Getting Out of Riga

Rīga is the capital city of Latvia and the largest city in the Baltics. Since Latvian records are largely unindexed, this means that locating an ancestor in Rīga is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

If your ancestors were ethnic Latvians, however, you might find yourself lucky – most ethnic Latvians in the capital arrived towards the end of the nineteenth century. In 1897, Rīga was 45% Latvian, in 1867, only 23%. Therefore, if your ancestors are ethnic Latvians, there is a good chance that you might only need to deal with Rīga records for a generation or two.

Thus the title of this post – how can you most efficiently look through that haystack of records to locate your ancestors and link them to a parish outside of Rīga, and thus a place that can be searched much more easily?

1. Passports. The Latvian State Historical Archives has a collection of internal passports for Rīga residents in the inter-war period. The good news is that they are indexed on a computer for ease of searching. Bad news is that they are not online, and only available by searching the database onsite. These passports note both place of residence and place of birth. Also important is “place of registration”, which can often be the place of birth – even if they haven’t lived there in years. One of my great-grandfathers was still registered as a citizen of Vijciems parish, even though at the time of issuance of the passport he had been living in Rīga for at least a decade.

2. 1940 Telephone Directory. Available online at GenealogyIndexer (has all of Latvia, scroll down to find Rīga). Now, not everyone had a telephone, but it is a start. This can be used to locate an address, and then you can look for parish records for that area. Of course, people move, and sometimes frequently, but a starting point is better than nothing.

3. 1897 All-Russia Census. Available on Raduraksti. The records for Rīga are fairly complete, and organized by street name. The census mentions place of birth and religion, both important tools to locate the proper religious BMD documents.

4. Religious records. Available on Raduraksti. There are many religious records available for Rīga, so if you’ve narrowed down where your ancestors lived, start searching in nearby parishes, and then expand your search from there. Rīga records sometimes contain rudimentary indexes (still handwritten), available at the beginning or end of the book. Check both to see if one is available. If someone is a recent migrant to Rīga, any information pertaining to them with regards to “home parish” will frequently reference their non-Rīga parish (see above with regards to place of registration). This is most common with marriage and death records, so if you know when an ancestor died in Rīga, find their death record first to see if they were born in Rīga as well.

5. School records. If your ancestor went to school in Rīga, there may be extant records for the school that could provide information on where the student was from. Sometimes school archive files (available at the Latvian State Historical Archives) will contain birth certificates of students, previous school transcripts, and so on.

6. Revision lists. These are available on Raduraksti. If you find your ancestors were in Rīga prior to the early 1860s, you will need to head to the revision lists. Now, the ones for Rīga are more complicated than for rural parishes – they are arranged by social class and, in some cases, religion (the religious groups most likely to have separate lists are Jews and Old Believers). Alphabetical indexes appear to exist for some of the lists, but not all of them. Raduraksti has many different lists relating to Rīga, so you may have to sort through them for awhile to find who you’re looking for. It appears that for the most part, the latest date on these documents is 1863.

Another thing to remember is that your ancestor might not have been from Rīga at all – just like emigrants from other countries, people might name the largest city to their home as their place of birth, when they were actually from the countryside. So unless you have a document (preferably of Latvian origin, since they would be most likely to be correct on Latvian places of residence and birth) that specifically links your ancestors to Rīga, do not assume that is where they are from, just because it is a large population centre. This holds especially true for ethnic Latvians – while the share of ethnic Latvians in Rīga did increase in the late 1800s and eventually become a majority in the interwar period, ethnic Latvians were still a predominantly rural population. If your ancestors were not ethnic Latvians, however, their chances of being Rīga-born for centuries are much higher.

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