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K is for Kurland

For centuries, what we now know as Latvia was a part of larger empires. In these larger empires, Latvia was not a province by itself, but rather divided into a number of different provinces. In this edition of the Family History Through the Alphabet challenge, we’ll discuss one of these old provinces – Kurland.

Kurland was the name given to the present-day provinces of Kurzeme and Zemgale – the western and southern parts of modern-day Latvia. The dividing line between Kurland and the other Latvian provinces – Livland and Vitebsk – was usually the Daugava river, with some exceptions as some south-side Daugava territories (mostly in the vicinity of Rīga) were a part of Livland. This border was significant, particularly in the case of Kurland and Vitebsk. Kurland was a Baltic province, administered by mostly German gentry, which afforded it privileges that the “Inner Russian” province of Vitebsk did not have. This becomes most evident in the case of surnames, which only spread in Vitebsk in the 1860s and 1870s, while they were already in use in Kurland fifty years earlier.

For much of its history, Kurland was known as the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, which was a vassal state of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until it was annexed by Russia in the late 18th century. The ruling German gentry also undertook what are considered to be the “Latvian” contributions to colonization – the Duchy controlled the northern coast of the Caribbean island of Tobago, as well as part of Gambia on the western coast of Africa, at various points during the 17th century.

The main capital was Jelgava, then called Mitau. Most of the ruling dukes came from the Kettler family of Baltic Germans, who ruled from the late 16th century to the mid-18th century. After the Kettlers, most dukes were from the von Biron family. Besides Jelgava, other important cities were Liepāja (Libau), Ventspils (Windau), Kuldīga (Goldingen) and Jēkabpils (Jacobstadt).

In terms of records, the style of recordkeeping was much the same as it was in Livland, so if you are already familiar with Livland research, making the jump to Kurland records is not that big. There are some stylistic differences in certain time periods (Kurland adopted a column-based record book for births/baptisms that Livland for the most part did not), but on the whole, there is not that much of a difference. However, the survival rate of records in Kurland is not as great. I’m not sure if there is an official reason for it, but it is likely that many of these records were lost during the First World War, when, as you will have found from the diary entries of my great-grandfather’s sister that I’ve been posting, there was a great amount of devastation in Kurland during the war.

Do you have any tips to contribute for those researching their ancestors in Kurland? Share them here!

1 comment to K is for Kurland

  • vicki hitzfeld

    Need assistance in learning more of my maternal grandfather’s history. He was from Ventspils which is now Windaw. Upon arriving in the US IN 1913 (Ellis Island) he changed the spelling of his surname to Krishian from Krisjan. No he was not Armenian. He believed that the new spelling “Americanized” the last name. Full name was Peter Willaim Krisjan. Thank you.

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