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Notes on Swiss Genealogy for Americans

There are a few things I wish I’d known when I started researching my Swiss ancestors. Knowing these few things from the beginning would have saved me a lot of time and bother, as I think it would for anyone starting to research Swiss ancestors.

“Middle” names and siblings

The modern practice of going by the first given name and abbreviating the rest dates back only to about the end of the nineteenth century. Before that, the usual practice, in the U.S. as in Switzerland, was to use the last given name as your everyday alias. So, for instance, a man named Hans Jacob Caspar Baumann would be known to friends and family as Caspar, not Hans. In fact, his baptismal record might be one of the few places where his name isn’t given as just “Caspar Baumann.” (This was also the practice in England and Germany.) What’s more, in Switzerland parents commonly gave the same “first” name to successive children, differentiating them by what we think of today as the middle names. So three sisters could be named Maria Elisabeth, Maria Anna, and Marianna without confusion; they’d be generally known as Elisabeth, Anna, and Marianna or Maria.

It’s helpful to know this already while still dealing with the generations that came to America, because the census returns will most likely only record the name in everyday use, i.e., the “middle” name: Casper Baumann; Elizabeth, Ann, Mary.

Generally, the baptismal record (or a civil birth record) is the surest evidence of multiple given names or lack thereof. If you have pretty certain evidence that the individual you’re looking for had more than one given name, but the extra names don’t show up in the baptismal record, you may not have the right baptismal record.

Sometimes two children of the same parents appear to have the same given name, or worse, the same two given names. Usually it’s a pretty safe bet that they really were given identical names, but the older one died before the younger one was born (thus freeing up the use of that name). This practice seems to have been widespread in Europe when large families were more common. Of course, it always pays to make sure the two individuals really were born to the same parents.

Rules of Swiss citizenship

The legal institution of citizenship in Switzerland is modeled on that of the Roman Empire. The basic level is the town or city, and status is inherited with surname. This means that if a man moved from Geneva to Bern, got married and started a family, five generations later his descendants in paternal lines, while thoroughly Bernese, are still citizens of Geneva, even if they’ve never seen Geneva or had any contact with it. Unless, of course, someone along the line has actually bothered to register a change of citizenship with the authorities in Bern. It can be surprising how rarely that was actually done.

Children of unwed mothers inherit the mother’s citizenship; children of adulterous unions inherit the citizenship of the mother’s husband.

A couple of complications arise for the genealogist. First, before regular census-taking and civil registration, the church was the main record-keeping institution, so ecclesiastical parishes sometimes doubled as municipal units. A citizen of Scheunenberg in the parish of Wengi appears sometimes as “von Scheunenberg” and sometimes as “von Wengi”. Second, to continue our example, if our citizen of Scheunenberg moves far, the record-keeper in the new town may not know how to spell Scheunenberg; or he (it was almost certainly a he) may not have heard of Wengi, but may know of Wengen down the valley. If he’s from around Zürich, he’ll hear the names as Schönenberg and Wängi. In most cases, he’ll write down the familiar spelling — rather than the correct one. A genealogist looking for her Scheunenberg ancestors in the Wängi records is looking in the wrong canton, and looking in Wengen, she might as well be.

This problem at least doubles once the family reaches America, particularly if they lived in a largely Swiss community. (If not, there’s still the problem of the transition to English; see below.) There may be a parish record in German, if the community is pan-Swiss, or another language if they’re predominantly from areas where that language is spoken. The area around and including Highland, Illinois, a heavily Swiss settlement in the mid-1800s, had both Lutheran and Catholic parish registers in German. Here, people from all over Switzerland are listed in records that can’t have been kept by more than a few people at a time. Within Switzerland, the distinction between place of residence and place of citizenship is pretty clear: place of citizenship is marked with von (“of”); any other preposition signals the place of residence. In the Highland records, everything is von, because of course everyone is now residing in or around Highland. The result is that for any family that didn’t live in its town of citizenship before coming to America, the last place of residence is often given as the place of citizenship. Many spellings are no more than someone’s best guess. Sometimes only the canton is given.

The best hope in these cases is to piece together the whole family, and compare the evidence associated with each member. Any additional evidence can only help. Finding out where the surname in question has citizenship status is also a good idea; the Swiss Surname Directory can be used for that purpose, but not every surname is in the database yet. The main source for citizenship information is the Familiennamenbuch der Schweiz or Register of Swiss Surnames (click for a description and guidelines).

Especially in later times, it’s common practice for the town of citizenship to maintain records of its families’ outlying branches, under the heading of auswärtige Bürger, literally “citizens from outside.” However, this practice relies on the parish church in the town of residence sending all the relevant information back to the parish church in the town of citizenship, where the certificate is usually copied verbatim into the records. Sometimes these entries have more than the usual information, and sometimes they have less. Occasionally, the information was lost or delayed (sometimes for years), so look carefully. Only rarely are these sections in even roughly chronological order. Since whole entries were occasionally lost, it’s best to check the records from the actual place of residence of anyone with whom your research is concerned.

Beware of Billeter

Julius Caesar Billeter (1869–1957) was a Mormon researcher who compiled information on more than 1200 Swiss families, mostly on commission but including some from his own ancestry. His reports are available on microfilm with the LDS; unfortunately, they’re not always entirely reliable, incorporating duplications, mismatches, and guesswork. Click here to read the critical review of Billeter’s errors that is posted on the "Swiss Genealogy on the Internet" website. I remember a similar review in which someone’s ancestor had been listed as simultaneously raising two families, one in the Netherlands and one back in Switzerland.

Part of the problem is that a set of maybe a dozen given names for each gender would keep getting used over and over within the same family (and more generally within the same town). The researcher can be faced with data like this:

How do you decide which baptism goes with which marriage? There are ways, but depending on the period and the thoroughness of the records, a lot of work may be involved, much of it yielding negative evidence. Patience is a necessity. If you’re working with later records, you may find that the lists of baptismal witnesses include the relation of each witness to the baptized child is given, in which case all you have to do is piece together the family based on how everyone is related to someone else. This is even easier than it sounds. In earlier records, you may have to rely on circumstantial evidence. It might be that one Abraham has a brother named Cunrat, and in the next generation the name Cunrat only appears in the baptismal records for the children of one Abraham; while it isn’t by any means certain, the odds are in favor of these being the same two brothers.

If the death records list the maiden names of married women, that helps. If they list age at death, or the full name of the husband, so much the better. Sometimes a family has a particular association with a neighboring town not shared by others with the same surname, but continuing for several generations. In the parish records for Beatenberg, in the canton of Bern, extra information is often given to distinguish namesakes from each other: frequently this is simply what part of town a person lived in (“beim Stockbrunnen,” “auf Waldegg”), but sometimes it includes occupation (“Trüllmeister”) or even a patronymic (“Hansen Sohn,” “Battlis Tochter”). Later records, from about 1800, tend to include more and more of this information regularly.

Either these methods weren’t available to Billeter in the towns he searched, or he simply didn’t have time (energy? motivation? know-how?) to take advantage of them. Evidently, the usual method was simply to assign the earliest namesake to the earliest marriage, the next to the next, and so on. If there was a baptism left over, he must not have been married. If there was a marriage left over, someone must have married twice. You can probably imagine more than a few ways in which this could go wrong. Consequently, all of Billeter’s generational connections are suspect.

Any approximate date is an instant tipoff that something is amiss. In more than a few cases, Billeter provides only approximate birthdates for brides. Where he has a marriage date, the wife’s unknown birthdate is invariably approximated by subtracting 21 years from the marriage year, even if this creates an age gap of decades between husband and wife. If the marriage date is unknown, the wife’s birthdate seems to be based on a tacitly approximated marriage date based on the birth of the first child. Generally these approximate dates should be completely discarded lest they prevent you from finding more accurate information.

In some cases, Billeter got his hands on families that had branches in other towns, but still kept some records of them (see the section on citizenship, above). He very transparently did not check the records from the towns of residence of all bearers of the surname. This is at least understandable, as in some cases it would have required travel among several cantons. Still, the result is that his records of these families lack much of the pertinent information, and sometimes leave out children from families. Often the place names in these portions of his work are confused or erroneous.

The works of Julius Billeter are best for verifying exact dates. But if no exact date is given for an event, the event may never have happened. Use Billeter as a starting point if you wish, but check everything, and remember the warning that heads this section: beware!

Finding Swiss names in America

In the early years of this country, most of the official, secular records were kept by people whose native language was English, and who seem not to have been terribly familiar with German. In the census returns of 1850, 1860, and 1870, there are some undoubtedly well-meaning but uninformed attempts at spelling unfamiliar Swiss German names:

And these are just a few examples. It helps to imagine how a strange name might be interpreted by an English-speaker with a 19th-century Illinois accent (for instance, there seems to be evidence of r-dropping in the forms Mara, Johner, Franer). Looking through the census indexes for all the possible misspellings of a name can be frustrating and fruitless. If you know which town or towns to look in, a more reliable method is to go through the actual census return, sounding out any suspicious name. This may be more difficult when dealing with large cities. Needless to say, having an idea of what given names, or even how many of them, should appear in the family you’re looking for will help, though it may not always be possible.

In fact, the approach that seems to work best is to always keep a few things in mind: Virtually all of these records were handwritten until the 20th century. Indexers sometimes had trouble reading messy handwriting, and didn’t know what spellings to be looking for. English-speaking recordkeepers may have had little or no knowledge of German. A corollary to this principle is that the researcher should have at least an approximate knowledge of how German is pronounced.

There’s one last thing to keep in mind when doing any research on immigrants. Recordkeepers in America, even Swiss-born ones, didn’t have such easy access to Swiss records as those who remained in Switzerland. Sometimes birthdates of immigrants are off by a year or two, or a few days, or a year one way and a day the other, and so on. It’s a good idea to check this data against the Swiss records when you come to the Swiss part of your research, and don’t be too surprised if you have to search the records a little. More importantly, if your ancestor isn’t listed under the date you have, don’t assume that the name you’re looking for isn’t there at all. It may well be on the next page.