What do you do if you have little to go on when it comes to researching your Latvian ancestors? What if they emigrated in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and the only information that passenger lists or naturalization records provide is that they came from “Latvia” or “Russia”? What do you do then?
First, do not give up hope. You do have options to explore. It might take a bit longer, but the possibilities are out there, and you may be able to make that link back to Latvia that you have been hoping for.
The most important tool that you can use to trace your elusive ancestor is the genealogical FAN club – Friends, Associates, Neighbours. If you are not finding anything on your ancestor, take a look at the people he or she traveled with to get to the new country. Look at the neighbours on a census record. Look at work colleagues, farm employees, anyone else in their profession in the area. Once you’ve identified others who may have been Latvian, try and trace their families – you could get lucky with one of them naming a previous place of residence or birth in Latvia, and this could be your ancestor’s old home as well.
If you’ve struck out in terms of direct associates in the area, try looking up Latvian associations from that time period and general area – Latvian clubs sprung up in most areas where Latvians lived, and some of their documentation survives. These documents could be difficult to find, depending on who holds them now, but many are out there somewhere. Quite a number are held by the Latvian National Archives. If your ancestor emigrated from Latvia post-1905, chances are good that they were involved in revolutionary activity of some sort, in which case you may also want to investigate the records for any socialist, social-democratic or Communist clubs in your ancestor’s new home, since he may have joined one of those on arrival (or helped form a Latvian one).
A number of these organizations also put out newspapers. Like association archival documents, they might be difficult to find, but they are out there. Among them are such papers as “Strādnieks” (American Latvian social-democratic newspaper), “Brīvība” (Latvian anarchist newspaper published in London and New York), “Melnais Karogs” (Latvian anarchist newspaper published in Paris), etc. Some are available from the Latvian National Library, others are available at depositories in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Can be worth a look to see if your ancestor was mentioned in them.
Still no luck? Take a look at your ancestor’s name, and the names of their family members. If they did not change their name when they moved to their new country, that name could provide some clues. Not all names will provide clues, but some will, directing you to a particular religion or region of Latvia. For example, women’s names starting with “An”, such as “Anlīze”, “Antrīne” and “Ankatrīne” are most common in Kurland province (this does not, however, apply to “Anna”, which is common all over Latvia). Germanic first names are more likely to appear for people who were Lutheran, while Slavic first names could point towards a Catholic or Orthodox background. If your ancestor’s surname is sufficiently uncommon, try looking for it in farm names, trying first on BalticMaps, by clicking “Search for address or place” and then entering the first part of the name (leave off the ending for better results due to grammatical cases). If you find it, try looking at the parish records for that area to see if you can find your ancestor.
If you know that your ancestor was involved with the 1905 Revolution, you can try looking for them in one of the many books dedicated to this topic, such as “Latvijas revolucionāro cīnītāju piemiņas grāmata” (“Book of Remembrance for Latvia’s Revolutionary Fighters”), which is available also in libraries outside of Latvia, such as at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA), the New York Public Library (USA) and the British Library (UK). You can also consult the records I mentioned in my last post regarding police records, but these have no indexes, so you would be better off starting with the books, which do.
If none of these resources have yielded any fruit, you can start conducting a parish-by-parish search for your ancestors in Latvia, but that would be a last-ditch resort. At least you can do it from the comfort of your own home now, with Raduraksti. If you do resort to this option, I would recommend starting with the parishes in Kurland, since most Latvian emigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century were from that province. But before you start on this parish by parish search, drop me a line, and see if I have any other suggestions for you!
Need more information on tracking down your pre-WW1 Latvian emigrant ancestor? Want some advice on where to look for certain organizational records? I can try and help!