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Sorting Out Ethnicity

So you have established that your ancestors lived on Latvian territory. But what were their ethnic origins? Latvia has been a multi-ethnic territory for centuries, so the distinctions between ethnic groups might not always be so clear in the old records.

There are, however, numerous ways in which to establish someone’s ethnic identity. They are not foolproof, but simply a guideline that can help to unravel some of these mysteries.

Why is ethnicity important? Each ethnic group has its own unique traditions and culture. Knowing about these traditions and cultures helps us paint a clearer picture of our ancestors’ lives, the stories they told, the songs they sang and the languages they spoke.

Surname – The peasantry – mostly consisting of ethnic Latvians – only acquired surnames in the nineteenth century. They were encouraged to choose names that reflected this ethnic origin, though many did not comply and chose German, Polish or Russian names instead. But if they did select a Latvian name, the chances are extremely good that they were ethnic Latvians. Remember, Latvian was considered a peasant dialect in this time period, so anyone who was not Latvian would be unlikely to choose a Latvian name. German, Russian or Polish names, however, since they carried with them the appearance of prestige and a higher social class, were adopted by many different groups that were not ethnic Germans, Russians or Poles, including, but not limited to, Latvians, Estonians and Roma. Jewish surnames can also be of Slavic or Germanic origins, depending on a family’s particular history – sometimes they could come from Germanic origins via Yiddish centuries before surnames were prevalent among the Latvian peasantry, in other cases, they could have been assigned around the same time that Latvian peasants acquired surnames.

Census – Census records – from 1897, 1935 and 1941 – all have a column for ethnicity. However, as census records are derivative sources, they could have their inaccuracies, particularly depending on such things as who answered the census for the household, any biases on the part of the recordkeepers (for example, on the 1897 All-Russia Census, it was common for Belarusians and Ukrainians to be written down as “White Russians” and “Little Russians”, thus subgroups of the main Russian group, rather than as separate ethnicities within a wider Slavic group), and the political climate (the 1941 Census was conducted while Latvia was under Nazi occupation).

Congregation – So your ancestor from Latvian territory has a German, Russian or Polish name, but you believe that they are an ethnic Latvian? Look at religious records. Not the language of the records themselves, but the congregation your ancestor is found in. Many Lutheran parishes had separate German and Latvian congregations, and the records were often kept separate as well. If your ancestor was baptized in the German congregation, it is likely that at least one of their parents was an ethnic German. But here there is the caution regarding upward mobility – if a Latvian was seeking to improve his social status further – maybe he was already favoured by a local baron or had had the opportunity to study – he may have switched to the German congregation in an effort to maintain his higher status. In the nineteenth century, there was a movement against this Germanization by the Young Latvians.

Religion – Generally speaking, ethnic Latvians and ethnic Germans were Lutherans. Sometimes they were Catholics, particularly in Latgale. Some Latvians joined the Russian Orthodox church, or smaller denominations such as Baptist or Reformed churches. It is also important to read baptism entries of children fully – they will typically tell the religion of both parents. This additional information in baptism entries can also lead to surprising discoveries – I found an Anglican British man who settled in Sece parish in the 1870s who baptized his children into his local wife’s Lutheran church.

Class – Class is a big marker, particularly prior to the twentieth century. Ethnic Latvians were predominantly peasant farmers, with some working in trades. The nobility was primarily German, with some Russian and Polish nobles as well. I have yet to hear of any ethnic Latvian baron or large landowner, but it is not outside the realm of possibility. Depending on the time period, administrators would have been German, Russian or Polish. As time passed, Latvians began to move into other positions as well, but, for the most part, this would have only come after emancipation from serfdom.

Location – Where in Latvia did your ancestors live? Vidzeme and Kurzeme, the northern and western provinces of Latvia, had (and still have) the highest percentages of ethnic Latvians. Zemgale (the southern province) also had high numbers of ethnic Latvians – particularly in the west – but as you head east and into Latgale (the eastern province), percentages of Russians, Belarusians and Poles increase. Rural areas were predominantly Latvian, with the exception of the southeast, where there were larger numbers of Belarusians, Russians and Poles. Urban areas were very mixed. Latvians had pluralities in most cities at the end of the nineteenth century (except for in the southeast), but majority populations only in the north in cities such as Cēsis, Limbaži and Valmiera. In the southeast, cities were predominantly Jewish and Polish. In this same time period, there were two rural pockets that were predominantly German, one south of Ērgļi in central Latvia, the other in Kurzeme north of Saldus. The rural areas southeast of Ludza and west of Rēzekne in the east were predominantly Belarusian. Majority Russian rural parishes were found west of Rēzekne and east of Daugavpils.[1]

I hope that these tips can help you narrow down your family’s background and learn more about their traditions. Anomalies do occur, so nothing can be certain, but as a general guideline, these should help your research.

Any other tips? Share in comments!

[1]Population distributions taken from Latvijas Vēstures Atlants, ed. Jānis Turlajs, 1998, p. 28 – “National population at the end of the 19th century”.

2 comments to Sorting Out Ethnicity

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