Surname Saturday – Early Latvian Surnames

As I’ve mentioned before, most Latvians didn’t have surnames prior to the early 19th century. They were peasants, and until serfdom was abolished, surnames were not a necessity since they were tied to the land. It was only afterwards that surnames became necessary.

But not all Latvians were peasants. Some were merchants, craftsmen and traders, and lived in the cities. They acquired surnames much earlier. While many who aspired to greater social status assimilated to Baltic German culture and took on German names, some Latvian-language surnames do survive from this earlier time period, dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries.

These names are known to us through guild records, as mentioned by Kristaps Upelnieks in his 1936 book Uzvārdu došana Vidzemes un Kurzemes zemniekiem (The giving of surnames to peasants in Vidzeme and Kurzeme).

Among these early Latvian surnames (German renderings in brackets) are: Kāpostgalviņa (Kapustgallyn, “cabbage head”), Platkājis (Platkays, “the one with the wide leg/foot”), Kažokpoga (Kasockepoge, “(fur) coat button”), Kunkuls (Kunkull, “lump”) and Podkāja (Podekaje, “pot leg/foot”).

None of these names appear particularly flattering, and could reflect the societal biases of the time. Some of them are still in use today, though if it is unknown if their bearers are descended from the early bearers of these names, or whether their names were acquired separately at the time of emancipation from serfdom.

There are, however, worse names to have than “cabbage head” – but that’s for another week! Stay tuned!

9 comments on this post.
  1. LE:

    Platkājis was kind of like Plaiske (my grandfather’s name). He came over in 1906 to America and I can’t find Latvian surname that seems to fit. THoughts?

    THe website is very interesting and encouraging for me. Thank you.

  2. Antra:

    LE,

    Hmm, Plaiske sounds vaguely Germanic in name origin to me, but since he left in 1906 it could also be an old spelling of a Latvian origin name. Do you know where he lived? I don’t think Platkājis is the name you’re looking for though – missing a few key letters that couldn’t be attributed to different spellings.

  3. Ingrid Hickman:

    Hi again Antra
    You helped me a few months ago regarding my mother’s side of the family tree, well now I have an interesting scenario from my father’s side of the family. When he visited Latvia for the first time since leaving after WW2, in 1995, he brought back a copy of his family tree which I finally located a few weeks ago after much searching, whilst clearing out my parents’ house (mum passed away in May). His mother was Emilija Ozolina prior to marriage (to Pauls Sels) and HER mother was Marija SANDERS (1868 – 1947,she married Andrejs Ozolins 1868 – 1934). To me SANDERS is NOT a Latvian name,so I am wondering if you might have any idea where it originated from or where I could find out. I am intrigued as I want to continue going back further of course!!
    Hope you can help!
    Regards
    Ingrid Hickman

  4. Antra:

    Hi Ingrid,

    Sanders does not sound Latvian in origin, but it is a name I’ve seen in parish registers. The name itself is most likely German in origin, but this does not necessarily mean the people with the name were of German origin. When the time to choose surnames came, many ethnic Latvians chose or were given German or Polish surnames.

  5. Lisa:

    Hi,

    I’m trying to find my fathers family who lived in Latvia, they were seperated during WW2 and have never seen each other since. Last name of Fridenbergs- where does one begin?

  6. Antra:

    Hi Lisa,

    My blog post Getting Started with Latvian Research should give you the introductory information you need to get started.

  7. nadine heller pellnat:

    My husband’s surname is Pellnat, and his grandfather came to the US. from Elblag, Poland. However, while researching his name I was told it is likely a Germanized form of Pelnaitis (son of Pelnis) and possibly Latvian or Lithuanian. I am not having much luck in tracing the name Pellnat or Pelnaitis. Any ideas?
    Sincerely, Prof. N. Heller Pellnat

  8. Antra:

    Prof. N. Heller Pellnat,

    If the name was a Germanized form of Pelnaitis, it would likely be Lithuanian. Latvian doesn’t often have -aitis name endings.

    However, since Elblag is a bit of a distance from Latvia and Lithuania, I speculate that the name could have Old Prussian roots – the Old Prussians were a Baltic ethnic group related to Latvians and Lithuanians that lived in what is now Kaliningrad and northern Poland, including the area around Elblag. There are numerous Polish names that appear to have Baltic roots, and since numerous Prussian toponyms were preserved into the modern age in what is now Poland, it would not surprise me if Prussian personal names were likewise preserved.

    Best of luck with your research!

  9. Warren Hellwig:

    Dear Antra,
    I have not had any luck tracing my HELLWIG family from Latvia so far. My Great Grandfather was known as Edward HELLWIG who was married to a Julia (nee Saunders)and my grandfather was known as Charles(Karl) or Theodor who was born in March 1871. Any assistance would be most appreciated.
    Thank you for your attention to this matter
    Warren Hellwig

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