GENEALOGY IN FRENCH-SPEAKING SWITZERLAND
Dedicated to the memory of Mr Régis de Courten
These pages have been prepared by an amateur genealogist and are probably incomplete. Please do not hesitate to contact me for corrections. As it is impossible (and probably useless) to strictly divide the German, French, Italian and Romansh parts of Switzerland, certain bits of information will necessarily overlap the scope of the French-speaking parts of the country. If you wish more information on genealogy in other parts of Switzerland, go directly to: Swiss genealogy on the Internet.
|Geneva ¦ Vaud ¦ Neuchâtel ¦ Jura and Bernese Jura ¦ Fribourg/Freiburg ¦ Valais/Wallis|
Switzerland is a federal state divided in 26 political districts called cantons (23 cantons and 3 half-cantons). Although they are a lot smaller, they are akin to the States in the United States or to the Canadian Provinces. Each of them can be defined as a small republic with its own libraries, archives, and above all, its own habits! For this very reason, studying genealogy in Switzerland can be sometimes a puzzling and challenging task for the beginner.
When you are born in Switzerland, you are a citizen of your administrative commune (county) and of your canton well before being a Swiss citizen. This particular right to citizenship will be inherited by your descendants, wherever they are born. For instance, if your family has lived in Geneva for more than five generations, you may still be a citizen of a district in far-away Aargau, where no member of your family has set foot for a hundred years. The family registrar of the district will keep registering your children's births, even if you have never been there. Some families may even have several districts of origin. This "archaic" proceeding can be useful if you are researching about your ancestors and know their district of origin.
Civil state is the job of the communes. Each canton has its own specific civil administration. However, since the 1874 Constitution, basic rules have been set by the Confederation. Since 1928 Switzerland has had a generalized system of family registrars, one for each district.
In some cantons, the archives own copies of the family registrars located the districts under their administration, which generally covers a period beyond 50 years. The parish registrars are administered in much the same way: in some cantons, these registrars are now part of the cantonal archives, while in others (Fribourg, Valais) they have remained in parishes.
Switzerland has four official languages: German (or Schwyzertüütsch), French, Italian and Romansh (an ancient rheto-latin language). Before undertaking any research in Switzerland, you should make sure that you know the canton and district of origin of your family. The Swiss National Library and the Swiss Federal Archives won't be of much help to you, as most of the information has been stored at the cantonal archives and at the State registrars of the districts.
French-speaking Switzerland (or Romandy) is divided into six cantons: Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura (100% of French-speakers), Fribourg/Freiburg and Valais/Wallis (French-speakers with a German-speaking minority). The Bernese Jura is the name of the French-speaking part of German-speaking Bern.
Republic and Canton of Geneva
Pop. 383'000, 283 km2 - Protestants 50%, Catholics 50%
- Part of the Empire ruled by bishops until 1534
- 1536: Protestant Reformation (Calvin), then independent republic
- 1798: Under French rule from 1798, becomes prefecture of the former French "Léman Department"
- 1815: Congress of Vienna, Geneva becomes a Swiss canton
Useful links (on Wikipedia): City of Geneva (Wikipedia) ¦ Canton of Geneva (Wikipédia) ¦ Geneva (Official Site)
Most of the archives of the French "Département du Léman" (1794-1815) are now part of the Departmental Archives of Haute-Savoie (in Annecy) and Savoie (in Chambéry), see both on Sabaudia.org.
Canton of Vaud
Pop. 604'000, 3212 km2 - Protestants 70%
- Territory of the Empire until the 12th century
- Counts of Savoy until 1536
- 1536: conquest and Bernese rule
- 1798-1803: Helvetic Republic, becomes the "Canton du Léman"
- 1803: Mediation's Act of Napoléon, becomes a Swiss canton
Useful links: Vaud (Wikipedia) ¦ Canton de Vaud (Official Site, French only) ¦ Communes vaudoises
Republic and Canton of Neuchâtel
Pop. 165'000, 803 km2 - Protestants 60%
- County of Neuchâtel (part of the Kingdom of Burgundy until the end of the 16th century
- 1600 - 1707: becomes the Principality of Neuchâtel
- 1707 - 1806: Neuchâtel under Prussian rule
- 1815: Congress of Vienna, becomes a Swiss canton (but also a Prussian principality until 1848)
Useful links: City of Neuchâtel (Wikipedia) ¦ Canton of Neuchâtel (Wikipedia) ¦ Canton of Neuchâtel (Official Site, French only)
Republic and Canton of Jura – Bernese Jura
Pop. 67'000, 837 km2 - Catholic majority
- Territory of the Bishopric of Basel
- 1815: Congress of Vienna: part of the canton of Bern
- September 24, 1978: Jura becomes an independent canton (capital city: Delémont). The still faithful to Bern french-speaking Districts form the Bernese Jura (round the city of Moutier)
Useful links: Canton of Jura (Wikipedia) ¦ Jura.ch (Official Site, French only) ¦ Bernese Jura (Wikipedia) ¦ Canton of Bern Wikipedia) ¦ Canton de Berne (Official Site, French/German)
State of Fribourg
Pop. 216'000, 1671 km2 - Catholics more than 90%
- 1157: Foundation of the city of Fribourg, ruled by the Zähringen dynasty
- 1277-1452: Austrian rule
- 1460-1470: Burgundy Wars
- 1481: Fribourg becomes part of the Swiss Confederation
Useful links: Canton of Fribourg (Wikipedia) ¦ State of Fribourg (Official Site, French/German) ¦ Municipalities of the canton of Fribourg (Wikipedia)
Canton of Valais
Pop. 254'000, 5225 km2 - Catholics more than 90%
- Episcopal territory owned by the House of Savoy until the 15th century
- 1475: Alliance with Bern
- 1798: French rule on Valais, first as an independent State, then part of the Department of Simplon
- 1815: Congress of Vienna, becomes a Swiss canton
Useful links: Valais (Wikipedia) ¦ Canton du Valais (Official Site, French/German)
© 1996 Jean-Luc Aubert, last update: April 2017