Mappy Monday – Crossing the Northern Border

On this week’s edition of Mappy Monday, we are taking a trip across Latvia’s northern border into Estonia! I know I’ve talked a lot about Estonia on this blog recently, and there’s a reason for that – the histories are so intertwined, the record types are similar, and there is a lot of crossover in terms of population – all of which you can read about in my series on Finnic influences in Latvia, which you can start reading here and then go back through the other links provided.

Today, of course, we’re focusing on some aspects of geography – Estonian placenames that are important for people investigating Latvian roots to know, since they could very well come up.

Locating places in Estonia from Latvian documents isn’t always easy – when a place name has been put through several different languages, it might end up coming out looking quite different to the name you started with. Typically, Estonian place names came into Latvian via German, but sometimes directly from Estonian as well.

First, we’ll look at the bigger cities, since these were places that Latvians were likely to go. The main one is Tartu, in southeastern Estonia, since it is known for its university, where many Latvians studied in the 19th century. In Latvian, the city is called Tērbata, which comes from the original Estonian name Tarbatu. The name used in German, Swedish and Polish also derives from this original Estonian name, and thus it most commonly appears on maps as Dorpat. In Russian, the city was sometimes known as Дерпт (Derpt) – thus also from the same root – but more commonly as Юрьев (Yuryev), the name of an ancient prince of Rus.

The capital of Estonia, on the north coast, is Tallinn – rendered in Latvian as Tallina. In older records, the Latvian name might appear as Rēvele – taken from the German, Swedish and Danish name of Reval. It had many different names throughout history, which you can explore in the Wikipedia entry here.

Closest to Latvia is the seaside town of Pärnu – the names for this city are all closely related, not varying too much from the Estonian – Pērnava in Latvian, Pernau in German and Пернов (Pernov) in Russian.

Another important place in Estonia as it relates to Latvia – because many Estonian migrants to Latvian territory originated there – is the island of Saaremaa. Residents of Saaremaa had regular contacts with coastal communities of Livonians around the Cape of Kolka, and also contributed a number of migrants to the city of Rīga (though how they traveled to Rīga – by land or by water – I am not certain). Saaremaa is known in Swedish and German as Ösel, and the similar Øsel in Danish. Russian also used a similar name, Эзел (Ezel). In Latvian, it is known as Sāmsala – but take care in old documents, because even in Latvian it could be referred to using the German or Estonian name, or sometimes a portmanteau of several of the above languages.

In terms of parishes, there are way too many to name – but you can look at this Estonian Wikipedia page that lists many of the estates in Estonia. “Nimi” will have the modern name, “Saksakeelne nimi” is the old German name, and then the next two will list the historical administrative district and the modern administrative district respectively. “Mõis” is the Estonian word for “manor/estate”, from the same root as the Latvian “muiža”.

Next week we will cross the southern border! There were a lot of Latvians living in Lithuania as well, so this is important to look at too!

Surname Saturday – Latvian Surname Project Update, October 24, 2015

New format of Surname Saturday here on Discovering Latvian Roots – if you want surname meanings, go check out the Facebook and Twitter pages, here on the blog it will be a summary of what’s new on the Latvian Surname Project, as funded by my supporters on Patreon!

New this week!

Parishes added – Ukri, Ziemupe

Names added – Sūna, Zellis

… and over 20 other names have been updated to reflect their presence in more parishes!

The Surname Project currently includes 1392 surnames from 502 parishes, towns and cities. Many parishes only have a few names listed so far, but I’m working every day to add more for each parish!

Debunking Latvian Genealogy Myths: The Same Surname Means We’re Related!

This is the third post in a series on debunking myths about Latvian genealogy. See the first post about records availability here and the second post about name spelling here.

Today’s myth: I found someone with the same surname. That must mean we’re related!

Like the other myths we’ve talked about so far, this myth is very wrong. This is because of the way surnames came about in Latvia. In this post, I will describe this surname acquisition process, and outline the criteria to watch for to determine whether people with the same surname are related.

Prior to the 19th century, most Latvians did not have surnames. This is because most Latvians were peasants, and peasants were serfs – tied to the manor and farm that they worked on, therefore surnames were not deemed necessary. Allegedly Latvians did have surnames in the 17th century under Swedish rule while serfdom was abolished, but I’ve only heard apocryphal stories and no firm documents confirming this.

This means that most people acquired surnames after serfdom was abolished – 1817 in Kurzeme, 1819 in Vidzeme and 1861 in Latgale (special notes on Latgale and Latgalian surnames below). Even though this is when surnames would have been acquired, they only start appearing in records in 1826 for Vidzeme and 1834 in Kurzeme – and sometimes not even reliably, particularly in Kurzeme, where some records don’t reliably record surnames even into the 1850s.

But where did surnames come from? If they had to appear in the 19th century, what was their source?

The easiest and simplest source for surnames was farm names – people were often referred to in connection with their farm name anyways, so many farm names became surnames. This is how the most common Latvian surnames occurred – Bērziņš, Kalniņš, Ozoliņš – all from very common farm names Bērziņi, Kalniņi, Ozoliņi (the plural forms thereof, being diminutives of “birches”, “hills” and “oaks”). Most estates had farm names of this sort, so this surname could pop up on almost every estate.

After nature names (which were the most common source of farm names), people may have chosen occupational names, if they had a special trade of some kind. Occupational surnames aren’t as common in Latvia as in other countries, but some, such as Kalējs (smith), Mucenieks (cooper) and Mūrnieks (mason) are relatively common. Also remember these names could appear in their German, Russian, Polish or Estonian variants as well! People could also acquire surnames from some sort of personal trait (relating to height, weight, or if they had some sort of disability or unique physical characteristic) or where they lived. They could also just pick something at random that they liked (I still have no idea where my family name Baburs came from – this is definitely NOT a Latvian name, but it belonged to a very Latvian family line from southeast of Rīga).

Were there rules regarding surname acquisition? Yes. Surnames could not be used by two unrelated families on the same estate. The patriarch of a family would give the same surname to all of his children, but if the patriarch was deceased, brothers were not obligated to choose the same surname (though many did, or variations on a theme – as an example, in those early days of surname acquisition, my paternal line had the surname Celmiņš, but one brother went with the alternative diminutive Celmītis for awhile – but then went back to Celmiņš). Latvians were also supposed to have Latvian names, and non-diminutives – though this rule was not particularly adhered to. Latvians often chose diminutives over non-diminutives (though keep in mind that records could record people as either, depending on how stringent the record-keepers were with this rule). Since many Latvians have Germanic or Slavic names, the former part of this rule was also not particularly adhered to either – though in some cases, the manor lords were responsible, if they didn’t want to bother with a bunch of surnames they weren’t familiar with, they would give peasants Germanic or Slavic surnames instead.

What was the surname acquisition procedure? Tales tell that there would be a big meeting on the estate, and then the manor lord would ask each patriarch to come forward and announce the name they wanted recorded for their family. If they could not think of one, the manor lord would assign one. This is where a number of unusual and rude surnames came about – names such as Ubags (beggar), Tupētājs (squatter), Dumpis (rebellion) and so on. If someone was particularly obtuse, they could even end up with a name like “Negribs” (Doesn’t Want – presumably said by someone who did not want a surname, and this was recorded in its place and thus became a surname). But if someone was creative, they could end up with an unusual and creative surname – for example, Zeltzaķis (Gold Hare), Dzelzgalvis (Iron Head), Upeslācis (River Bear), Lāčkalns (Bear Hill), etc.

So what does this all mean for people with the same surname? If the surname is a popular one – any tree, plant or animal – then the chances of being related to another person with the same surname is very unlikely. If their family is from the same parish, then the chances of being related increase, but remember, after the 1820s people could also move around a bit more freely, which means that people with the same surnames could now end up on the same estate and not be related. So you would need to trace your families back to see if there is a family relationship.

If your surname is more unusual, you still need to be careful – even uncommon surnames could pop up independently in different parts of the country (you just need to look at the names in the Latvian Surname Project to see proof of that). Again, it all comes down to parish. The closer the parishes, the greater the chance of a family relationship. But the only way to definitively prove it is by doing the research to link family trees (and a DNA test can help too).

Now, a special note regarding surnames in Latgale. Many Latgalian Catholics had surnames prior to serfdom being abolished in 1861, but not all did. So do not be surprised if you see surnames in records before that (be happy!). On the other hand, there’s the added difficulty where the estate rules from Vidzeme and Kurzeme did not apply – often an entire hamlet of unrelated families could be given the same surname. In such a case, it is rare that the surname will repeat elsewhere in the province, so there is that advantage, but there is still the task of separating out the different families, which might not be easy, especially since there are good chances that they will also marry into each other. But once all of the families are charted using the old records, the task becomes easier.

Do you know how common your family names are? If you don’t, my Latvian Surname Project can give you an idea! If your name doesn’t appear there, chances are that it is not very common, since most common surnames are listed by now. You can also look your name up in Periodika to see how often it appears (though be cautious if the name is also a place name, farm name or common word – then you might get false positives!).

This post and others like it are made possible by my patrons on Patreon. If you find the information on my site valuable, please consider becoming my patron too!

Tombstone Tuesday – Reinholds Karlovs, 1898-1943

In this series, I am providing pictures of tombstones from Latvian cemeteries, all with death dates prior to 1945. I do not have any further information on the people mentioned.


Photo taken by me, October 2014. Click to enlarge.

Top Inscription: “Piemiņas vieta Latvijas Brīvības Cīņu dalībniekam 1916-1920″ (Memorial Place for Latvian War of Independence [1916-1920] participant)

Name: Reinholds Karlovs, 1898-1943

Bottom Inscription: “Nošauts Krievjas nāves nometnē Intā” (Shot in Russian death camp Inta)

Location: Pēterupe Cemetery, Pēterupe, Saulkrasti

Mappy Monday – Soviet Era and Modern Names in Latvia

Following on the heels of the Second World War era, we now come to the Soviet and modern eras when it comes to name changes in Latvian territory.

The Soviet era brought a huge amount of reorganization to Latvian territory, and it is impossible to encapsulate it all in a small blog post like this. The main reorganization was on a community level – parishes and districts were eliminated, and replaced with local “soviets” – local Communist councils that controlled an area, the first-level administration within the Latvian SSR, which were then later united in parallel with the creation of kolkhozes – collective farms. Forcing Latvians onto collective farms was the biggest change in Soviet-era geography, since prior to that, most of Latvia had individual farms (whether individually owned or owned by a manor lord). Creating these collective farms – and deporting the wealthier peasants, called “kulaks” by the Communists – was a key part of the Soviet plan for Latvia, to break down the independent spirit of the Latvians and create Soviet citizens. This did not work out as they hoped, since Latvia still managed to break free from the Soviet yoke. But if you are ever driving through the Latvian countryside and wondering why there are apartment buildings in the middle of the countryside – that’s a tell-tale sign of where a collective farm used to be.

When Latvia regained its independence, it reorganized territory again, and then again – some parishes look like they have for centuries, others don’t. Some long-standing parishes have vanished from the map, while new ones have popped up. A new territorial division appearing on the map in recent years is a town with its own administration, and then its accompanying “rural territory”. I’m not certain as to how these are administered, but they look a bit odd on a map – why aren’t they just called a parish, like the surrounding parishes are? Nowadays, parishes are also not grouped into districts (apriņķi), but rather counties (novadi). The number of parishes in a county seems fairly arbitrary – some counties have just one parish, others have more than ten. It is possible that these are based on population, but I am not sure about that. These counties transcend the earlier borders of provinces and parishes, creating new territorial divisions to replace the ones that were in Latvia for hundreds of years beforehand.

Is this transcendence a good or a bad thing? I don’t know. Time will tell. Time will also tell how territory is reorganized in the future. For now, that is the end of the territorial divisions posts – let me know what you would like to see next on Mappy Monday!

Surname Saturday – Latvian Surname Project Update, October 17, 2015

New format of Surname Saturday here on Discovering Latvian Roots – if you want surname meanings, go check out the Facebook and Twitter pages, here on the blog it will be a summary of what’s new on the Latvian Surname Project, as funded by my supporters on Patreon!

New this week!

Parishes added – Madona, Mēmele

Names added – Grīnvalds, Paeglītis

… and over 20 other names have been updated to reflect their presence in more parishes!

The Surname Project currently includes 1390 surnames from 500 parishes, towns and cities. Many parishes only have a few names listed so far, but I’m working every day to add more for each parish!

WW1 Diary – October 17, 1918

Seventy-eighth installment from the diary of my great-grandfather’s sister Alise, written during the First World War. When the diary starts, she is living just a few miles from the front lines of the Eastern Front, and is then forced to flee with her husband and two young daughters to her family’s house near Limbaži as the war moves even closer. Her third child, a son, was born there in February 1916. The family has now relocated (again) to a home near Valmiera, and the Russian Revolution is in full swing. For more background, see here, and click on the tag “diary entries” to see all of the entries that I have posted.

If there is mention of a recognizable historical figure and event, I will provide a Wikipedia link so that you can read more about the events that Alise is describing. It is with this entry here that the calendar in Latvia changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

October 17, 1918

The Spanish flu is taking many lives. The people most affected are young, healthy people full of energy and strength. Even our dear friend and relative Betty Mulberg, in her 33rd year, fell into the eternal sleep. News of her death shocked us greatly. Tuesday I was visiting her, we chatted about this and that, and no one was even thinking about death. She was a person in whose presence you would always feel good, who brought peace and trusted in God. Trūtiņa was the first to hear about her death and told me about it very somberly. I went to town immediately and found Betty on the cold pyre – quiet as a dream, hopes quiet like dreams, luck had died…

Her husband and children are crying, so is everyone who was there. The young and old are dying, but not those in middle age, those who are middle-aged are crying!

The current, which flows through the soul,
You cannot describe it, only feel it,
Happy notes do not reach it,
Only – tears, tears…

Tombstone Tuesday – Rudolf Jeske, 1909-1934

In this series, I am providing pictures of tombstones from Latvian cemeteries, all with death dates prior to 1945. I do not have any further information on the people mentioned.


Photo taken by me, December 2014. Click to enlarge.

Name: Rudolf Jeske, born September 29, 1909, died September 22, 1934.

Bottom Inscription: “No B.C.F. Strad.” (From the workers of B.C.F.)

Location: Sloka Lutheran Cemetery, Sloka