This means that what language your ancestors records are in depends a great deal on where in the country that they originated from. While the area has been settled since well before the Roman Empire times, and leaving out a lot of history, since this is but a quick overview, the acknowledged start of the Swiss Confederation seems to have been about 1291, meaning that the start of the country is dated from then. It became a federal state with the constitution established in 1848.
Several of the web links given at the end of this article mention the various times that certain records are available. Some citizenship records can be found back to the 1200s, which most church parish registers are noted as having started in the 1500s.
The German-speaking areas are about 64 percent of the population, while French speaking is about 20 percent, Italian speaking about 6 per cent, and Romansh (in the southeast corner of the nation, near Italy and Austria) about 1/2 of one percent. About 10 percent are other languages, spoken by immigrants. Romansh is one of the four national languages of Switzerland, along with German, Italian and French. It is believed to have descended from the Vulgar Latin variety spoken by Roman era occupiers of the region, and is closely related to French. It is spoken in the largest and easternmost canton (state) of Switzerland, that being Graubuenden.
In Switzerland, official language use is governed by the territorial principle, meaning that the official status of each of the four national languages is limited to specific geographic areas, with only the federal administration being officially quadrilingual.
What this means is that while the Alps themselves are beautiful, most of the settled areas are in other, flatter locations, such as plateaus. And given the preponderance of German, a researcher can expect to find most of the genealogical records in German; the western area of the country would tend to have more in French, and the southern part in Italian.
If one is capable of reading German, French or Italian, most research can be accomplished fairly easily. The key is, as always, knowing where in the old country a person or family originated. Swiss people emigrated to the USA starting with the late 1500s, but larger numbers came in the 1700s and 1800s, with many going to Pennsylvania, the Midwest, and in the later 19th century to California. The best estimates seem to be about 300,000 persons in total, although about a million claim at least partial Swiss ancestry, in modern day America. And it has been written that Swiss identity is largely formed by rural traditions - not surprising, given the topography of the country, with modern railroads and other means of travel only being developed later in time.
So, if the researcher can find a location in Switzerland for their ancestor, they can then see if records have been microfilmed; if there are transcripts online or in book form; if there are sources on the Internet; and also by asking on various message boards and via email to various archives in Switzerland. Remember that German speaking persons could have sailed down the Rhine River and emigrated out of the German or Dutch North Sea ports, while the French speaking ones might have traversed France and left from Le Havre and other French ports. Naturally the Italians might have gone South and left from ports in Italy. But people often leave where it is the cheapest for them or their family to leave, and do not base their travel choices on language, but rather on financial considerations. In looking around I did not find a master list to search online of emigrants from Switzerland. I did find on Ancestry.com, a number of Swiss emigrant indexes - and going to show that you can't say with assurance what occurred, one Fritz Schulz, a Germanic sounding name if ever there was one, left from Marseilles in France in 1924!
How does one do this kind of research? Just like any other country. Look in family Bibles; check online sources; see what is written in various local history books; see if something useful is mentioned in fraternal organization records or civil registers; check obituaries for places of origin; see what naturalization papers may say; and check wills to see if they mention relatives or other persons back in the old country.
I quote a source that I found which states, Switzerland is a federal state divided in 26 political districts called cantons (23 cantons and 3 half-cantons). Although they are a lot smaller, they are akin to the States in the United States or to the Canadian Provinces. Each of them can be defined as a small republic with its own libraries, archives, and above all, its own habits! For this very reason, studying genealogy in Switzerland can be sometimes a puzzling and challenging task for the beginner.
- Swiss Genealogical Societies and related Organizations
- Swiss Emigrants in the 18th Century. (Ancestry.com)
- Swiss Genealogy on the Internet
- Cyndi's List (links for Switzerland)
- Swiss Roots Genealogy
- Getting Started with Swiss Research (Familysearch.org)
(Familysearch.org does not seem to have a specific printed research guide).
- HelveticArchives (the archive database of the Swiss National Library)
Genealogy in French-speaking Switzerland
- Main Genealogical Sources in Switzerland
(This has a great list of the kinds of sources and when they are available).
Selected books (Be sure to use the free web site, WorldCat, to find a library location nearest to you when locating these books.
- Swiss and Palatines to New Bern - A List of Known Persons who left Switzerland and Germany to settle in New Bern, North Carolina in 1710, compiled by Victor T. Jones, Jr. ,New Bern, N.C. : New Bern-Craven County Public Library, 1997
- Bibliography of Swiss Genealogies: Registers of Towns and Names, by Mario Von Moos. Camden, ME : Picton Press, 1993. Part of a series: Arbeitshilfen für Familienforscher in der Schweiz, Nr. 6.
- Even More Palatine Families: 18th Century Immigrants to the American Colonies and their German, Swiss, and Austrian Origins (3 volume set), by Henry Z. Jones Jr. Rockport, Me. : Picton Press, c2002.
Finding Your German Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide, by Kevan M. Hansen. Orem, Utah : Ancestry, 1999
- Men Of Bern: The 1798 Bügerverzeichnisse of Canton Bern, Switzerland, by Lewis Bunker Rohrbach. Rockport, Me : Picton Press, 1999
- Swiss Colonists in 19th Century America, by Adelrich Steinach., Camden, Me. Picton Press, 1995
- Swiss in Wisconsin, by Frederick Hale. Madison : State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1984
- Swiss Surnames: A Complete Register. Commonly known as Familiennamenbuch der Schweiz, by Emil Meier et al, Rockport, Me. Picton Press, 1995.
- The Dorlikon Emigrants: Swiss Settlers and Cultural Founders in the United States, by Konrad Basler. New York. Peter Lang, 1996. Part of a series: Swiss American Historical Society publications, 10.
- The German and Swiss Settlements of Colonial Pennsylvania: A Study of the So-Called Pennsylvania Dutch, by Oscar Kuhns. New York, AMS Press, 1971.
- The Swiss Emigration Book, by Cornelia Schrader-Muggenthaler. Apollo, PA. Closson Press, 1993.