I’ll admit, this post is long overdue. It should have been one of the first posts on this blog. But it is here now!
For the purposes of this post, I am assuming several things. The main assumption is that you have utilized all of the records in the place where your Latvian ancestor migrated to – naturalization documents, death certificates, etc. I am also assuming that you are familiar with what different types of records contain – for example, that you know what you can expect to find on a census record versus a passenger ship list. All fonds numbers mentioned for records are from the Central Fonds Register of the Latvian Archives (a “fonds” is a collection of related documents).
So let’s begin!
Step 1: Do you know where in Latvia your ancestor was born? If YES, go to step 6. If NO, go to step 2.
Step 2: When did your ancestor emigrate from Latvia? In the POST-WORLD WAR 2 PERIOD, go to step 3. In the INTER-WAR PERIOD, go to step 4. PRIOR TO 1920, go to step 5.
Step 3: Consult DP camp records – you can write to the International Tracing Service (discussed in this blog post) for more information. When you have found a birthplace, move to step 6.
Step 4: If your ancestor emigrated from Latvia in the inter-war period, they could be found on passenger lists, most often departing from German ports such as Hamburg or Bremerhaven, but some people emigrated via the United Kingdom. You can also consult Latvian passport collections for major cities (fond 2996 for Rīga, other cities fond 2258), to see if your ancestor lived in one of them. Passports will list place of birth. Numerous emigration records and passport applications for the interwar period also exist. When you have found a birthplace, move on to step 6.
Step 5: If your ancestor emigrated from Latvia prior to 1920, you can consult passenger ship lists as above for step 4. If they immigrated to Canada, consult the Li-Ra-Ma collection, which documents immigrants from the Russian Empire between 1898 and 1922, including numerous Latvians. The Li-Ra-Ma website mentions that the National Archives in the USA has a similar collection. The Li-Ra-Ma collection website includes digital images of the immigrant files. When you have found your ancestor’s birthplace, move on to step 6.
Step 6: When was your ancestor born? After 1921, go to step 7. Between 1909 and 1921, go to step 8. Prior to 1909, go to step 9.
Contact the registry office of the municipality. When you have learned all you can from these records, go to step 8. [Update October 2013: It looks like the Registry Office Archives of the Ministry of Justice is handling all inquiries after 1910, with the exception of the City of Rīga after 1921, which is still handled by the local office. See Step 8 for the Registry Office Archives.]
Step 8: Contact the Registry Office Archives of the Ministry of Justice in Rīga (in Latvian only), who hold BMD (birth, marriage, death) records from 1909/1910 (some records for 1906-1908 will also be held here, depending on the municipality and how their records are bound, see note on step 9). When you have learned all that you can from the records available there, go to step 9.
Step 9: Consult religious records, available online at Raduraksti. These resources will provide basic birth/marriage/death records. The records are organized by year and type of record. Records could be in Latvian, German, Russian or Hebrew (for Jewish records). [Update July 2010: Most records from 1905 to 1909 have been transferred to the Latvian State Historical Archives, who are responsible for Raduraksti. They have not yet been added to the website, but hopefully will be soon. Until they are, you will need to contact the LSHA directly.] If you get stuck, brick walled or want to consult other sources for more information, go to step 10.
Step 10: Religious records (and later civil registration records) will form the backbone of your research, but sometimes the records don’t exist anymore, or you want to find additional information about your ancestors that doesn’t appear in those kinds of records. In this case, you will want to consult other records that are available – from 1920 to 1945, go to step 11. From 1890 to 1920, go to step 12. Prior to 1890, go to step 13.
Step 11: A wealth of documents from the independence era can be found in the Latvian State Historical Archives. Examples: The 1935 Census (fonds 1308, abstract 12), the 1941 Census (fonds 1308, abstract 15), civil servant employment files (judicial -fonds 1536, police -fonds 5604, I’m sure files for other departments exist as well, but these are the ones I have utilized) and house books (Rīga -fonds 2942, other cities -fonds 2110). For an earlier time period, go to step 12.
Step 12: In this time period, important records available are military records and the All-Russia Census of 1897, however they can be less complete than more recent records. The records for Latvian parishes for the All-Russia Census of 1897 can be found online on Raduraksti. Military records vary in quality and depth of information, I have utilized them only briefly. They appear to be organized in the archives by the specific division of the military. I would recommend searching by the words “pulks” (regiment). Many of these records date from the Latvian wars of independence, but it might be possible to find other types of military records as well. During part of the Russian Empire period, it was mandatory for men to register for military service at the age of 21, and many parishes have their local muster rolls available. For earlier time periods, go to step 13.
Step 13: It is at this point when completeness and variety of records starts to become extremely dependant on individual civil parishes. Some parishes have large numbers of surviving records, while other have few to none. It always pays to consult neighbouring parish records as well, just in case. To find what might be in civil parish records, search for “pagasta valde” (parish council) or “pagasta tiesa” (parish court), and then look for the parish name you want. You can also search by parish name to find what other records could exist. Due to various Latvian noun cases, I would recommend, when searching by parish name, that you leave off the ending (for example, search “Limbaž” instead of “Limbaži”), since the case form can influence what records are found. Another useful source are the “revision lists”, which list members of various communities, and could provide more detailed information, depending on the purpose of the list. Revision lists for Latgale are at fonds 1881, Vidzeme at fonds 199, Kurzeme (which includes modern-day Zemgale province) at fonds 630. Some revision lists are available on Raduraksti – at time of writing, these are lists pertaining to the towns of Bauska, Grobiņa, Jaunjelgava, Jēkabpils and Jelgava. [Update: All revision lists appear to be online. Though unfortunately for Latgale, there are very few surviving lists from this time period.]
Unless mentioned otherwise, these records are only available at the Latvian State Historical Archives (LVVA) in Rīga, Latvia. To access the records in the archives reading room, it is necessary to register for a reading room pass. I would recommend doing this by email in advance of your visit. When you request materials, it may take a few days for the material to be located and made available for you, so plan your visit accordingly. The staff are extremely helpful, so do not be afraid to ask for help. However, not all of the staff speak English, but most do speak German and/or Russian. All speak Latvian. Visiting the archives is free, but copies cost money, and the cost can vary depending on shape and age of the documents. When I visited the LVVA in December, I spent about 80 lati ($150, £100) on copies. It was worth it! The copies are also annotated with the fonds number, abstract number and item number.
I hope this helps you formulate your research plan. As always, if you need any help, or have any questions, just ask!