Introduction to Swiss Genealogy 

Understanding the Swiss Concept of Citizenship

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, understanding the Swiss concept of Heimatort/Lieu d’origine (place of origin) is one of the most important concepts to bear in mind as you begin to research your Swiss ancestors. It is one of the country’s unique legal and cultural features and it is one of Switzerland’s most confounding systems, as well.

Swiss citizenship is based on a system of what is commonly called triple citizenship:

1) Municipality (community)

2) Canton

3) Swiss Confederation

To understand the municipality level, it is important to understand that every Swiss person has a “community of origin” or “community of heritage” as translated from the German Heimatort and the French Lieu d’origine.

Because the concept of Swiss citizenship on the municipality level is unusual for people from other countries where citizenship is based on a national level, the term “community of origin” or “community of heritage” succinctly conveys the meaning of this concept.  

This place is where the family - usually the person’s father – historically comes from. Citizenship, which is inherited through birth, often extends back for several centuries. It should not be confused with the place of birth. The community of heritage, or community of origin, may be the same as the place of birth, but it is not necessarily the case.

Finding Your Swiss Ancestor

Produced by Richard Lynn Walker of FamilySearch, this video provides a great introduction to the basics of Swiss genealogy, including geography, religion, linguistics, different types of primary sources, accessibility of said sources, etc. 

The Register of Swiss Surnames

The Register of Swiss Surnames is a genealogical resource unique to Switzerland. First compiled in 1962, it represents nearly 50,000 different Swiss surnames. The digitized version of The Register refers to the 1989 edition.

The most basic function of The Register is an alphabetical listing of all the families who hold citizenship in a particular town. However, each entry also contains information about the place of origin of a particular surname, the time of naturalization of a particular surname in a new area, as well as a family’s previous place of origin.

As always, when conducting searches pertaining to surnames in the 17th and 18th centuries, be mindful of possible variants a particular surname may have had before spellings were standardized. Think phonetically!

The Historical Dictionary of Switzerland

First published in 1998 by the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Swiss Historical Society, The Historical Dictionary of Switzerland is an authoritative, multi-volume history of Switzerland appearing in the country’s four national languages: French, German, Italian, and Romansh. A more comprehensive and user-friendly history of Switzerland does not exist.  

Containing more than 36,000 entries, The Dictionary represents the acumen and collaboration of more than 100 academic advisors, 100 translators, and 2,500 historians. These entries can be broken down into four general headings:  

1)      Biographies  

2)      Families and genealogical entries  

3)      Places (municipalities, Cantons, fortresses, monasteries/abbeys, archaeological sites, etc.)  

4)      Historical (events, institutions, etc.)