Debunking Latvian Genealogy Myths: The Records Are All Destroyed!

So today we’re starting a new series of posts, debunking myths about Latvian genealogical research. I did this in brief five years ago, but now we are going to get more in-depth about each of these myths, addressing how they probably came about, why they continue to survive, and what the truth of the matter really is.

Today we are going to start with the big one, the one that prevents a lot of people from getting started with research into their Latvian families – they don’t get started in the first place because they don’t think there is anything to find.


Wanted: Latvian records. Often thought destroyed, they are still here!

As this blog can attest, these people are most definitely wrong! There are so many records out there. Of course, availability can vary, and I’ll address some of these issues below, but on the whole, there’s a huge amount of records out there, just waiting to be looked through.

So where did this myth come about? A big reason is because of Latvian history. They think, “Oh, there have been so many wars and occupations in Latvia. There’s no way any of the records survive.” I’ll admit, this myth caught me too at the outset. I didn’t know there was anything for me to find about my family. I’m glad I learned otherwise! While war and occupation can certainly lead to record destruction, it can also lead to record amounts of record survival as well.

That sounds backwards, I know. But for some documents – namely, the 1935 and 1941 census records – war and occupation are what saved them. A friend who works for the archives here in Latvia tells me that it was standard practice for the Latvian Statistical Office to destroy individual census forms after ten years. This is why we do not have the records for the 1925 census. On the other hand, the 1935 and 1941 census records survive, because by 1945 Latvia was under Soviet occupation, and they most certainly did not destroy records. Nor, incidentally, did the Nazis during their occupation. Totalitarian governments like the Nazis and the Soviets avoid destroying records whenever possible – the more they know about people, the easier it is to find and control them. The archives had a busy time during the Nazi occupation of Latvia, since many people had to use their holdings to prove their ancestry (it is a surviving document of this time period listing ancestry that kick-started my research into my paternal grandmother’s family). So just because there has been a war doesn’t mean that records aren’t still there!

There are other reasons why this myth persists, and that is due to online records collections and repositories such as Ancestry and FamilySearch billing themselves as “one-stop shopping” for genealogical research. This means that a novice will see their advertisements and assume that if something can’t be found there, it doesn’t exist. Again, very false! Most records in the world are not available on Ancestry, FamilySearch (the digitized records collection), or even in the FamilySearch microfilm collection. Their Latvian collections, for one, are non-existent in digital format, and rudimentary at best for the microfilm collection. There is so much more that is only available from Latvian record repositories.

So what is the truth of it? Well, I can’t speak to all of the specifics, because that would take days – everything is very much on a parish level. Sometimes one parish has great records, sometimes the neighbouring one doesn’t. The reason isn’t always clear. But I can paint a general picture.

Many of the religious records are often missing a year or two, or sometimes entire decades – but the rest of the years survive, so there were isolated cases of some record books going astray. Some records are quite likely legitimately missing as a result of war – this is very likely why Kurzeme and Zemgale have a lower rate of record survival than Vidzeme does, since the First World War went right through the first two, but barely touched the second (at least until the Russian Civil War started). There aren’t very many documents in the archives relating to pre-war Latgale, but I am uncertain at this time whether it was because there weren’t as many documents created there as in other places (there was a very different administration than in the other provinces), because of document destruction or because the documents might be in some archives in Russia or Belarus, since Latgale was a part of the Vitebsk province, and thus a part of the Russian Empire proper, rather than having the special status of the Baltic provinces.

All of this isn’t to say that there hasn’t been deliberate record destruction in Latvian history – there most certainly has been, but it hasn’t been a result of war or occupation, but rather revolution – the 1905 Revolution in particular. And the record destroyers were not any sort of foreign powers, but rather the people themselves – so it could be that you have your own ancestor to blame for missing records! In the context of the 1905 Revolution in particular, many men were seeking to avoid military service in the Czar’s army in the war against Japan – so they set out to destroy records that could provide information about them being eligible for service, such as military records, revision lists, family registers, and so on. Some records were better protected than others, and this destruction didn’t happen in every parish, but these sorts of activities were particularly prominent in southern Latvia. As it so happens, many of the migrants who left Latvia at this time to avoid military service and because of revolutionary activities also came from these same regions – southern and western Latvia.

So what does survive? Religious records are pretty reliable for most places, sometimes missing some years, but on the whole, they survive. Revision lists have great survival rates in Vidzeme, not so hot survival rates in Kurzeme and Zemgale, and almost non-existent in Latgale. 1897 All-Russia Census goes the opposite way – best survival in Latgale, worst in Vidzeme. Generally speaking, records kept by towns and cities survive quite well all over the country. Parish records are really on a case by case basis, but typically best in Vidzeme, though some other parishes don’t do too badly either. Land records are pretty reliable everywhere but Latgale, but again, a large collection does not always mean that the specific record you need is there.

The big lesson to learn here is that even if not all record types exist for your ancestors’ home(s), at least some will. Which means that research is possible for just about everyone!

Tombstone Tuesday – Jānis Ābols, 1860-1913

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.

Top Inscription: Jāņa Ābola ģimenes kapi (Jānis Ābols’ Family Grave)

Name: Jānis Ābols, born June 5, 1860, died December 24, 1913.

Bottom Inscription: “Dzīvs ar vien es traucu steidzu, Ātri dzīves gaitu beidzu, Klusums svēts uz kapa valda, Sapņu (?) ilgas – dusa salda.” (“When I lived I rushed, And quickly finished life’s road, Holy silence rules here on the grave, dreams (?) and longings – sleep is sweet”).

Location: Ikšķile Lutheran Cemetery, Ikšķile

Mappy Monday – Medieval to Early Modern Names for Latvian Territory

Picking up where we left off last week, talking about ancient names for Latvian territory – and now we’re moving into the Middle Ages, and then medieval and early modern eras!

After the German crusaders invaded and gradually conquered the Baltic and Finnic tribes, they created Terra Mariana – which was first a principality of the Holy Roman Empire, but was then subject instead to the Holy See directly. It was divided into several bishoprics – Courland, Dorpat (Tartu), Osel (Saaremaa) and the archbishopric of Rīga, in addition to the land directly administered by the Livonian Order. With the church, nobility and merchants in constant power struggles, this patchwork of administration was necessary to maintain order (and then there was the local peasantry). Rīga and Tallinn were both rising city powers in their own right, as members of the Hanseatic League.

Terra Mariana – also known as the Livonian Confederation – as such came to an end in 1561, as a result of the Livonian War. The northern part of the confederation became Swedish Estonia, while the southern parts – including all of present-day Latvia, as well as southern Estonia – became a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Here, they formed two duchies – the duchy of Livland, encompassing modern-day southern Estonia and the Latvian provinces of Vidzeme and Latgale, and the duchy of Courland-Semigallia, encompassing the modern-day Latvian provinces of Kurzeme and Zemgale. While under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the German nobility retained most of their power and privileges and controlled day-to-day affairs in the duchies.

Further territorial divisions took place as a result of the Polish-Swedish conflict, and in 1621 the Swedes took over most of Livland, leaving Poland with just a tiny piece – modern-day Latgale, which became the Inflanty Voivodeship. This brought Latgale under direct Polish control and under the control of Catholicism (the Reformation having taken place a century earlier, bringing Lutheranism as the dominant religion in the rest of the Latvian territories). With this division, the stage was set for the future Latvian provinces to arise as they did.

Gradually, all of these Latvian territories – Swedish Livonia (Vidzeme and southern Estonia) in 1721, the Inflanty Voivodeship (Latgale) in 1772 and the Duchy of Courland-Semigallia in 1795 – all came under the Russian crown, and became provinces of the Russian Empire.

Stay tuned next week, when we will talk more about the Russian Empire era!

Surname Saturday – Latvian Surname Project Update, September 6, 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!

Parish added – Laža

Names added – Audējs, Jabloks, Kuģītis

… and over 10 other names have been updated to reflect their presence in more parishes!

The Surname Project currently includes 1371 surnames from 490 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!

Tombstone Tuesday – Kārlis and Anna Brēkis

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.

Top Inscription: Ģimenes kapi (Family Grave)

Names: Kārlis Brēkis, born August 20, 1867, died June 16, 1944; Anna Brēkis, née Krauze, born July 23, 1853, died December 9, 1928.

Location: Ikšķile Lutheran Cemetery, Ikšķile

WW1 Diary – August 31, 1918

Seventy-sixth 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.

August 31, 1918

I am home alone today. The children and the girls are picking mushrooms in the woods. Papa is threshing rye. The threshing machines are singing their sombre autumn song, an entire choir of them around us, roaring and buzzing everywhere.

Another summer dreamt away. Compared to last summer, we are rested and feeling good. Our life, as long as there is peace, is full and not lacking in anything. Our souls also fulfilled living this close to town. On Sunday we celebrated the Bible festival, after that there were three Christian meetings, which were very involved, thanks to many good forces. Men are making plans for the future, about schools, institutions, meetings. Oh if only we could stay here close to town, how great that would be for the children! If God wishes it, it will happen, our thoughts are not His thoughts.

Mappy Monday – Ancient Names for Latvian Territory

Latvia wasn’t always called Latvia – and for most of history, you won’t have found a place called “Latvia” on a map. Only in the 20th century did Latvia become an independent country. This also means that if you are looking through historical texts for information about the people who lived here, you need to know what place names to look for – though keep in mind that these place names can be written in many different ways, depending on who was writing them down!

So what should you be looking for? Latvia has gone through many historical periods with many different rulers, so in this post we’ll start at the very beginning – well, the earliest documented beginning, at least. Most of these names come from documents from the 10th to 13th centuries, such as the Livonian Chronicle, the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, feudal charters and documents from the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, the name given to the German crusaders.

These crusaders came to Latvian territory in the late 12th century, when it was divided among a number of small principalities and counties, some of them nominally independent, others as vassal states. The dominant narrative prevalent today is that Christianity came to the Baltic region as a result of the German crusaders, but that isn’t entirely true – Christianity had already started to make inroads from the east via Polotsk, and there were several established Orthodox churches in the region.

The largest power in the area was the principality of Polotsk, and a number of Latvian principalities were its vassal states. The most famous one is Jersika, which was also called Letija or Lotgola, and thus provided the root for the modern name of Latvia.

Jersika was under the dominion of the Latgalian tribes, as were the principalities of Atzele, Imera, Koknese, Pietālava and Tālava. The region these covered corresponds to modern-day Latgale and Vidzeme, with the exception of the coastal regions, which were under the control of the Livonians.

The Livonians controlled the area around the Gulf of Rīga, and partway down the western coast of modern-day Latvia. They shared the principality of Idumeja with the Latgalians, and controlled the regions of Metsepole, Turaida, Vanema and Ventava, as well as the area around Rīga. Since the arriving German crusaders made their landfall around the mouth of the Daugava, the Livonians were the first to have contact with these crusaders.

South of the Livonians in Kurzeme were the lands of the Curonians – who, like other coastal peoples, had developed a reputation as sailors and sometimes pirates. They had contacts with the Vikings across the Baltic Sea in Scandinavian lands, both friendly and unfriendly – sometimes allies, sometimes enemies. They also began to move northwards in the 11th and 12th centuries, conquering the regions of Vanema and Ventava. They also controlled the regions of Bandava, Ceklis, Duvzare, Megava, Pilsāts and Piemare. Megava and Pilsāts are now in Lithuania.

The militaristic Semigallians to the east of the Curonians did what they could to defend their territory from neighbours and invaders, making and breaking alliances as it suited them, and as a result, maintained their independence from the crusaders for a longer period. Having initially worked with the Germans against the Livonians and Lithuanians, they later allied with the Curonians and Lithuanians against the Germans. The Semigallians controlled the districts of Dobele, Dobene, Mežotne, Plāne, Silene, Spārnene, Tērvete, Upmale and Žagare. Semigallian territories today are divided between Latvia and Lithuania.

East of the Semigallians and south of the Latgalians there were the Selonians. By the time the German crusaders arrived, they had already partially assimilated with the Latgalians and/or Lithuanians – northern Selonian districts were subject to the principality of Jersika and Koknese, while southern districts were ruled by Lithuanian principalities. This Latgalian character remains in the modern-day area of Selonia (Sēlija, one of the five cultural districts of Latvia), even though most of the past 800 years placed it in a completely different sphere of influence (Lutheran German rather than Polish Catholic or Russian Orthodox). The Selonian districts were called Alektene, Kalvene, Maleisine, Medene, Pelone and Tovrakste. Maleisine, Medene and Pelone are today located in Lithuania.

With the arrival of the German crusaders, many of these districts and borders disappeared – but what did they turn into? For that, come back next week!

Surname Saturday – Latvian Surname Project Update, August 29, 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 – Panemune, Rudzēti, Zebrene

Names added – Akmeņgrauzis, Apaļais, Apinis, Apinītis, Bērtulsons, Cālis, Cimdiņš, Ezerstarpis, Gabals, Grīnhofs, Jaundālderis, Jaunpetrovičs, Laukbraucējs, Lielzeltiņš, Mežjānis, Petrovičs, Plācenis, Sējējs, Stārķis, Valdmanis, Vasaraudzis

… and over 50 other names have been updated to reflect their presence in more parishes!

The Surname Project currently includes 1368 surnames from 489 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!