Switzerland is best known for its location among the Alps, as well as its lakes, chocolate and clock making. Switzerland's history dates back to the thirteenth century when three regions formed an alliance in 1291. By the early sixteenth century, Switzerland's three regions had grown to include 13 cantons. Important border towns like Zurich and Bern were among the additions because of their access to Italy. The Swiss Confederation, as it was known, was an early example of a nation determined to remain independent from noble rule, an anomaly in Europe at that time.
The first Swiss person to sail to the U.S. on record was Theobald von Erlach in 1564. Unfortunately, he died, along with nearly one thousand French soldiers, after their ship encountered a hurricane and was wrecked. Any survivors were murdered by the Spanish, who were also trying to claim valuable territories in America. There were some Swiss families who resided in Jamestown. Jean Gignilliat, a French Swiss, obtained a land grant in South Carolina in 1657, and in 1710, Christoph von Graffenried, along with about 100 Swiss, founded and settled New Bern in what became North Carolina.
Those with Swiss family history might find ancestors who arrived in America between 1710 and 1750 when a large number of Swiss settled in Virginia, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. In South Carolina, the Swiss settlers were mostly members of the Reformed Church, while the settlers in Pennsylvania were mostly Swiss Mennonites. The next successive waves of Swiss immigration occurred between 1850 and 1880, when over 75,000 Swiss immigrated to the U.S., although during the 1880s alone, around 82,000 Swiss immigrants arrived. Another 89,000 Swiss immigrants arrived between 1891 and 1920. If your Swiss ancestors were among any of these immigrant groups, many went on to settle in the Midwest, particularly in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Illinois.
It's important to begin with the most recent family members and work backwards to accurately fill out your family tree. Once you begin finding Swiss ancestors past the three generations, your research will likely get a bit more challenging, making it important to work sequentially. For example, there are Swiss vital records that date back to the late 1400s, but if you haven't taken the time to work backwards from the present, you might find a familiar name that turns out not to be related to your family at all. Instead, review as many U.S. records as possible until you must cross over to examining Swiss records.
Your Swiss ancestors that emigrated to America likely left a records trail in the U.S., meaning most family history searches begin at home. There are many genealogy resources available online, and searching for ancestors doesn't necessarily require trips to various libraries. Census records are important tools, as they normally list the full name of the head of household along with spouse, children and other relatives who might reside there. Sometimes dates of birth of are included, along with occupation and residence. This can help narrow down records searches for marriage, death and birth records. Also, immigration and naturalization records and passenger lists are helpful for discovering when your Swiss ancestors sailed to the U.S. and who sailed with them.
Many passenger manifests include information on who was meeting the family or individual in America, what town or village they came from in Switzerland, a name and/or address of a relative back in Switzerland, and their destination once in America. This information isn't always complete, as passenger manifests weren't always kept or filled out appropriately, but when the record is even partially completed, this can result in a goldmine of information.
Once you've found the names of ancestors first arriving in America, it's time to extend your family history search across the Atlantic to Switzerland itself. Again, there are many valuable Swiss records available online, making it possible to research without traveling overseas. Early Swiss records often include church records, although the originals were written in various languages, including German, Italian, French and Latin. Many databases have translated these into English to help the search process.
Baptism records, which double as birth records, date back as far as 1491 in certain cantons of Switzerland, although these aren't necessarily complete. Also commonly found in church records are lists of congregation members, marriage records and burials. Protestant churches were required to record marriages and baptisms beginning in 1525, with the Catholic churches following suit in 1563. Efforts of placing vital records onto microfilm are ongoing in Switzerland. If your family records haven't been digitized yet, it's possible to hire a Swiss researcher to visit archives in person to locate pertinent records for your family.
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