Monday, March 25, 2013

Swiss Research Resources Part II – Where Oh Where is my Ancestor’s Record?

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In my blog posting of June 9, 2012, I wrote about my first steps in finding information on my Swiss German great great grandfather, Johannes (John) Ulrich Kreis who was born in Switzerland. I followed the advice of many genealogists to exhaust all US records before I attempted to “cross the Atlantic.”  I ended the post with the announcement that I had contacted the State Archives of the Canton of Thurgau to request information.

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While I waited for a response from the State Archives, I checked the web for more information on how to do research in Switzerland. I found a very helpful website of the Swiss Society of Genealogical Studies. The section with information for those who wish research their Swiss ancestors starts with this caveat: Doing research in Switzerland differs from researching in other countries. There are several reasons for this. Genealogical records can be stored differently depending upon when and where the record was created and whether the record was religious or civil.
City Hall, Basel, Switzerland, wikimedia.org

A date to remember is that before 1876 all birth, marriage and death records were recorded by priests/ministers. No civil record collection was in place.  So records created before 1876 were in churches but have been sent to the State Archives of each canton. The archivesonline project  gives a list of state archives for many of the cantons.

Records created after 1876 fall into the challenging category. There is no one way of organizing these records; instead each canton handles their records in their own way. Some records are in the State Archives and some are in the civil registry offices. A listing of the civil registry offices 
can be found online.

Another challenge facing researchers as they hunt for records is the Swiss idea of citizenship. The main form of citizenship in Switzerland is local. Local citizenship is where a person’s forebears were born, and that can be back to the 17th century. It is in the local area where the records for your family will be found, no matter if later generations moved to another canton. In other words, your ancestor may have been born in one place, but his/her family records may be in another.


The third challenge to finding records are the data privacy laws (this is a rough English translation) in Switzerland. Records in the civil registry offices fall under these privacy laws. Anyone wishing to use these records must first apply for permission from the civil registry office in the target canton. The researcher must be able to demonstrate a direct relationship to the ancestor in the records.

In addition to understanding  that finding  records is challenging, it is important to realize that archival staff does not do research for you. And because the older records are in German, French, Italian or Latin and can be very difficult to read because of old handwriting styles, it is almost a given that you need to hire a professional researcher.

I received a response from the State Archives of Thurgau. Basically the information I received is what I covered above. The State Archives also included a list of some Swiss professional researchers with their contact information. And this is what really helped me. I wrote to one of the researchers who lives in Thurgau, my target canton. I was very fortunate to have found her as she had worked at the State Archives of Thurgau.

For additional help in locating professional assistance nationally or internationally, Lisa Alzo, in her webinar “Back to Your Roots:Planning a Successful Heritage Research Trip” suggests checking ethnic genealogical society sites to find researchers, country guides or translators.

In my post of November 5, 2011, I gave some suggestions on how to work with a research professional. When you work with a professional outside the US, additional factors must be considered. A potential challenge is language. Does the person offering services that could help you speak English? Unless you speak the language from the target country, you may need to hire only English speakers or use a translator. When I hired the Swiss researcher, I found that although she wrote in English and could speak English, she preferred using German to explain complex points. This worked for me as my husband is a German speaker. In addition to the suggestions that Lisa Alzo gave in her webinar, another place to find German translators is the Germanic Genealogy Society.

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Another factor to pay attention to in hiring people from other countries is   method of payment. You can send a wire transfer through Western Union or through your bank. Be careful to investigate either option carefully before going forward.

To summarize, the goal of this post was to provide some basic information about how and where to find birth, marriage and death records in Switzerland. Privacy laws have been enacted in Switzerland that affect the ability of the researcher to look at records created since 1900. The handwriting and language of early Swiss records present challenges to the English speaking researcher and finding a local person with experience in dealing with these documents is recommended. But if you keep these points in mind, the possibility of finding wonderful information about your Swiss ancestors makes the search most worthwhile even if there are some hurdles to overcome.

Categories: genealogy education, genealogy professional

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