Tombstone Tuesday – Eduards Bielovs, 1895-1930

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, September 2014. Click to enlarge.

Top Inscription: “Manam tēvam, sirsnīgā meita” (For my father, from your dear daughter)

Middle Inscription: “Drēbnieku meistaram brālim” (For our brother, master tailor)

Name: Eduards Bielovs, born 1895, died 1930

Bottom Inscription: “Cēsu Mazā Ģilde” (Cēsis Small Guild)

Location: Lejas kapi, Cēsis

Mappy Monday – Road to the East

Since the Second World War, Siberia and the Russian Far East are associated with deportations and prison camps. It is difficult to imagine that in decades past, thousands of Latvians and other Balts traveled there willingly to make new homes. But that is precisely what happened – in the late 19th century, with land in Latvia at a premium – and with the accompanying premium cost – many thousands of Latvians decided to seek their fortune in the inner depths of the Russian Empire, where land was cheap and sometimes even free, as long as it was cultivated. The Russian Empire government wanted to colonize the vast stretches of its empire, and thus provided incentives for peasants from the Western parts of the empire to move east.

And so it happened that Latvian colonies dotted the map all the way from Latvia to Magadan, on the sea of Okhotsk, which connects to the Pacific Ocean. For the most part, these colonies were established along the Trans-Siberian Railroad or the major rivers – the Volga, Ob, Yenisei and others. They also reached south to the Caucasus mountains and central Asia, with colonies in Yeysk and Tashkent.

One of the oldest Latvian colonies in the former Russian Empire still exists today – Lejas Bulāni, founded near the Yenisei river in 1854. What is perhaps most miraculous of all about this colony is that even though it was founded 150 years ago, people there still speak Latvian. Not exclusively of course, Russian is spoken as well, and most young people inevitably head to the Russian cities for work, but there has been a steady stream of Latvians from Latvia visiting the colony, either to stay for awhile as Latvian language teachers, or on cultural/historical trips to learn more about the community. A number of my museum colleagues at the Latvians Abroad Museum and Research Centre have been there, most recently this past spring.

This community is so small that it is almost impossible to find it on a modern map – but it is there, as are other Latvian communities across the globe. Latvians are everywhere!

Surname Saturday – Latvian Surname Project Update, July 18, 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 – Tilža

Names added – Logins, Lūkins, Purniņš, Raitums, Zāģeris

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

The Surname Project currently includes 1321 surnames from 460 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!

Another surname-related addition this week: Signups have started for my Summer Surname Course! Four weeks of surname-related fun, starting on August 3rd. Sign up today!

Summer Fun Course on Surnames!

So I’ve decided to do a little mini-course this August all about surnames! It will be a light and fun exploration of the intricacies of surnames in Latvia – their acquisition, their meanings, their geographic reach and so on.

This course can be summed up with the phrase “How? Who? Where? What?” – these are the questions that we will be answering. There are all sorts of surnames found in Latvia – common ones, uncommon ones, many are taken from the Latvian language, others German, Polish, Russian, Estonian, Swedish…. but what are they all about? Where did they come from? What do they mean?

This course is primarily intended for people who do not have experience with these languages, but even if you do speak one or several of them, there will be interesting new things to learn! The course will be conducted in English.

Assignments will involve consulting different online dictionaries and resources to formulate answers. All surnames will be presented in their modern forms, except when reference is made to old records, where old and modern forms will both be listed together for ease of understanding. If you are interested in more specifics on the different written forms of names throughout history, that is covered in my beginners’ course on Latvian genealogy, but that course is NOT a prerequisite for this one.

The course will be structured very simply – four weeks, answering the questions above. The first week is an overview of the surname process, the middle two will look at different categories and types of names, and the fourth will take us to dictionaries, maps and other tools to tackle some of the particularly mysterious names out there.

How? – We will go in-depth into the surname acquisition process in the different parts of Latvia, including early acquisition by non-peasant classes. We will look at trends in the cities amongst different ethnic groups, as well as trends on rural estates in different parts of the country. We will also look at all of the different ethnicities and languages at play in Latvia in the nineteenth century to get an idea of how they influenced these surnames.

Who?/Where? – This week will answer both of these questions. For Who? – While patronymics are not as prominent in Latvia as they are in other parts of the world – Scandinavia, for example – some are quite common, most are not. We will look at the different types of patronymics drawn from different languages. We will also take a look at surnames that come from personal names but that are not patronymics, including names with trait-based designations. For Where? – Surnames are not just associated with people or things, but also with places. If someone’s family came from a different place, that might become the descriptor that their family or farm is known by.

What? – Many Latvian surnames come from nature and everyday objects. This week we will explore the different types of names in this category, look at how widespread they are (or not), and come up with regional patterns and common variations. We will also take a look at some particularly strange and delightful surnames that will leave you scratching your head as to how they came about!

What could it be? – This last week is diving into the realm of the unknown. While many Latvian surnames are easily associated with words and names in different languages, some are not so obvious. This could mean a connection to a language more further afield, a conjugation or declension of a word that only appears in its simple form in a dictionary, an archaic word no longer used today and thus no longer in modern dictionaries, or any number of other possibilities. Every name had to come from somewhere, and we will do what we can to figure them out!

Interested? Course cost: US$49, payable via Paypal. Course starts on Monday August 3rd.

Sign up via email to (note: this is an image to prevent spam, you will need to type it into your email program), outlining your interest, and especially any names you would like covered in-depth in the course. Hope to see you there!

Mappy Monday – All Roads Lead Out of Rīga

I know the saying is typically “all roads lead to X”, but in this case, both are true, though I’ll be talking more about Rīga rather than the rest of the country for this.

Many old cities have pretty some pretty unimaginative street names. One type of street name particularly common in Latvia is naming streets after major cities in neighbouring countries. More often than not, these were the roads that once led (or still lead) in the direction of the named city. Some important Rīga streets that fulfill this task – Maskavas street (Moscow), Tērbatas street (Tartu), Pērnavas street (Parnu) and Tallinas street (Tallinn street). Of course, at the time they were named, they were all a part of the Russian Empire, but these names still remain today. Many Rīga streets, as we discussed last week, have changed over the years to reflect different political powers, but these street names have remained (for the most part, Tērbatas had a few name changes, but always reverted to the old name), presumably because there’s not really anything offensive to political sensibilities about a street named after the city it (eventually) leads to. One that does not survive to present day, however, is the Saint Petersburg highway, which formed part of what is now Brīvības boulevard/street/avenue.

Once we’ve got the major international cities out of the way, there are plenty of Latvian towns and villages that get their own street names (it is only fair after all, most of them will also have a Rīga street – according to BalticMaps, 86 towns, villages and cities in Latvia have a Rīga street, all the way from Liepāja in the west to Krāslava in the east and everywhere in between). In most cases, they point in the direction of the town they’re named for, but not always. Central Rīga has Cēsis and Valmiera streets. The southeastern Moscow suburb has many streets named for eastern Latvian towns and cities – Aglona, Daugavpils, Jēkabpils, Krāslava, Ludza, Rēzekne and Zilupe. Going northeast from the city centre, into the Teika suburb, there are streets named after central Latvian towns such as Aizkraukle, Dzērbene, Lielvārde, Piebalga and Ropaži.

Crossing to the other side of the Daugava, one will predictably find cities named after western and southern Latvia – Bauska, Jelgava, Ventspils, even smaller parishes like Bāta and Tadaiķi get street names. In fact, go south of Kārlis Ulmanis avenue and almost every street name is also the name of a Latvian parish.

The only part of Rīga that isn’t overrun with place names as street names is Old Town – but Old Town street names are the subject for a different post! Perhaps we’ll tackle them next week? Stay tuned!

Surname Saturday – Latvian Surname Project Update, July 11, 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 – Bērzpils, Kursīši, Sabile

Names added – Auzulauks, Bļodnieks, Knauķis, Krūmkalns, Pērle, Ratiņš, Turks

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

The Surname Project currently includes 1316 surnames from 459 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!

Finnic Influences in Latvia: Place Names

This is the first in a series of posts regarding Finnic influences in Latvia, which will discuss places, names, language and population, as well as the relevance that this will have on your genealogical adventures. Since Finnic peoples were never an occupying force in Latvia, as much attention isn’t paid to their influence when compared to Germans, Russians and Swedes, but the influence is actually quite substantial, thus why I’ve decided to discuss it here.

First of all, who are the Finnic peoples that I’m referring to? In brief, these are the people who speak Finnic languages, a language family in Europe that is unrelated to the Indo-European language family that dominates the continent. Included in the Finnic language family are Estonian, Finnish, Livonian, Seto, Karelian, Võro and more, and these languages are a part of the broader Finno-Ugric language family which also includes Sami and Hungarian. For our purposes, the most relevant languages for us to focus on are Livonian, Estonian, Seto and Võro. Livonians are a Finnic ethnic group indigenous to Latvian territory, though they are, at this point, almost completely assimilated to Latvian, with few speakers of the language, though it is starting to make a resurgence. Estonians are, of course, our northern neighbours. Setos and Võros are minority groups in southern Estonia, in the regions bordering northeastern Latvia and Russia.

Modern Livonian territory is considered to be in western Latvia, around the cape of Kolka and south towards Ventspils, on the Livonian Coast. Historically, however, the Livonians extended also across northern Latvia and the districts of Valmiera and Valka and down to the Daugava river. The settlement that would eventually become Rīga was founded by Livonians, and they also gave names to many of the towns and villages across northern Latvia.

One easy way to identify a place name as being of Livonian origin is the suffix -ži. At least that is what all the different resources I’ve consulted say, but none of them have been able to tell me why. It is true that most places with this suffix – Ainaži, Lugaži, Ropaži, Vidriži, to name a few – are found in northern Latvia in formerly Livonian lands, so this would make sense. But if the -ži suffix has a specific meaning on its own, that I can’t say. Ainaži comes from the Livonian “āina” and Estonian “hein” meaning “hay”, while for the hamlet Aijaži, the name comes from the Livonian “aigi” and Estonian “aia” meaning “fence”.

Beyond this suffix, a number of other well-known places – as well as many smaller places – have Finnic roots. Take Turaida, for example – home of the famous Turaida castle:


Turaida Castle ruins, September 2014. Photo taken by me. Click to enlarge.

The name Turaida is an ancient one, and linked to the Finnic god Taara – also believed to be connected to the Scandinavian god Thor. The name Turaida comes from the Livonian “Tara aida” and Estonian “Taara aed” – God’s garden. That Taara was a god worshipped in the Baltic by the Finnic people is attested to by Henry of Livonia in his Chronicle, written in the thirteenth century.

The town of Tukums also takes its name from Finnic languages, most often interpreted as the Livonian “Tukā mō” and Estonian “tukk maa” – end or fringe of the land. Another interpretation is the Estonian “tukkuma”, a conjugation of the verb “tukkuda”, meaning “to snooze”. Rūjiena, in the north of Latvia, is believed to come from the Estonian word “ruhi”, meaning “dugout canoe” (the town name comes from the Rūja river, which flows through Rūjiena, and originates in Ruhi lake in Estonia). Nearby Ipiķi has two possible Estonian sources: “hüpak” meaning “jump” or “ööbik” meaning “nightingale”. On the other side of Rūjiena from Ipiķi, there is the hamlet “Piksāri”, Estonian “pikk saar” – “long island” (however, there are no visible islands anywhere in the vicinity, let alone a body of water big enough to have one, so perhaps the name comes from the fact that the area has many little rivers, so Piksāri looked sort of like an island, even if it really wasn’t).

The Livonian Coast in Kurzeme around the Cape of Kolka also has Livonian names for the communities found there. Out of respect for the Livonian people, there is a growing usage of these names both in public and private communications. These communities are (Latvian/Livonian): Lūžņa/Lūžkilā, Miķeļtornis/Pizā, Lielirbe/Īra, Jaunciems/Ūžkilā, Sīkrags/Sīkrõg, Mazirbe/Irē, Košrags/Kuoštrõg, Pitrags/Pitrõg, Saunags/Sǟnag, Vaide/Vaid, Kolka/Kūolka and Melnsils/Mustānum.

There are a variety of Estonian and Livonian words to keep an eye for in Latvian placenames, remembering that they could be rendered through several different alphabets and languages, so they might not at first glance look to match, but do. These are words to do with natural features – “saar/kǭla” (island), “jõgi/joug” (river), “järv/jǭra” (lake), “maa/mǭ” (land), “org/luoik” (valley), “nurm/nuŗm” (field), “mägi/mäe/mäg” (hill/mountain), “küla/kilā” (hamlet) and “soo/sūo” (swamp). Also important could be popular tree names – “tamm/täm” (oak), “kask/kõiv/kõuvõ” (birch) and “kuusk/kūzõ” (spruce).

Next up: We will be talking about Finnic influences on personal names – both given names and surnames. There are a lot of them, so to prepare keep in mind the last paragraph above – remembering the crossover between Latvian place names and surnames, these elements will repeat!

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WW1 Diary – July 8, 1918

Seventy-third 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.

July 8, 1918

And so the longing has been fulfilled. I visited Lēdurga, I visited Kroņi, I visited all of my old acquaintances. It felt like in each place I was greeted with the phrase “Do you remember?” Do you remember, how in the quiet blue evening, on my way to the cradle of dreams I was thinking about life, and I dreamed that Lēdurga was destroyed, especially sad and terrible was our church, the wind howls through the broken windows and doors. I don’t want to believe that people can do such mindless destruction.

It was nice in Kroņi, we lived as our hearts desired. It was sad to say goodbye to my old dear lake, where once the sun lit it up like gold and that which I felt, I believed… and so passed the days in my homeland’s paths and memories.

Now back at Anna estate, it is also very good here, everything is bountiful and peaceful and it is good to be alive!