Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. This article will focus on research in the German-speaking areas of Switzerland, but many of the techniques used for German research apply to the other language areas.
As with most overseas research, you need to start with a specific town of origin for your ancestors. Records were kept by the parishes, which usually covered a single town or a group of towns surrounding the church. This means that knowing the country or canton is less helpful.
If you have searched every possible record and cannot find a specific place, you might be able to get some help by consulting the Register of Swiss Surnames. This database is searchable by surname. It contains entries of surnames and the locations where families of that surname held citizenship. If you find your surname here, you might be able to find your ancestor without an American stateside record giving an exact place of residence. However, common surnames will have been registered in many localities, and not every surname is listed in the Register. The Surname Wyss (pronounced VEES) was registered in multiple communities in almost every canton. The surname Anliker has entries in a few cantons, but only two dating before 1800. The surname Eichacher, while found in Swiss records, does not appear in the Registry. This can be a great source, but it is not a guarantee of success, so dig deep into vital and church records, passenger lists, and naturalization records to find the most accurate data for your ancestors before jumping across the pond. Once you have a hometown, you’re ready to dive in!
If your ancestor was part of the migration of pioneers of The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints, you might have some luck finding them in the Church History Catalog, which has many unique resources for early members of the church. Among them are the records of the Perpetual Emigration Fund and the Missionary Registers (1860-1959), which gives the place of birth of the missionaries. Many of the early church members were called on missions, even those of foreign origin and some to their country of origin. These sources don’t apply to everyone, but they are very useful if they apply to your ancestors.
Another source for Swiss immigrants to the USA is the German Immigrants in American Church Records project by Dr. Roger Minert. This collection is organized by state and has extracted information from US church records that are written in German. US church records are another excellent source of hometowns. Many libraries have copies of these books, so check WorldCat to see if the volume you need is near you or request a free lookup by the Family History Library staff in Salt Lake City, UT.
Most of your Swiss genealogy can probably be done in the church records. They are the earliest record group to include every citizen. Since Civil Registration did not start until 1876 in Switzerland (some locations have earlier records), the church kept track of the important life events. The two main religions in Switzerland are Catholic and the Reformed Church of Switzerland, but there have been many minority religions, each keeping a record of their own people.
There may be multiple sets of church records available digitally…or none at all... For example, records for the Canton of Bern can be found on FamilySearch and the Bern State Archive. Records for many locations in the Canton of Aargau must be done through correspondence or on-site research. The FamilySearch Research Wiki articles for individual towns in Switzerland may be of help in determining where to find the records you need. Type in your town and see what comes up. If there is not yet a page for your town, type in the Canton to determine where digital records are found or if none are available. If all else fails, our good friend Google does have a lot of answers. If you find something online that you didn’t find on the wiki, help out the genealogical community by adding your new knowledge!
What if you find a town but don’t know where the residents attended church? There is a lovely collection of books called the Map Guide to Swiss Parishes. It is organized by Canton and gives a list of all of the towns contained in each parish, as well as maps of the surrounding parishes, so you know the next closest places to look if you do not find your ancestor where you originally thought they would be. These books can be purchased online, or you can see if they are in a library near you by searching WorldCat.org. They are also at the Family History Library, so you could request a lookup.
This will probably be the biggest challenge after finding the hometown. Not only are the records written in German, but they are in the Old German Handwriting, which is quite different from the Latin cursive you were probably reading up to this point. Have no fear! Most surnames were written in Latin characters (what we use today) and are distinct from the rest of the record. This makes quickly searching multiple entries relatively easy. Just find where the surname usually appears and look for it in each entry. Once you find the surname you need, start deciphering the given name. Each time you go back a generation, you may have to get used to a new format, but check out the German Handwriting Wiki page for some tips on how to read the handwriting. You could also check out RootsTech Connect’s sessions on the German handwriting. The bottom line is, you do not have to be an expert to find your ancestors, but it will take a bit of work.
The German word “Heimat” means homeland, and is the word used for citizenship in Swiss German records. Each family had a town of citizenship, which adds a unique advantage to Swiss genealogy. As a rule, everyone’s important events (birth/christening, marriage, and burial/death), were recorded in the town where they took place AND in the Heimat. There are exceptions to every rule, but this is truly spectacular when it works. As you move into earlier records, the Heimat records are a bit harder to find. However, in theory, a christening will be recorded in two places: heimat and residence, a marriage could be recorded in three places: each party’s Heimat and the location of the marriage, and burial will be recorded in two places: Heimat and place of death. This applies across cantons, but as you may have guessed, it sometimes took a while for news to travel back to the Heimat, so it may appear “out of order” or even in a separate section of church records for citizens residing elsewhere. You may see these in record titles as “Auswärtige Bürger” or “Ausbürger.” If you know your person resided elsewhere, check these collections for a copy of their records.
Another potentially useful set of records is called “Chorgerichtsmanuale,” or court records. These records handle legal and moral matters. If someone needed permission to marry a foreigner, they would have an entry in these records. Some entries in the church books will indicate that there is a corresponding court record. Some can be found on FamilySearch.org under the town, but FamilySearch does not have all of them, so you may need to contact the local archive. To learn more about Switzerland Court records, check out this webinar!
Swiss archives have records that you cannot yet find online. These include tax records, wills, and land records. If you need help figuring out which Johannes Wyss was your ancestor, the local archive may be able to help. If you ever go to Switzerland, I recommend visiting the archive to see if there is anything else you can learn about your ancestors. For one family, a visit to the archive taught them about the type of house their ancestors lived in and when they moved to the town. Be sure to make an appointment and ask what collections might be helpful ahead of time. In my visits to and correspondence with Swiss archives, I have found their staff to be very helpful and friendly.
For more information about Swiss German research, scour the FamilySearch Wiki and check out any recommended websites. Happy Finding!
The experienced researchers at Price Genealogy can help you with your Swiss ancestry. We know how to find the records and how to read them.