Your ancestors in Switzerland
Switzerland (officially the Swiss Federation) is a Country most Europeans will recognise as a centre of secretive banking and beautiful mountain scenery, scattered with cows producing milk for Swiss chocolate. Wanting to trace your Swiss ancestors? This blog will help you get started.
See https://myfamilygenealogy.co.uk/guidance/ for my 5 steps to discovering your ancestors.
The Old Swiss Confederacy was founded in the late medieval period, following military successes against Austria and Burgundy. The independence from the Holy Roman Empire was recognised in 1648. Since the 16th century Switzerland has maintained a strong policy of armed neutrality. Since 1815 it has not fought in an international war. It joined the United Nations in 2002.
Birthplace of the Red Cross, one of the oldest humanitarian organisations it also houses numerous international organisations including the United Nations Office in Geneva. Switzerland has existed in its present form since the adoption of the Swiss Federal Constitution in 1848.
The Old Swiss Confederacy (an alliance among valley communities of the central Alps) was agreed in 1291 by Charter. By 1353 the three original cantons and been joined by Glarus and Zug and the Lucerne, Zürich and Bern city states to form the “Old Confederacy” of eight states that existed until the end of the 15th century. A Swiss victory in the Swabian War against Emperor Maximilian I in 1499 amounted to de facto independence within the Holy Roman Empire. In 1501, Basel and Schaffhausen joined the Old Swiss Confederacy.
In 1648 European countries recognised Switzerland’s independence from the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1798, the revolutionary French government conquered Switzerland and imposed a new unified constitution. This centralised the government of the country, effectively abolishing the cantons. Mülhausen joined France and the Valtellina valley became part of the Cisalpine Republic, separating from Switzerland. The new Helvetic regime, was highly unpopular.
When war broke out between France and its rivals, Russian and Austrian forces invaded Switzerland. The Swiss refused to fight alongside the French in the name of the Helvetic Republic. In 1803 Napoleon restored Swiss autonomy and introduced a Confederation of 19 cantons.
In 1815 the Congress of Vienna fully re-established Swiss independence and the European powers agreed to permanently recognise Swiss neutrality.Switzerland increased its territory further with the admission of the cantons of Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva.
Switzerland was not invaded during either of the world wars. During World War I, Switzerland was home to Vladimir Lenin and he remained there until 1917. In 1920, Switzerland joined the League of Nations, on condition that it was exempt from any military requirements.
During World War II, detailed invasion plans were drawn up by the Germans, but Switzerland was never attacked. Switzerland was an important base for espionage by both sides in the conflict and often mediated communications between the Axis and Allied powers.
Switzerland was the last Western republic to grant women the right to vote. Some Swiss cantons approved this in 1959, while at the federal level it was achieved in 1971 and, after resistance, in the last canton Appenzell Innerrhoden in 1990.
In 2002 Switzerland became a full member of the United Nations. It has never joined the EU. In 2005, Swiss voters agreed by a 55% majority to join the Schengen treaty, a result that was regarded by EU commentators as a sign of support by Switzerland, a country that is traditionally perceived as independent and reluctant to enter supranational bodies.
Switzerland consists of 26 cantons. The cantons are federated states, and have a permanent constitutional status and a high degree of independence.
Switzerland has no official state religion, though most of the cantons (except Geneva and Neuchâtel) recognise official churches, which are either Roman Catholic or Swiss Reformed. Christianity is the predominant religion of Switzerland (about 67% in 2016-2018) and 75% of Swiss citizens are divided between the Roman Catholic Church, the Swiss Reformed Church and further Protestant churches. Eastern Orthodoxy holds a small 2% of the population with other Christian denominations at 2%. Immigration has established Islam at 5% of the population. 26% of Swiss permanent residents are not affiliated with any religious community.
Source: Wikipedia, accessed Aug 2020
Civil Registration (birth, marriage and death) and church records are generally kept at a local level.
Birth, marriage or death records are civil registration ((Zivilstand / état civil / stato civile) documents. They are kept by the local civil registration office (Zivilstandsamt / service de l’état civil / ufficio dello stato civile) of each political community. They begin on 1 January 1876, however several cantons began keeping records earlier (see source information below for further details).
Since 1876, many civil registration offices have merged into larger civil registration districts. Records from the original offices were moved to the new districts. In some areas, records over 100 years old have been moved to city or cantonal archives.
A snapshot of a family, on one night of the year.
The first city census was taken in the city of Bern in 1764. They were taken at 15 year intervals from 1811 to 1850, at 10 year intervals since 1850.
The first federal census was dated from April 1836 to February 1838 and was very incomplete. In 1841 a more general census was taken.
In 1850 the census took account only of the population with rights of residence and not those actually present.
In 1860 the census information was more complete and it was improved in 1870 and 1880.
Emigrants and Immigrants
Emigration (leaving) and Immigration (arriving) records tend to be applications of emigrants and lists of those departing.
Those who left Switzerland without permission was fairly high, so there may be no record of your ancestors departure.
Passports were not registered until the mid-19th Century.
The FamilySearch Catalogue can be checked for additional resources using “[canton] – emigration/immigration”.
Emigration and passport records tend to list citizens absent from the canton with names, towns of origin and sometimes current place of residence from 1300 onwards, plus lists of passports issued. The content of these documents may reveal:
- emigrants’ names
- birth dates and places
- wife’s and children’s given names and ages or number of children
- reasons for emigration
- taxes paid
- occupation, religion, military service, etc.
They are located in the state and city archives.
Parish Registers generally detail Baptism, Marriage and Burial. They may be used as an alternative or substitute for civil registration.
Major Denominations include:
Reformed (Evangelisch-reformierte Kirche / église réformée). The earliest Reformed churches started recordeding baptisms around 1520
Roman Catholic (Römisch-katholische kirche / église catholique / chiesa cattolica) records were mandated by the Council of Trent in 1563; commencement dates may vary.
Other Denominations include:
Swiss Baptist/Mennonite (Wiedertäufer, Mennoniten / église baptiste, église mennonite). Begun in the 1520s at the time of the Reformation. The movement was strong in the Canton of Bern
Brethren (Brüder/Herrnhuter) are often grouped with the Swiss Mennonites, the movement also began in the 1520s
Free Churches (Freie Kirchen) were a secessionist church of the Swiss Reformed Church. Most of these churches have merged back with the Reformed Church; only the Evangelical Free Church of Geneva remains
Russian Orthodox Church (Russisch-Orthodoxe Kirche) is centered at the Exaltation Cathedral in Geneva. The church was founded in Bern at the residence of the Russian ambassador in 1817. The congregation was closed in 1848, while a new congregation was established in 1854.
Methodists (Methodisten) congregations were founded in Lausanne in 1840. Additional branches were established in 1860 (Basel) and 1866 (Bern)
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Kirche Jesu Christi der Heiligen der Letzten Tage/église de Jésus-Christ des Saints des Derniers Jours) was brought to Switzerland in 1850. Most of the early membership of this church immigrated to Utah.
Christian Catholic (Christkatholische Kirche) was established after the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) and is centered in Bern.
Pre-1800 family registers are typically organized by location. Most Swiss parishes are composed of multiple villages; each village usually got its own section of the family register.
After 1800 (and usually with pre-printed form registers), family registers are organized differently. After the priest recorded all citizens of the parish, the books are then organized chronologically by first marriage date of the male citizen of the parish. Any subsequent marriages were recorded on the same page.
For locating the records see my Source list below.
Key contacts and useful websites
Research ancestors in other countries
- Wikipeadia, accessed 2020
- FamilySearch, accessed 2020
- Photo by Robert Parker, Basel, 2017
Robert Parker is a Genealogist and Trainer, based in Kent. He delivers courses, guidance, talks and research services for those interested in tracing their ancestors. See https://myfamilygenealogy.co.uk/guidance/ for his 5 steps to discovering your ancestors. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation.
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