Switzerland Finding Your Ancestor in the Records
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Gazetteers in Swiss Research
A gazetteer is a dictionary of place-names. Gazetteers describe towns and villages, parishes and cantons and other geographical features. They usually include only the names of places that existed at the time the gazetteer was published. The place-names are usually listed in alphabetical order, similar to a dictionary.
Gazetteers may also provide additional information about towns, such as:
- The population size.
- The different religious denominations.
- The schools, colleges, and universities.
- Major manufacturing works, canals, docks, and railroad stations.
Gazetteers can help you find the places where your family lived and determine the civil and church jurisdictions over those places. Some places in Switzerland have the same or similar names. You will need to use a gazetteer to identify the specific town where your ancestor lived, the government district it was in, and the jurisdictions where records about him or her were kept.
Gazetteers can also help you determine cantonal jurisdictions used in the FamilySearch Catalog.
Finding Place-Names in the FamilySearch Catalog
Swiss place-names used in the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog are based on the Swiss gazetteer as it existed in 1968. Use either "place search" or "keyword search" to see pertinent catalog entries. The canton is listed as part of the place name heading. If a village did not have its own parish, it may only be listed in the notes of a catalog entry for the civil or parish jurisdiction it belonged. Such entries can be found using "keyword search" rather than "place search".
Civil Registration Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has microfilmed few civil registration records for Switzerland. Post 1900 records can usually only be obtained through correspondence of a direct relative or descendant.
The Family History Library has records from many towns in Switzerland.The library's collection continues to grow as new records are microfilmed and added to the collection. Do not give up if the records you need are not available. The FamilySearch Catalog is updated regularly. Check it periodically to see if the records you need have been added to the library's collection.
Following the French example, a 1799 law suggested that civil registers of births, marriages, and deaths should be kept, but only one canton (Vaud) complied. Thus, civil registration records for canton Vaud exist from 1800 on forward. Pre-1876 civil registration records are also available for the following cantons: Fribourg, beginning in 1849, Genève: 1798, Neuchatel: 1825, Valais: 1853.
Nationwide civil registration began on 1 Jan 1876. These civil registers are kept by the Zivilstandesamt of each political community. Most of these records are not available on microfilm. Access to records less than 100 years old is generally restricted to direct-line relatives.
Originally the Zivilstandesamt kept two separate sets of books: A-registers [records of births, marriages, and deaths occurring in the community] and B- registers [births, marriages, and deaths of community citizens that occurred outside the community]. In 1928, the B-registers were discontinued and replaced by Familienregister [family registers] kept by the civil registrar. This volume consists of a separate page for each married couple and their children. Entries may include the couple’s parents’ names and notes about occupation, emigration, or other unusual circumstances.
Bürgerbücher or Bürgerrodel [Citizens’ Books] were kept by some communities as early as the 1820s and contain about the same information as found in the modern Familienregister. In most cases these books have not been microfilmed. Requests for information concerning ancestral families may be obtained by writing to the appropriate Zivilstandesamt. Contact information for the civil registration offices is found at http://www.hochzeitsportal.ch/index.asp?aktion=standesaemter.
An up-to-date Excel file with the same information can be downloaded at:
On the page titled "Zivilstandswesen" [civil registration system] scroll down to the bottom to find the link "Zivistandsämter".
Type of Information Given in Civil Registration Records
Birth registers: name, date and place of birth of child; names, residence and occupation of the parents.
Marriage registers: names, ages, residences occupation of bride and groom; date and place of marriage, names, residence, occupation of parents; names of witnesses and person who performed the ceremony.
Death registers: name of deceased, age, sometimes place of birth, date and place of death, occupation, name of surviving spouse, name and residence of informant, cause of death, sometimes names of parents, sometimes names of children.
Church records (Kirchenbücher) are excellent sources for reasonably accurate information on names, dates and places of birth/baptism, marriage, and death/burial. They are the most significant source of genealogical information for Switzerland. Most people who lived in Switzerland were recorded in a church record.
Church records are often called parish registers or church books. They include records of births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials. In addition, church records may include financial account books, fees for masses for the dead, lists of confirmations, penance register, communion lists, lists of members, and sometimes family registers.
Church records are crucial for pre-1876 Swiss research. Since civil authorities in several areas of Switzerland generally did not begin registering vital statistics until the late 1800's, church records are often the only sources of family information before this time. Church records continued to be kept after the introduction of civil registration, but the Family History Library has not microfilmed many post-1875 church records.
The Family History Library has many filmed Swiss church records. To find the parish records you need, you will need to check if the records are listed in the FamilySearch catalog