This is a good one for the Family History Through the Alphabet challenge, something I mention quite a lot but I’m not sure if I’ve ever really defined… Manorial Estate!
There were two types of “estates” in pre-independence Latvian society – manorial estates and social estates. Discussion on the latter to come later when we get to “S”. The one I mention most frequently, however, is manorial estate – so when I say “estate” in a post, this is the one I’m usually talking about. The Latvian term would be “muiža”.
A manorial estate would be an estate – that is, a large piece of property – associated with a manor house. The manor house would usually be the home of the owner of the estate, or their designated steward, in the event that the owner had multiple estates and thus lived elsewhere. While the landowner owned the estate, they did not work the estate – that was the job of the peasants.
In the Baltic provinces, each estate would be divided into a number of smaller farms that were worked by the peasants (serfs prior to emancipation, tenant farmers after emancipation). Each of these farms would also have its own name. These farm names predate surnames, and in many cases, provided a source for a family’s surname. This is why certain farm names, and thus certain surnames, are extremely common – they are names that are taken from physical features of the land. It would not be unusual for many estates to have a grove of oak trees (farm name Ozoli or Ozoliņi – surname Ozols or Ozoliņš), or a lot of bushes (farm name Krūmi or Krūmiņi – surname Krūms or Krūmiņš), or be on a series of small hills (farm name Kalni or Kalniņi – surname Kalns or Kalniņš). When looking at Latvian vital records, the estate and farm names will typically be recorded, so you can find where a family lived.
The peasants would work some of the land for their own subsistence, but the main job was always to work the landowner’s land. Prior to emancipation from serfdom, the peasants were also tied to the land that they worked – so if a landowner sold part of his estate to someone else, the peasants working that piece of land were transferred along with the land. After serfdom was ended, the serfs became tenant farmers. Rents were paid in goods, labour and eventually in money. Even after the move to cash rents, many landowners continued to require corvees (unpaid work), even though these were supposed to be phased out.
Starting in the 1850s and 1860s, the tenant farmers were able to buy their farms from the landowners. However, for identification purposes, the farm was still identified with the estate in documents such as birth records, land records, etc. After independence in 1918, all of the estates were expropriated by the new Latvian government. Farms were then granted to those who wished to work the land, with priority being given to veterans of the Latvian independence war. These farms were called “jaunsaimniecības” (“new farms”), to contrast with the “vecsaimniecības” (“old farms”), which were the peasant farms that had been bought out prior to independence.
Now, everyone did not acquire land. There were still “landless peasants”, both before and after independence. Many of these landless peasants started to migrate to the cities, and became the industrial workers. Those who remained in the countryside could either lease farms or live on farms with other families as workers. These farm workers could move regularly – this is where the revision lists come in most useful, for then you can track the movements of landless workers quite easily. By contrast, if your ancestors had become landowners, they were less likely to migrate.
The German term “Wirt” is often seen in revision lists and other documents, and while it can mean “landlord” or “owner” – that is, if the person bearing that title had bought the land from the estate – but it is also seen before that, so it is more analogous to the Latvian word “saimnieks”. I find “saimnieks” to be a difficult word to translate appropriately, because while it can mean “landlord” or “manager”, both of those terms seem to convey more authority than the “saimnieks” would have had prior to purchasing the land. But it is the best word I suppose – the “saimnieks” (or “saimniece” in the case of a woman) was the head of the farm. However, before owning the land, I don’t think holding that title provided much in the way of authority, since the landowner still had ultimate control.
Many civil parishes bear the names of what used to be the main manorial estate in the area. Some of these names later changed to become more Latvian in 1920, 1925 and 1939, so if you can’t find any information on a certain parish prior to that time period, check to see if it is one that had a name change. Some examples: Briņķi became Nīkrāce in 1920, while Nurmuiža became Lauciene in 1939.
Do you need help identifying what estate your ancestors were from? Or which modern-day parish it is found in? Let me know, I can help!