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Seeking Swiss

While Switzerland is a small country, its' multiple languages provide a challenge in doing research. The country's history is briefly discussed and a number of web sites and books dealing with Swiss research are given.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1243 (approx.)
ISBN: 0897254546
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If you try looking for information on the small country of Switzerland, you will very shortly come across entries named Switzerland / Suisse / Schweiz and Svizzera. Why? Because although the nation is just under 16,000 square miles in size, its' small size and landlocked location in middle Europe makes it easy to have multiple languages within its borders. On the other hand, Swiss emigrants usually have had little trouble learning a new language when they finally get to their new country.

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, 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.

Useful Links

Family History

Genealogy in French-speaking Switzerland

Selected books (Be sure to use the free web site, WorldCat, to find a library location nearest to you when locating these books.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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