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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Second Step: What Latvian resources are there online?
The main resource to look at for tracing ancestors in Latvian territory, regardless of their religious or ethnic affiliation, is Raduraksti. This is a project created by the Latvian State Historical Archives to digitize Latvian records so that they can be viewed from anywhere in the world.
Keep in mind this is simply a digitization, not a transcription – you will need to look page by page at the records to find what you’re looking for. I have created a number of guides and tips for looking at these records – just click on the blog tags to the left, particularly “records” and “tips”.
The key piece of advice here is don’t give up – it might look daunting, but the more you look at the records, the more you learn the terms and the styles of handwriting, the better you’ll fare. Keep a German or Russian dictionary handy.
Raduraksti provides several types of basic records – birth, marriage and death records in the form of religious records, so you will need to know the religion of your ancestor; 1897 census records (though these are far from complete); and revision lists, covering the period 1796-1858, with some later supplements, that are also not complete, but serve as rudimentary census records.
Some projects do exist in terms of transcribing these records into searchable databases. I started doing so on this website, but I have now folded my work in with Ciltskoki.lv. This website has thousands of transcriptions, however it was created for an intended audience of Latvian speakers, so English translations within the website are very rudimentary, if they exist at all. I am working with the website owner to create an English interface.
Those looking for their Jewish roots in Latvia would do well to visit the website of Christine Usdin here, where she has transcribed many of Latvia’s Jewish congregations’ records. JewishGen also has many transcriptions here.
Third Step: What Latvian resources are there in Latvia?
All sorts! While the online records will provide you with a skeleton of a family tree, the records available on-site in Latvia will put meat on the bones.
What kind of records are available depend heavily on the particular region you’re researching. Generally speaking, cities will have more records than the countryside, but you will also have to sift through more records to find your ancestors, because cities are, obviously, larger population centres, and alphabetical indexes can be scarce. Vidzeme province – the northern province of Latvia – also has, generally speaking, better preserved records than the other parts of Latvia. I’m not entirely sure as to why this is, but if I had to take a guess, I would say it is because the First World War caused a lot of damage in Kurzeme, the western province, and this could have resulted in a loss of certain types of records.
Examples of what kind of records can be found in the Latvian State Historical Archives:
- Interwar-era passports;
- House books;
- School records – both interwar and pre-WW1;
- Parish population registers for the late 19th century;
- Land records for individual farmsteads;
- Court documents, both civil and criminal;
- Police and prison records;
- Lists of people deemed to be under police surveillance, typically for membership in illegal political organizations;
- Documents regarding WW1-era refugees from Latvian territory to Inner Russia;
- Consular documents from interwar-era Latvian embassies around the world;
… and much much more!
Do explore my website more by clicking on the tags at the side, to see the variety of sources I’ve discussed and records I’ve profiled. For more steps and details for getting started, please see my post Getting Started with Latvian Research.
As always, if you have any questions, contact me! Leave a comment here, and I will respond to you by email, or email directly to (this is an image to prevent spam, you will need to type it into your email program).
Best of luck with your searches!