If in the course of your research you have come across a Latvian ancestor, and you do not speak Latvian, you may feel like you have hit a big stumbling block to continuing your research.
Good news! The block may not be as big as you think. You may not need to know any Latvian at all to continue your research. Of course, as a speaker of Latvian, I do encourage people to learn it, especially those with Latvian ancestry. However, I do recognize that due to various constraints, this may not always be possible.
Depending on the time period you have for your ancestor, the records you will need to consult for further information may be in completely different languages.
Latvia only became an independent country in 1918. Immediately prior to this date, Latvia was a part of the Russian Empire, and, in centuries past, was held by the Germans, Swedes and Poles as well. This means that the bulk of historical records relevant for Latvian research are not in Latvian, but rather these languages – most commonly Russian and German.
German crusaders entered Latvia in the late 1100s, with the mission to convert the pagan Balts to Christianity. They were followed also by German traders and nobles, who set up vast manorial estates, and the local population became serfs on these estates, only being released from serfdom in the 1800s.
While the leadership of the territory changed hands between the Germans, Swedes, Poles and Russians, the local manor lords and ladies remained German right up to independence in the twentieth century. Consequently, a major source of Latvian genealogical records – church books – were written almost exclusively in German up until the 1890s, when Czar Alexander III introduced Russification measures across the Russian Empire, which included requiring local officials to keep records in Russian.
Most Latvian church books are available online, at the Latvian State Historical Archives project “Raduraksti”. They are arranged by religion and by parish, with the typical time period covered by Lutheran and Catholic records being 1835-1905. Lutheranism and Catholicism were the dominant religions in Latvia at the time, with smaller numbers of Jews, Baptists, Orthodox and Old Believers. A number of records for these faiths are also available on the “Raduraksti” website.
The church books are available in image format only – currently there is no index. This means that if you do not know where in Latvia your ancestor was from, you will not be able to jump straight into these records. Even if you do not know exactly where your ancestor was from, it might still be possible to figure it out, based on later records as well as surnames.
I studied Russian in university, so my time with the Russian records is easier. I am only beginning to learn German, however, so I am still puzzling my way through the different styles of handwriting to reach the information found within.
But it is not an impossible obstacle. My German will improve. My Russian already has. Proficiency, at least for genealogical purposes, will come.
Next post: What do the names Wahzeet, Ваціэтъ and Vācietis have in common? They are actually the same name – in three different orthographies. Why it is important to know different orthographies so that it is possible to trace a name through different languages.