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Genealogical research in Switzerland - a little howto

Posted by erichiseli on Tuesday, January 03, 2006 - 12:10 PM

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Research - Forschung

So, you are coming to Switzerland and try to fill some gaps in your family tree? If you are serious about your research, you will have a lot to prepare before crossing the pond.

When writing this article, I've extensively used the swissgen website, you might as well use it for getting a bigger picture.

Researching at home

If you don't know yet which Swiss branch you belong to, try finding out this first. Also try to complete your family tree as much as possible, also with the currently living persons so that you have something to show when you are in Switzerland. If you have many changes to make to the currently published tree, it's better you start off with downloading the branch you are interested in as a gedcom file (use the clippings cart to do that - you need to be logged into the family tree) and import that gedcom file into your favorite genealogy program. Once you are done with your work, you will be able to generate nice print outs and send the updated gedcom to this website.

Church records

All genealogical information roughly from the beginning of the reformation (16th century) to the mid 1800's can be found in the church records. While visiting the church can be a great experience, don't expect to find any records there. They are all gathered in the archive of the canton (for most of the readers, the canton they are interested in will be Bern, but some other cantons might be relevant like Glarus for example). Most of the records have been microfilmed and are available at various public libraries, even in the USA. If you want to smell some old paper, a visit at the State Archive of Bern (this is how the canton Bern archives are called) might be interesting. If you plan this, check the opening times on the website and book early. More recent church records can be found but you will have to consider legal directives, as described later.

Civil records

Since the mid 1800's, civil records are being kept along with the church records. These records however are not public. If you want to have some data from them, you will need to request one per individual and they cost some money. I haven't ever done it but a rough guess is about 30 USD each. You will also have to give them the proof that you are related with the person whose data you are requesting. I cannot tell exactly what will be accepted as a proof in the cases when several generations are in between and I ignore whether a family tree would be enough. If you are brave, you can get in touch with the civil office of the county of your hometown. Please refer to the official website of the civil offices of canton Bern.

Legal directives

Church records are governed by cantonal law and civil records since 1876 by federal law. The goal of these laws is to protect the privacy of living persons or of descendants of persons who died recently. Unfortunately, this "recently" actually means around 100 years. So if you are looking for data of anyone who died during the 20th century, it might be hard to get a grip of the data.

Meeting relatives

This part is really fun. Try to locate some of your currently living relatives in our family tree, try to get in touch with them through this website or through other means like phone books for example and tell them about your plans. If you are contacting people through this website, it's very likely they'll be glad to meet you. However, if you are using the phone book and write them an e-mail, a letter or even call them, be prepared for different types of situations. While some people may be glad, others might be unhappy to be contacted by somebody the don't know and some will not even answer your letter or e-mail. Just try your luck. If you are calling, don't forget that some Swiss people don't speak English very well or some don't talk it at all, especially elderly people. So contacting them in German would probably help a lot.

Once you actually meet somebody, they will be happy to show you your "hometown" and drive you through the Emmental. While your research won't make huge leaps during this time, you will at least get the feeling of your ancestors, which is probably not a bad thing when researching about them.


Even though the title is "a little howto", be flexible about the advices given, come up with your own ideas and especially, write some comments in order to tell your feedback.

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