Switzerland (officially Confoederatio Helvetica) is a nation located in the center of Europe with total area of approximately 41,293 square kilometers. Its neighbors are, to the north, Germany (states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria), to the east, Austria and Liechtenstein, to the south, Italy and to the west, France.

Introduction to Researching Swiss Ancestors

  1. How do I get started?

    Try to find out as much as possible in your own country. It can only be emphasized again: many names which may sound quite exotic in your country may be very common in Switzerland - just the name and a family tradition that your ancestor came from Switzerland will not be sufficient to get started over here (well, there are always exceptions to any rule - but try not to depend on this).

  2. What is the Familiennamenbuch ?

    To understand this you should first be familiar with the pecularities of Swiss citizenship. The Swiss Surname Book lists the family names of all Swiss citizens existing in 1962, sorted by county and village, indicating since when this citizenship exists. It is the first book to consult when you "suspect" you have Swiss ancestors; even if you are sure you know where your ancestors came from, it's a good idea to check here, so that your information is plausible.

    You will not find the name if the family has become extinct before 1962 - so if you don't find the name you are looking for, this is no proof that your ancestors were not Swiss; it may also be possible that you have looked for an incorrect (possibly Americanized) spelling. If the name is a profession (e.g. Shoemaker) a dictionary may give you the right clue (in this case: Schuhmacher). The Familiennamenbuch is available on FHL microfiche 6053507 as well as in book form at larger Family History Centers and libraries.

  3. What is the Historisch-Biographisches Lexikon der Schweiz?

    In this historical-biographical dictionary of Switzerland, you will find comments on larger families (including extinct ones, not mentioned in the Familiennamenbuch), often giving details on important family members. The HBLS is available from at your local Family History Center (films 1181541-3 or fiche 6000814).

  4. What is a "Familienschein" ?

    This is a copy of a civil record, which can be requested from a Zivilstandamt. It will usually be available for Swiss citizens (see Swiss citizenship) alive after 1876 - occasionally also earlier.

    Today's Civil Registry System in Switzerland was set up in 1876. At the time data was collected retrospectively to a different extent in different communities - if you are lucky you may get information from the "Zivilstandsamt" of the "Bürgerort" of your ancestors dating back to the early 19th century. If you are a direct descendant (it may be a good idea to include some proof when writing to them, e.g. a copy of an immigration record, or a copy of your passport if you are a holder the requested surname) they will issue a "Familienschein" for (usually) a married couple, giving vital statistics on the couple, at least birth information on all children, and (if still within their time-frame) some info on the couple's parents: you could then request a Familienschein for the parents. There will usually be a fee for the Familienschein: depending on the number of entries (children) and the Kanton (county), probably between $30 and $50. It may be a good idea to enquire first, especially if you hope for several Familienscheins (also, include an International Reply Coupon (from your post office) with your query to cover return postage).

    According to the new Civil Registry Ordinance (since 1 Jan 1998) a "Familienschein" will be issued to direct descendants only. You first have to get a permission from the cantonal civil registration office; this permission will only be granted if you can prove that you are a direct descendant. In the meantime a centralised Swiss Civil Registry database is being discussed (see NZZ article of Jan 1999 in German).

  5. My ancestors emigrated before 1876 - now what ?

    The obvious first source for these cases will be church records. sufficient to get started over here (well, there are always exceptions to any rule - but try not to depend on this).

  6. What other information is available at my FHC ?

    Among the many are the genealogies collected by Julius Billeter (1869-1957). This collection has been microfilmed (16 mm, 23 reels) and is available from the FHL (film numbers 0193466-0193488). If you are lucky you might find information dating back to the 16th century. You have to be aware, of course, that this is only a secondary source -- it makes searching church records much easier, when you know what you are looking for! But for serious research you will want to check the church records yourself.

    There is another collection by Dr. A. Lotz on Basel families (films 1196916+7).

    Complete descendants lists of usually fairly famous families will be found in "Schweizerisches Geschlechterbuch" (films 1573100 - 103).

  7. Are there any other published genealogies ?

    Yes, a bibliography of all known Swiss genealogies has been compiled by Mario von Moos.

  8. Where do I find more hints ?

    German Genealogy: Tips for Researchers is a collection of basic hints for genealogy in German speaking countries : much of it may also be applied to Switzerland.

Political and Religious Divisions

Switzerland consists of 26 Cantons and Half-Cantons, respectively.

The Protestant church in Switzerland is organized by canton (Kantonalkirchen = "Cantonal Churches").

The Roman Catholic Church comprises 6 episcopates:

  1. Basel: Cantons Aargau, Basel-Landschaft, Basel-Stadt, Bern, Jura, Luzern, Schaffhausen, Solothurn, Thurgau, and Zug.
  2. Chur: Cantons Graubünden, Schwyz (not including Einsiedeln), Urserental (in Canton Uri), Fürstentum Liechtenstein. The episcopate also comprises the administration of Cantons Glarus, Nidwalden and Obwalden, Zürich and the remainder of Uri.
  3. Lausanne/Genf/Fribourg: Cantons Fribourg, Genf, Neuchâtel, and Vaud (not including Aigle which belongs to Sitten, or La Cure, Landes and Le Cernillet, all of which belong to the French episcopate of St-Claude). Also includes Dappental in France.
  4. Lugano: Canton Ticino.
  5. Sitten (Sion): Canton Valais (not including St-Gingolphe) and Aigle (in Canton Vaud).
  6. Sankt Gallen: Canton Sankt Gallen. The episcopate also includes the administration of Appenzell (Ausser- and Innerrhoden).

In the 17 and 18th centuries, most of Switzerland predominantly belonged to one of these two major churches. In some of the "mixed" cantons it should be kept in mind that they were founded only as late as early 19th century, i.e. didn't exist then. Predominantly Protestant were Appenzell-Ausserrhoden, Basel (both), Bern, Genf, Neuchâtel, Schaffhausen, Vaud, and Zürich. Predominantly Roman Catholic were Appenzell-Innerrhoden, Fribourg, Jura, Luzern, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schwyz, Solothurn, Ticino, Uri, Valais, and Zug. Mixed were Aargau (more Protestant), Glarus, Graubünden, Sankt Gallen, and Thurgau (more Protestant).

Over time, some shifts occurred, and in particular, further mixing. By 1930 the ratios (Protestant:Catholic) were roughly as follows: Aargau (1.3:1), Appenzell-Ausserrhoden (7:1), Appenzell-Innerrhoden (1:22), Basel-Land (3:1), Basel-Stadt (2:1), Bern (6:1), Fribourg (1:6), Genf (1.2:1), Glarus (2:1), Graubünden (1.1:1), Luzern (1:7), Neuchâtel (6:1), Nidwalden (1:40), Obwalden (1:25), Schaffhausen (4:1), Schwyz (1:17), Solothurn (1:1.6), Sankt Gallen (1:1.5), Thurgau (2:1), Ticino (1:17), Uri (1:17), Valais (1:27), Vaud (5:1), Zürich (3:1), Zug (1:6).


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