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Surname Saturday – Relationship Between Surnames and Farm Names

Like in many other countries, rural properties in Latvia are known by names, rather than by street numbers as is typical in an urban setting. However, unlike most European countries, these rural Latvians really only acquired surnames in the early 19th century. What this means is that large numbers of Latvians have surnames that came from farm names, rather than the other way around.

Now, this does not mean that every surname comes from a farm name. This would be impossible, since several families typically lived on one peasant farm, and by law (in Kurland and Livland, not necessarily so in Latgale) they each needed to have a different surname (unless the family heads were a group of brothers, at which point they could choose the same name). From what I’ve seen, the ability to have the farm name become the surname was typically a privilege reserved for the farm manager (“saimnieks” in Latvian), so the other families would need to choose different names.

This is not to say that every farm manager chose the farm name as a surname. My Celmiņš ancestors were the farm manager family on the Stampvēveri farm since the time before surnames, but they chose the surname Celmiņš instead. Now, Celmiņi (the plural of Celmiņš) is a very common farm name as well, so other Celmiņš families may have come from these farms, but it was not the case for my ancestors.

This is important to note as well – many Latvian names can be and often are farm names as well, but that does not mean that they were necessarily derived from them. Many farm names come from nature, and so do surnames, so they could thus overlap while not being derived from each other.

In the interwar period, when new peasant farms were created from former estate land or state land, these farms were given names that may or may not have had anything to do with the surnames of the new owners. From what I have seen thus far, they usually chose different names for their farm instead of using their surname, but I’m not aware of any law that would prohibit using the surname as the farm name.

These guidelines above apply only to Kurland and Livland. In Latgale, things were a bit different. In some places in Latgale, surnames existed prior to emancipation in 1866 (emancipation came earlier in Kurland and Livland), and in other places, they only came after emancipation. If you’re lucky, you could find records for your Latgale ancestors back to the 17th or 18th centuries, but it depends on the place. Also, Latgale had an organizational system of “sādžas” (small hamlets) that was not found in other parts of Latvia, and sometimes all of the families in a “sādža” would be given the same surname, even if they were not related. Latgale also had a larger number of non-ethnic Latvians living in rural areas, mostly Russian Old Believers, Belarusians, Poles and a few Jewish communities. While Latgale was within the Pale of Settlement, the Jewish community was predominantly urban, rather than living in rural shtetls. The only rural communities with large Jewish numbers that I’m aware of were Višķi and Riebiņi. All of these different ethnic communities also brought their different naming customs with them.

Do you have any questions about farm names and surnames? Want to know if your surname could be a farm name? Feel free to ask in comments!

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