First of all, in Switzerland, civil status documents (birth, marriage, divorce, death) have only been recorded by the official Swiss authorities since 1876. Before that time, the churches, first and foremost the Roman Catholic and Protestant (Calvinist and Zwingli) ones, were responsible for registering changes in civil status. Therefore in order to contact the correct authority in Switzerland, it is imperative to know for which time period the research is being conducted. It is also crucial to know which religion an emigrant belonged to in Switzerland. It is rare for emigrants to change religion upon emigration, so if in doubt, it can be assumed that the religion practiced overseas is the same as in Switzerland.
Secondly, not only is the town ("town" in this text refers to city, small town or commune/community) where an event took place of importance as far as registering civil documents in Switzerland is concerned, but also the "Bürgerort / Commune d'origine / Comune di attinenza" (place of origin). Every person who possesses Swiss nationality is, at the same time, also a citizen of a specific town. This is the town where his/her ancestors used to live. This place of origin is handed down from father to child, and to the wife upon marriage. In former times a woman would acquire the place of origin of her husband and at the same time lose her own. The place of origin is of importance, since all documents concerning changes in civil status are recorded there, regardless of the place where the event actually took place. This has been the case everywhere since 1876, although it has been the general rule since 1800, and in some cases since as early as the end of the 17th century. Therefore the civil registry office of the place of origin contains all the vital records of a family (at least the male line). There is however one important exception: the places of origin register only those documents which are sent to them. In past centuries when a person emigrated it was very seldom that changes in civil status were reported back to Switzerland and therefore the family registers were not kept up to date. As a result, the descendants lost Swiss citizenship. In order to conduct genealogical research into a family it is just as important to know the place of origin as it is to know the family name since there are often families with the same name that have different places of origin. Unfortunately it is seldom apparent in overseas sources whether the town indicated is the birthplace, the last town of residence or the place of origin. The Swiss Surname Book contains a complete index of surnames and places of origin of families who in 1962 possessed Swiss nationality. In cases of rare family names, this book can be an aid as to the region or even the town of origin. The book may be found in large libraries, but is now out of print; an abridged version (only citizenships gained prior to 1861) is available from Picton Press (P.O.Box 250, Rockport, ME 04856-0250) on CD ($ 45.00).
Thirdly, changes in civil status were, and still are, only recorded in the individual towns, or in the parishes. Cantonal or federal records do not exist. You should also note that before 1900, no cantonal or federal lists of emigrants were made. This means that the relevant town must be known, otherwise the research can be quite time consuming, very expensive and in some cases impossible. However, even when important information is missing, there are ways to determine the place of origin, if the ancestor did not have very common Swiss last names and first names and if basic personal data are known. Unfortunately, in overseas sources, even if the name of a Swiss town is mentioned, it does not necessarily refer to the town itself, but could also refer to a wide region around the town. So e.g. the name "Bern (Berne)" is often used for the whole canton of Bern, including what is now Canton Jura (which was part of Canton Bern until 1979). Prior to 1798 it even covered Canton Vaud and parts of Canton Aargau - in other words, about one third of today's Switzerland.
It is also important to mention that modern data protection regulations have made research more complicated, and it can almost be impossible to track down data for the current generation. The search for living relatives can therefore turn out to be much more difficult than the search for ancestors back into the 17th century. The Federal Civil Registry Ordinance requires a cantonal research authorization, which is subject to a fee. The amount to be charged is at the discretion of the canton, which means it varies widely.
Would you like to know who your ancestors were? Do you need help, at least to get started with your own research? The Swiss Genealogical Society (SGS) offers to help you search for traces of your ancestors.
SSGS provides the following free services:
* brief information about a family surname, the names of the communities in which families by that name maintain rights of citizenship (or Swiss communities of origin) and references to any known genealogical publications concerning a specific family.
* addresses of professional genealogists, and/or genealogical/heraldic societies and similar institutions where further inquiries may be made.
* brief notes and/or recommendations concerning possible additional research.