situated on the western slope of the Alps and forming part of the county of Nice. The final act in this long-continued struggle took place in 1860, when France obtained by cession the rest of the county of Nice and also Savoy, thus remaining sole ruler on the western slope of the Alps.

The Central Alps

In the Central Alps the chief event, on the northern side of the chain, is the gradual formation from 1291 to 1815 of the Swiss Confederation, at least so far as regards the mountain Cantons, and with especial reference to the independent confederations of the Grisons and the Valais, which only became full members of the Confederation in 1803 and 1815 respectively. The attraction of the south was too strong for both the Forest Cantons and the Grisons, so that both tried to secure, and actually did secure, various bits of the Milanese.

In the 15th century, the Forest Cantons won the Val Leventina as well as Bellinzona and the Val Blenio (though the Ossola Valley was held for a time only). Blenio was added to the Val Bregaglia (which had been given to the bishop of Coire in 960 by the emperor Otto I), along with the valleys of Mesocco and of Poschiavo.

In 1512, the Swiss Confederation as a whole won the valleys of Locarno with Lugano, which, combined with the 15th century conquests by the Forest Cantons, were formed in 1803 into the new Canton of Ticino or Tessin.

On the other hand, the Grisons won in 1512 the Valtellina, along with Bormio and Chiavenna, but in 1797 these regions were finally lost to it as well as to the Swiss Confederation, though the Grisons retained the valleys of Mesocco, Bregaglia and Poschiavo, while in 1762 it had bought the upper bit of the valley of Munster that lies on the southern slope of the Alps.

The Eastern Alps

The political history of the Eastern Alps can be considered almost totally in terms of the advance or retreat of the house of Habsburg. The Habsburgers' original home was in the lower valley of the Aar, where the ruins of their ancestral castle still stand. They lost that district to the Swiss in 1415, as they had previously lost various other sections of what is now Switzerland. But they built an impressive empire in the Eastern Alps, where they defeated numerous minor dynasties. They won the duchy of Austria with Styria in 1282, Carinthia and Carniola in 1335, Tirol in 1363, and the Vorarlberg in bits from 1375 to 1523, not to speak of minor "rectifications" of frontiers on the northern slope of the Alps. But on the other slope their progress was slower, and finally less successful.

It is true that they won Primiero quite early (1373), as well as (1517) the Ampezzo Valley and several towns to the south of Trent. In 1797 they obtained Venetia proper, in 1803 the secularized bishoprics of Trent and Briken (as well as that of Salzburg, more to the north), besides the Valtellina region, and in 1815 the Bergamasque valleys, while the Milanese had belonged to them since 1535. But in 1859 they lost to the house of Savoy both the Milanese and the Bergamasca, and in 1866 Venetia proper also, so that the Trentino was then their chief possession on the southern slope of the Alps. The gain of the Milanese in 1859 by the future king of Italy (1861) meant that Italy then won the valley of Livigno (between the Upper Engadine and Bormio), which is the only important bit it holds on the non-Italian slope of the Alps, besides the county of Tenda (obtained in 1575, and not lost in 1860), with the heads of certain glens in the Maritime Alps, reserved in 1860 for reasons connected with hunting.

Thus the Alpine states (Italy, Switzerland and Austria), other than France and Bavaria, each hold bits of territory on the slope of the Alps where one would not expect to find them. Roughly speaking, in each of these five lands the Alpine population speaks the tongue of the country, though in Italy there are a few French-speaking districts (the Waldensian valleys as well as the Aosta and Oulx valleys) as well as some German-speaking and Ladin-speaking settlements. In Switzerland, there are Italian-speaking regions, as well as some spots (in the Grisons) where the old Romance dialect of Romansch survives; while in Austria, besides German, Italian and Ladin, there is a Slovenian-speaking population in the South-Eastern Alps. The highest permanently inhabited village in the Alps is Juf, 6998 feet (Grisons); while in the French Alps, L'Ecot, 6713 feet (Savoy), and St Veran, 6726 feet (Dauphine), are rivals; the Italian Alps boast of Trepalle, 6788 feet (between Livigno and Bormio), and the Tirolese Alps of Ober Gurgl, 6322 feet, and Fend, 6211 feet (both in the Oetzthal).