Today I’m expanding a bit beyond my usual discussion on Latvian genealogy, to discuss a topic that is relevant to all fields of genealogy. The point of discussion – What are your goals?
It is important to define your genealogical goals when getting started. It is especially important to define your genealogical goals if you intend to hire someone to help you do your research. This helps both you and your genealogist – you get the information that is important to you, and they know where to concentrate their efforts. Everybody wins!
I’ve broken the different styles of research down into five categories, and named them according to features found on a Latvian farmstead.
“Tree” (Direct Lineage) – This is what most people think of when they think of genealogy, especially if distinguishing between “genealogy” and “family history”. Direct Lineage will give you names, dates and places of life events of direct ancestors. Other information might be nice, but it is of secondary importance to the “branches” of the tree, so to speak.
“Orchard” (Family Lineage) – A broader field than just Direct Lineage, since Family Lineage also works in brothers and sisters of ancestors and their families. This will provide a broader look at familial relationships, but it still mostly limited to branches on a tree.
“Barnyard” (FAN club – Friends, Associates, Neighbours) – Our ancestors did not live in a vacuum. They were influenced by the community around them. Where they worked, where they went to school, where they worshiped – it all left a mark on their lives. While we may not know exactly how and why our great-great-grandparents decided to marry, knowing that they had lived on neighbouring farms since childhood helps give us an idea as to how it came to be.
“Garden” (Life Cycle) – In the “Tree” and “Orchard” categories, ancestors’ lives are measured by events such as birth, marriage and death. But our ancestors had other major life events too – moving to a new home, starting a new job, etc. These events could have been more important than the ones genealogists typically measure. By embracing the “Garden” category, we look at the other aspects of an ancestor’s life, the choices they made and how that shaped the person they became and the influences they passed along to their children and grandchildren.
“Farmstead” (Whole Community) – Beyond family and friends, beyond even acquaintances, lies the rest of the world. By understanding the local history of a community, as well as the greater region and country that the community is a part of, one can understand why an ancestor did the things they did. Why a family picked up and moved across the country with a lot of small children might seem odd until you realize that there was a war raging through their home at the time, or a famine, or any number of other factors. But you don’t learn about those other factors unless you step out of the archives and into the library to consult a history book. These history books, more often than not, will then give you new resources to consult in the archives – for example, the original documents of government officials, the laws they proclaimed, and then seeing how these might have influenced your ancestors’ lives.
Why I have I decided to discuss these categories? It is important to know what is and is not possible in Latvian genealogy.
If the “Tree” or “Orchard” approaches are the ones that you are most interested in, I’m sorry to tell you that you will probably be disappointed in the pursuit of your Latvian ancestry. If your ancestors were peasants, you are unlikely to get further back than the late 1700s. Those of you in the United States might be familiar with the concept of “The Wall” in African-American genealogy, where one cannot get much further back than Emancipation (1865) because of slavery, since slaves did not have surnames or much in the way of documents relating to them as people rather than property. The same applies for serfs in the Russian Empire – prior to Emancipation (between 1816 and 1866, depending on the province), serfs had only marginally more rights than slaves in the New World. Documents regarding serfs prior to Emancipation do exist, but due to the fact that there are no surnames and only a limited pool of first names, it is almost impossible to trace families any further back.
This is why I advocate the “Barnyard”, “Garden” and “Farmstead” approaches when it comes to Latvian genealogy. Documents are such that while you might not know about a lot of ancestors, you can get to know a lot about the ancestors you do find. You can trace migration patterns, you can trace who lived on which farm and when, you can see if families traveled together. You can learn about the histories of certain parishes and estates, about the officials and barons that managed them, and thus be able to find out what kind of lives the peasants may have had. You can trace the impact that events such as the 1905 Revolution had on your ancestors’ communities, or the policies of different czars. You can read old newspapers from all over Latvia and see what kind of events your ancestors might have been talking about, or even participated in. All of this is possible. The resources are there – some online, but most are not. Languages vary, as do the places you need to go to find them all, but it is all possible.
What is your genealogical approach? Do you need help defining one? Do you need other kinds of help reaching your goals? Let me know!