Mappy Monday – The River Gauja

A lot of attention is paid to the Daugava, the biggest and longest river in Latvia, that goes through the middle of the country – but few outside of Latvia know about the Gauja river, which is the longest river exclusively in Latvia (though it does form the border between Latvia and Estonia for a short bit south of Valka).

Just like the Daugava, a lot of history and romanticism is tied up with the Gauja river. It flows through northern Latvia, passing through the towns of Valmiera and Sigulda, and also passes the outskirts of Cēsis. These are the most prominent towns in northern Latvia.


Courtyard of Turaida Castle, with the Gauja in the background. Photo taken by me, September 2014.

The name “Gauja” is believed to be from the Livonian and Estonian words for “birch” – kõuvõ and kõiv, respectively. Given its northern Latvian roots, this makes sense – “birch river”. The Gauja meanders through rolling countryside and some beautiful sandstone cliffs. Its depth can change regularly, due to its sand and gravel base. It empties into the Gulf of Rīga near the town of Carnikava.

Numerous battles have been fought on the Gauja’s shores, the earliest recorded one being the Battle of Turaida in 1211, which was fought between the Estonians and the Turaida Livonians, who had converted to Christianity and were backed by the German crusaders. The Estonians had intended on bringing the Livonians onto their side, and then together going after the Germans in Rīga, but it did not work out that way. According to the stories, the Estonians came down the Gauja in 300 ships, and upon their defeat, attempted to escape with these ships to the Gulf of Rīga, but their paths were blocked, and thus had to abandon them to flee by land.

Just like the Daugava, the Gauja also makes an appearance in song. I don’t know what influences a songwriter to choose one river over the other. The Gauja appears in the song “Šeit ir Latvija” (Here is Latvia), with the lines “Jo šeit ir Latvija, šeit ir Gaujmala, šeit ir mūsu tēvu dzimtene” (For here is Latvia, here are the shores of the Gauja, here is our fathers’ homeland). It takes an even more prominent role in “Še kur līgo priežu meži” (Here, where the pine forests sway), appearing in almost every verse. The first verse (and sometimes chorus) goes “Še kur līgo priežu meži, esmu dārgām saitēm siets, še ir mana tēvu zeme, esmu dzimis Gaujmalietis” (Here where the pine forests sway, I have strong ties, this is my father’s land, I was born a Gaujmalietis).”Gaujmalietis” means “someone from the shores of the Gauja”.

The Gauja also has a namesake – there is also a Gauja river in Venezuela. This is the river that contains Angel Falls, the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the world. How does a river in Venezuela come to be named after a Latvian river? This is because of Aleksandrs Laime, a Latvian explorer, who is believed to be the first European to reach the base of the falls, in 1946. He then later ascended the falls as well, and named the river for the Gauja in his homeland.

This goes to show that Latvians are, indeed, everywhere!

Surname Saturday – Latvian Surname Project Update, August 22, 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 – Ciecere, Karva, Lazdona, Zira

Names added – Aveniņš, Barons, Blūmentāls, Bunga, Ēvelītis, Gaigalītis, Mengelsons, Straujupe, Viesis, Virsnieks

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

The Surname Project currently includes 1347 surnames from 486 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 – Roberts Bahmanis and Heinrihs Mullers

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.

Names: Roberts Bahmanis, born 1852, died 1909; Heinrihs Mullers, born 1879, died 1915.

Bottom Inscription: Jer. 31:3

Location: Sloka Lutheran Cemetery, Sloka

Mappy Monday – Ethnic and Religious Enclaves

Latvia is not and has never been one monoethnic entity. Certainly, Latvians – and Luteran Latvians, at that – have made up the majority, but they are not the only ones living in Latvia. Throughout the years, there have been many different ethnicities and religions living here, sometimes spread out, and sometimes in enclaves.

These historical enclaves are what I will be writing about today – I say “historical”, because for the most part, they either no longer exist, or they are no longer exclusive enclaves.

Let’s start with a religious enclave – the Suiti of western Kurzeme, near the Baltic Sea coast between Liepāja and Ventspils. The Suiti are Latvians, but instead of being Lutherans, as was the norm in Kurzeme, they are Catholics. While Kurzeme did become Protestant during the Protestant Reformation, this changed in the mid-1600s, when the son of the local baron married into Polish nobility, which required him to become Catholic. And so it was that all of the estates he owned – Alšvanga, Adze, Basi, Deksne, Dūre, Feliksberga, Grāveri, Gudenieki and hen later on also Birži and Almāle, also had to convert to Catholicism. The ensuing isolation in what was otherwise a sea of Protestantism meant that they preserved aspects of Latvian culture that changed in other parts of the country, including a unique dialect and traditional clothing. The Suiti still exist today and are even listed by UNESCO in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Another religious (and ethnic) enclave in western Latvia was that of Old Believers in Virbi, between Talsi and Sabile. Old Believers are a group that split off from the Russian Orthodox church in the 17th century after Patriarch Nikon instituted a number of reforms. They did not accept these reforms, were branded schismatics and persecuted in Russia. Many took refuge in Latvian territories – which did eventually come under the auspices of the Russian Empire, but since most control was still in the hands of German barons, it does not appear that they suffered further persecution at this time. In fact, this group of Old Believers in Virbi came about in 1908, when agricultural reforms meant that land was bought by the government and sold to people without land – which in this case ended up being a large group of Old Believers. What happened to the Latvians living in the area? I don’t know and would need to investigate this further, since I don’t believe that the Old Believers were there prior to that – from the sounds of it, they came with the railway that was finished at that time between Rīga and Ventspils. The Old Believers consecrated their church, the Neivekene Old Believers’ Church, in 1928. However, by 1990, the community no longer existed, and the church fell into disrepair and was torn down.

The third enclave I am going to mention today is an ethnic enclave – the German colony of Irši (Hirschenhof in German), in central Latvia. This German colony came about in the 18th century when Catherine the Great invited German farmers to move to the Russian Empire. They would be free peasants subject directly to the crown. They were guaranteed religious freedom, their own government and representatives, as well as the right to rent taverns. For awhile they were even exempt from taxes and military service. The local Latvian serfs were dispersed to other nearby estates. Eventually people started emigrating from the colony to cities around the Baltic provinces, but until 1939, the area was still predominantly German. In 1939, however, most repatriated to Germany and no Germans live there today.

Are your family’s ancestors from one of these enclaves? Or did they live nearby and know the people who lived there? Share their stories in comments!

Surname Saturday – Latvian Surname Project Update, August 15, 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 – Aknīste, Jaunsaule, Naudīte, Prauliena

Names added – Ciemiņš, Grišonoks, Petrovskis

… and over 35 other names have been updated to reflect their presence in more parishes!

The Surname Project currently includes 1337 surnames from 482 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 – August 15, 1918

Seventy-fifth 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 15, 1918 (July 31 Old Style)

People are confused… some are celebrating festivities and birthdays by the old calendar, others by the new, others both, however they wish. Oh, what times we live in! Instead of real tea, now we are preparing apple leaves, which we boil and then dry in the oven. Instead of tobacco, now they use dried raspberry leaves, whose smoke is quite similar to tobacco. It already feels like fall, looking at the plowed rye heaps. Thank God, we have prevented famine. The song of the young rooster brings us closer to fall storms.

Planning a Genealogy Holiday Gift?

Are you considering giving the gift of family history this Christmas (or other winter holiday)?

If you are, don’t wait until the last minute! Especially if you want the sights of summer included!

If you head over to my Services page, you will see a new addition to the research services family – I have a special Starter/Gift Package on offer. This package is ideal as a holiday gift for a loved one, or as a starter package that can lead to more research later on.

For $299, you will receive 8 hours of research, a GEDCOM (genealogy standard computer file) with all of the family information, photocopies of documents found and a photoset of pictures from one of your ancestral locations – anywhere in Latvia! That’s right – I will go out to the village or parish of your ancestors, take photos of the church, main village centre and other important locations. If there’s a local cemetery, I can also take a peek in there for any family members. All of this is included – no extra fees involved!

If this is something that interests you, don’t delay! All the details and contact information are on my Services page. Summer is coming to an end soon, so if you want summertime photos, they will need to be done soon!