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Tombstone Tuesday – Robert Herrmuth, 1847-1908

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 2012. Click to enlarge.

Name: Robert Herrmuth, born April 1, 1847, died April 5, 1908.

Location: Mārtiņa kapi, Rīga

The design of this indicates that it is one of the popular Latvian gravestones that originally had a cross on the top, but the cross was destroyed sometime in the past 100 years by vandals. Being as many gravestones lack crosses in this cemetery, it is possible that it was a concerted effort during the Soviet era, since the Soviet government wanted to remove religion from society.

Dates Before 1834

If you’ve spent any time in the Latvian church records on Raduraksti, you’ll have probably noticed that in most cases, the earliest records of births, marriages and deaths you’ll find is 1834 or 1835 (for ethnic Latvians, records for Germans sometimes go further back). On the rare occasion you’ll find earlier records, but use of these records can be made difficult due to the lack of surnames when you go back earlier than the 1820s.

What this will often mean is a number of approximate dates in your family tree, gleaned from ages in the revision lists. But in some parishes, you may have the good fortune of being able to get precise dates of birth, marriage, etc. that predate the establishment of the church books.

What are the resources that allow you to do this? Church member lists (“Draudzes locekļu saraksti” in Latvian). They do not survive for all parishes, and reading through them can be a pain until you figure out how they are organized (sometimes they are organized alphabetically, sometimes by estate and farm), but they can provide valuable information that you might not be able to get otherwise. You’ll often have to contend with crossed out names (either because the people moved elsewhere, or died, or something else), so that makes reading even more difficult, but it could be worth it.

The format of the records is pretty straightforward – names and family groups will be listed along the left side of the page, and then birthdates, birthplaces (if you’re lucky) and often marriage dates/places of parents as well. Further along, as you go onto the facing page, you’ll see dates of confirmation, and then on the far right, further information – this could be a death date, or the name of a spouse (particularly for daughters of a family who later married), or a note that the family moved elsewhere.

It is through these early records that I have found some of my oldest family information, including the earliest precise birthdate in my family tree – the birth of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Kārlis Graumanis, born on August 23, 1755. Now, this is not a primary source, since it is a later recollections of an event, but in the absence of the primary sources, it is the best we have for Latvian research.

Another way to use these records is as a tool to find a wife’s maiden name. Finding a woman’s maiden name can be difficult if she married prior to 1834, unless it happens to be mentioned in her children’s birth records or her death record (which is more rare, the further back you go). But if a church member list says where a wife was born, and provides the marriage date, you can try to use revision lists to see if she fits into a family listed there. Again, not a primary source, but it provides options where previously there were none.

There are a number of later church member lists as well (that is, after 1834), which can be valuable tools to help locate other records. If you’re researching in a parish that has a church member list, look there first, because it can then provide you the information you need to find birth, marriage and death records so you do not need to go through them blindly. You might also uncover siblings you never knew about, if they died young, or happened to be born while the family was living elsewhere. If birthplaces are listed, you might find that your family traveled a lot more than you thought!

Do you have any tips to share on church member lists? Share them here!

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!

Baltic Herald - August 3, 1904

This is part of my series of interesting newspaper articles that I find in the old Latvian newspapers available through Periodika. Most of the articles I post are in some way related to migration, wars or other events that are of particular genealogical note.

Source: Baltijas Vēstnesis (Baltic Herald), August 3, 1904

Jelgava. Emigrants. The Jelgava Gazette [NB: German-language newspaper] has announced that on Thursday of last week, a party of workers from a local cloth factory travelled to Liepaja, from where they plan to travel to Hamburg and then onwards to America. Amongst them were a 60 year old man and a young wife with two small children, who received travel money from her husband who has already been in America for several months. These emigrants are going to Wisconsin, where there is a bigger cloth factory where a number of other emigrants from Rīga and Jelgava have obtained profitable jobs.

It’s such a shame that they did not name the emigrants! That would make tracing them easier for their descendants. I tried looking for the German newspaper it mentions, to see if they were listed there, but the 1904 editions are not digitized, unfortunately. But this does give hope that some emigrants could be listed by name, or, if not, at least the description of the family group could help narrow down who the emigrants were.

Connecting with Living Relatives

People always ask me how to find and connect with living relatives. It can be done, and there are a number of ways to approach it. Depending on the approach and what your priorities are in locating living relatives, you could meet relatives, distant or close, from all over the world! I’ve made connections with relatives I didn’t know I had both through the Internet and through serendipitous encounters in person.

An easy way to connect with potential relatives through the Internet is by uploading your family tree to a family tree website. The one I would recommend for people with Latvian (or any Eastern European roots, really) is MyHeritage. This is the one that is most used by Latvians in Latvia, possibly because it has a Latvian interface, which I’m not sure if other websites do. Make sure that the names in your family tree are written in proper Latvian (let me know if you want help with that, if you’re not sure), because one of the features of this website is the SmartMatch – it will let you know if any names appear in someone else’s tree. Confirming a SmartMatch requires a Premium account, which I don’t currently have, but as I start to make connections on the site, I might invest in one. At any rate, just seeing that you have a SmartMatch lets you see what other tree the name appears in, and then you can contact the tree owner for access. You might be able to add on a family branch that they didn’t know about, especially if your family left Latvia prior to the interwar independence era. Just like any family tree website, there are bound to be some errors, so always verify the facts presented yourself.

A key point of interest for MyHeritage is that some local historical societies in Latvia are starting to upload family trees from their communities. If you’re lucky, you might find your ancestors in one of those communities! (Point of note on this one: If your ancestors are from the Mazsalaca area, let me know, and I can direct you to a great family tree for the area.)

After uploading your family tree to one of these sites, next step is to just get your family names and ancestors out there. A good way to do this is through a blog. If you’re not sure what you’d put as blog content, take a look at the family blogs mentioned on Geneabloggers – you can post photos, records, stories. With any luck, by doing so, you’ll get your blog into the top results on search engines if people search for your ancestor’s names, and then you might make some family connections!

If you’re wary about starting a blog, you can also post your family information on message boards – you might make some connections, but I’d say they are less likely, especially if the message board gets a lot of traffic, since your post might drop off the first pages quite quickly. But if the message board is searchable, it might still be worth it. I have made one family connection on a message board – but it took ten years, so don’t expect results overnight!

If you make a trip to Latvia, there are several ways how you can make connections with relatives still living in Latvia. A word of caution though – the above methods are about connecting with relatives who have a demonstrated interest in genealogy, so they are likely to be interested in helping and sharing with you. The in-person methods, however, have no guarantees of you meeting relatives that are interested. They might be rude, particularly if you don’t speak Latvian. But it is always worth it to try, because you never know what connections might appear.

Another caution when it comes to meeting people in person in Latvia is that you need to make your intentions clear – be clear that you are only interested in sharing historical family information and making new friends. Sometimes people might worry that you are coming to Latvia to reclaim your family’s property, and thus intending to kick them off the land that they have lived on for fifty years or more. Assure them that you are not interested in taking away their homes. Be aware also of the corresponding Westerner problem – people trying to use you and your family relationship to emigrate to the West. This is less of a problem since Latvia became a part of the European Union, but it could still happen. So there are concerns on both sides when trying to make family connections, and it is important to be aware of them so they do not affect the relationships you are trying to build.

All that aside, back to how to meet relatives! The most straightforward method would be to arrive at an ancestral property and knock on the front door, and see if you’re related. You’ll probably want someone along who speaks Latvian for this, especially if you are in the countryside, where many people living on the farmsteads will be elderly and thus not likely to speak English. If someone is home, you might make a new connection immediately. If not, then you can leave a note in the mailbox and hope that someone gets back to you. Important caution: If you are approaching houses, particularly in the countryside and small towns, beware of dogs. Many Latvians who live in single-family homes have dogs in the yard, and they can be vicious. If you drive up and there is a dog, you are better off waiting in your car and honking the horn a bit to get someone to come out of the house and corral the dog than trying to negotiate your way to the front door around the dog. Always watch out for your safety first!

The next place to meet relatives (and dog-free!) is the local cemetery. Unlike Western cemeteries, which are often almost completely abandoned except for when a service is taking place, Latvian cemeteries will often be full of people. Well-maintained family grave plots are a point of pride, and it is not unusual for people to make regular visits to take care of them. Several times a year there will also be “kapu svētki” – “cemetery celebrations”. Special attention is paid to the grave flowers/decorations/etc. in the days leading up to the celebration day. Then on the day, there will be a religious service, followed by a picnic (sometimes potluck buffet, depending on the place) and socialization with other locals. While you could run into a relative in a cemetery by chance on any day, if you go on a kapu svētki day, the chances of meeting a relative will rise exponentially. If you don’t meet anyone at the cemetery, you can also try leaving a note on the cemetery message board, and you could make a connection that way as well.

So those are the best ways I would suggest for connecting with living relatives. Of course, you can also take approaches such as finding surnames on Facebook or in phone books, but unless you have a very unusual surname, this can be more hit and miss.

Do you have any other recommendations on how to find living relatives? Post them here!

Saving Time on Death Records

All genealogists know that “killing off” – that is, establishing precise death dates and places – your ancestors is important. It helps prevent them from being confused with other people, explains why they weren’t at later events/places, and so on. But if you don’t have a clue as to when they died, this can be a long and labourious process.

Nowhere is it more labourious than in records that you need to read handwritten page by handwritten page, in a jumble of different handwriting styles, languages and alphabets, as is the case for Latvian records. While a good number of birth records have been indexed by Ciltskoki, the number of death records indexed is still relatively small.

So, how can you reduce the amount of time you spend going through pages and pages of records to find that one death record? It depends on a lot of factors.

The easiest way to find a death record is to have another document that mentions when that death occurred. There are various documents that can do this – church member registers, revision lists, tax lists and so on. Church member registers are generally the most detailed, but they do not survive for most churches. Revision lists exist prior to 1858, so if you’re looking for a later record, you’re out of luck. Another point against revision lists is that they will rarely provide this information about a woman – she’ll simply disappear from the records. Tax lists are also problematic, because their existence in rural communities can be sporadic, and the tax lists that do exist for Rīga, while detailed and covering most of the 19th century, are only available on-site at the archives. So if you’re not able to go to the archives or have someone go for you, then you’re once more out of luck. So if those options aren’t available to you – what next?

Sometimes marriage records can be helpful – obviously a dead person isn’t getting married, but if one of their children is getting married, the record might mention if the parents are living or not. This detail is generally only available in the detailed long-form marriage records, which are sporadic in their existence, but they do tend to survive more for the later time periods, depending on the area. While this doesn’t give a precise date, this at least narrows the time frame for your search. If you have long-form marriage records available to you and you’re attempting this sort of search, be sure to check for marriage records of all of the siblings – this could narrow the search down further, if you know that your ancestor’s mother was alive at the time of his marriage, but deceased when his sister married five years later. These records are also useful for establishing when a widowed spouse may have remarried (and thus narrowing their first spouse’s death date range).

Don’t forget the death record of a spouse – if you have the death record of one spouse, see if they have been recorded as “married” or “widowed” – this can tell you whether you have to look earlier or later for the other death record. Proceed with caution, though, since it is always possible that someone remarried, particularly if a spouse died young.

You can also try looking up the name in Periodika, to see if their death was mentioned in a newspaper. This is particularly useful for Rīga deaths, since you might not know which congregation to search in, and doing all of them would take a lot of time.

If you have the opportunity to consult records on-site at the archives, and you’re looking at passport collections, if someone died in the interwar period, this information will appear in his passport when it was subsequently reclaimed by the government. This will then aid you in requesting the death record from the registry office.

Important thing to note which is NOT proof of death: Lack of appearance in a family census or revision list grouping. It was not unusual for family members to be apart. It could be that the missing family member was working somewhere else at the time the document was created, so you might find them in a completely different parish than you would expect.

Do you have any tips to add for searching for Latvian death records? Share them here!

“Rally Under the Latvian Flag!”

“Rally Under the Latvian Flag!”

This was the headline of the exhortation published on July 19, 1915, by Latvian members of the Imperial Russian Duma, Jānis Goldmanis and Jānis Zālītis, announcing that the Imperial Russian Army was allowing the formation of national battalions – in this case, the Latvian Riflemen Battalions, known in Latvian as “Strēlnieki”.

They were still subject to the Imperial Russian Army, but were led by Latvian officers and populated by Latvian soldiers. Permission was given for these battalions to be formed because Latvians knew Latvian territory – where the war was raging – and because the Latvians were virulently anti-German, after 700 years of being ruled by German barons, princes and other estate owners. They were expected to fight for the Russian Empire, which they did, though many were hoping for eventual autonomy within the Empire. Some, of course, were hoping for eventual independence, which did come to fruition later on.

The Latvian Riflemen were instrumental in most of the battles along the Daugava river in Latvia from 1915 to 1917, particularly in the Christmas Battles, where they lost more than a third of their numbers. However, because their efforts and gains were not followed through with an attack by the wider Russian troops, resentment against the Russian generals and state began to grow, which meant that after the October Revolution and the Bolshevik takeover, many of the Latvian Riflemen regiments pledged their allegiance to the Bolshevik army.

The Latvian Riflemen were instrumental in early Soviet rule in Latvia in 1918 and 1919, but as support for the Latvian independence movement grew and popularity of Bolshevik ideas in Latvia waned, many left the Bolshevik army for the new Latvian army units. Those who remained with the Bolsheviks were deployed to other fronts of the Russian Civil War.

What does all of this mean for genealogy? Most young Latvian men would have been called into the army during this period, and if they joined the army after this proclamation, chances were good that they would be in the Latvian Riflemen. The survival of military records from this time period can be hit and miss, but if you know where your ancestor was living at the time that he would have been called into military service, then it might be possible to find them in those regional military records.

I don’t have any proof that any direct ancestors who served in the Latvian Riflemen, though there is a good chance that my great-grandfather Arvīds Francis’ brother Bruno did. He enlisted in the army in September of 1915, and was probably killed in action not that long afterwards. Arvīds did go on to serve in the Latvian War of Independence, but I do not yet have evidence that he served before that. My great-grandfather Brencis Līcītis would have been too old, and his family was living in Inner Russia during the war. Augusts Lūkins, the third of my great-grandfathers, also did not serve in the military, since he was a student at the University of Tartu at the time. That just leaves my fourth great-grandfather, Pēteris Eduards Celmiņš. It is possible that he could have been in the military during this time, but I do not yet have evidence of it. If he was, he had already joined civilian life by 1919 when he was working for the post and telegraph office.

Do you have any ancestors that served with the Latvian Riflemen? Share their stories here!

Wordless Wednesday – Abandoned Estonian Church in Lincoln County, Wisconsin

I know this is a blog about Latvian genealogy, but I’ve decided to make this post about our friends and neighbours, the Estonians.

At the end of April and beginning of May, I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Lincoln County, Wisconsin, in the United States, to do some research about the early Latvian settlers in Lincoln County. This was a great trip and I met a good number of people who assisted in my research (thank you!), and one of the places they shared with me was this place.

Lincoln County in northern Wisconsin was home to many Latvians (predominantly from the province of Kurland) in the early 1900s, as well as numerous Estonians, Germans and other northern Europeans. You can still see that today when looking at names on mailboxes and in the local newspapers, as well as on gravestones in the cemeteries. I’ll be getting to the cemeteries later, but today with this (not so wordless) Wednesday post I wanted to show this abandoned church.

Estonian Martin Luther Church. Photo taken by me, April 2013. Click to enlarge.

You can read more about this Estonian church here, but in short: Built in 1914, though burials in the cemetery had already begun in 1909. This took place after the Estonian Lutheran congregation broke off from the Latvian one (which I will talk about later), since they had initially shared their facilities. While both the Estonian Lutheran Church and the Latvian Lutheran Church were essentially abandoned after the 1950s, the Latvian one was torn down in 1961, but the Estonian one remains standing (sort of). While the Latvian church was demolished, the cemetery surrounding it is in a well preserved state, but the opposite is here – it took some hunting through the trees behind the church to find the remaining gravestones (the remains, however, were apparently transferred to an Estonian cemetery in Canada). While there is increasing scholarship on the Latvian community of Lincoln County, I’m not sure if similar research is being done on the Estonian community. I should find out!

Tombstone Tuesday - Lūsis Family

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 2012. Click to enlarge.

Top Name: Kārlis Voldemārs Lūsis, born September 10, 1914, died September 23, 1933

Middle Inscription: “Vēj kam tu elsodams pūt, Mežs, kam tik žēli tu šalc, Šķiršanās sāpes vai jūti, Jeb vai mums ardievas nes?” (“Wind, why do you blow with such sobs, Forest, for whom do you rustle with such sadness, Do you feel the pain of separation, or are you bring us farewells?”)

Bottom Names: Karlīne Lūsis (maiden name Pētersons), born June 10, 1883, died February 9, 1939; Kārlis Lūsis, born July 14, 1879, died December 7, 1939.

Location: Meža kapi, Rīga

Diploma of Aleksandrs Francis – July 4, 1944

My grandfather Aleksandrs Francis attended the Jelgava Academy of Agriculture and graduated in 1944. He had also spent some time in Uppsala, Sweden, in a student exchange at Uppsala University. This is the diploma that was issued to him on July 4, 1944.

Original document in possession of the family.

Aleksandrs Francis, born on September 24th 1920, has completed his studies with the Jelgava Academy of Agriculture, Department of Agriculture, having attended to all practical work and examinations on the 11th of June 1942.

On the 12th of June 1944 he defended his thesis on the subject:

“Latvian Peasant Mentality in the Past and Present”

and obtained the Diploma of an Agricultural Engineer.

I have tried finding his thesis work, but thus far came up empty. I hope that it survives somewhere, but contacting the university has not yielded results. Maybe someday! I’d really like to read it.