Latvian Genealogy Primer – Part 2

Part 2 – Genealogical Sources

After reading Part 1 of this primer, and the historical context of Latvian emigration, now it is time to move to genealogical sources – the resources that you can use to trace your Latvian ancestry.

What You Need to Know About Latvian Genealogy

  1. Most records are in Russian or German prior to the First World War. After that, they will be in Latvian, unless they were created by a minority-run institution (such as a German church congregation). Keep a dictionary or online translator of all languages by your side when searching.
  2. Records available online are only the tiniest tip of the iceberg. The holdings of the Latvian State Historical Archives are vast, and many parts of them remain unexplored. There is a lot to discover there.
  3. Of the online records, very few are searchable by typing a name in a box. Be prepared to look through page after page of digital images.
  4. The spelling of names is mutable. Very mutable, in fact, prior to the interwar era, and one name could be spelled in a myriad of different ways depending on who was writing the record, their language knowledge, etc. While many names were diminutives, sometimes in official records they would not be in the diminutive form. However, do be cautious – there are some names that could look similar to someone not familiar with Latvian names that are in fact very different, so if you think you’ve found a potential ancestor, but the name is a bit off, you can ask me and I can tell you whether or not it could be a possibility.
  5. On the topic of names, it is also not unusual for people to go by their middle names – this applies to both men and women.
  6. Furthermore, location is key, particularly when dealing with common surnames (for an idea about common surnames, look at my surnames database – if it is mentioned in more than half a dozen places, especially if these places are separated by quite a distance, it is common). Do not assume that the first Jānis Bērziņš you come across is your ancestor – this is the most common Latvian name, and there will be thousands of them in the records. Even if you know the location, be careful, because names often repeat within families – I have a case where one of my great-great-grandfathers was living on the same farm as his cousin, who had the same name as him, and they had daughters born in the same month, also given the same name. The only way to tell them apart had been the mothers’ maiden names – because the mothers also had the same given names!

First Step: Where in Latvia were your ancestors from?

This can sometimes be a difficult question to answer, particularly for those of you whose ancestors emigrated in the early years. Passenger lists at arrival ports might not provide a lot of information. But in this case, it is important to look beyond just the information listed as their last place of residence – many passenger lists provide information on next of kin in the home country, or the family member/friend they are joining in their new country. Use the information for these people as well – maybe your great-grandmother’s place of residence wasn’t listed on her passenger manifest, but the list does mention that she is joining her aunt – look up her aunt’s passenger manifest to see if that lists her last place of residence. It might not be precisely the answer you’re looking for, but it is a closer starting point and may provide more hints than just “Latvia”.

For those whose ancestors are post-Second World War emigrants, the process is easier: Write to the International Tracing Service and they should be able to provide you with some documents regarding your family’s time in Displaced Persons Camps. Many of these documents will also list places of birth and places of residence.

If none of these suggestions have been of use, don’t despair yet – by ascertaining which group of migrants your ancestor was most associated with, it might help narrow down your search in Latvian records. Many economic migrants (that is, those looking for new opportunities or land) were from Kurzeme, the western province of Latvia. Political migrants could be mentioned in a variety of records and books about the 1905 Revolution, and these could provide clues to places of residence. It is even worth exploring the roots of Latvian neighbours of your ancestor, if you have found them on a census record – people often stayed with others they knew from back home. Explore all of these avenues.

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