22 September 2012

No Surnames

How many identifiers for an individual do we take for granted in our compulsive search for ancestors? It seems to me Numero Uno is Name. The surname, a family name, is paramount. When we can combine it with a forename, we are on track for seeking the next person in our ancestral chain. We may complain about mild or wild variations in surname spellings, transliterations from an unfamiliar language, or wholesale name changes, but what if there were no surnames at all?   

Well, you may run into this if you can trace your families to the Middle Ages in the British Isles; but in many European countries—what we now call countries—the common people have had surnames only recently, considering the length of human recorded history. In the case of Latvia, much less than two hundred years! Also, many European countries, especially in the east, only acquired more-or-less fixed boundaries within the last century or two. Many of those underwent drastic alterations again in our recent lifetime, according to political or cultural imperatives ... thus the added complications of determining who the record-keepers were. If they kept records. If they still exist.

The land that would eventually become independent Latvia fluctuated as a province under “foreign” powers—authorities of Swedish, Polish or Russian rule, but mainly German—from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Its various geographic parts were often under different or even warring jurisdictions. So that was bad enough in terms of hoping for genealogical records, without the notion of seeking a rural Janis who had no other identifying cognomen.

Basically I am talking agrarian ancestors here. It was well on into the nineteenth century when serfdom finally ended for Latvian peasants and surnames were being adopted. Before that time, tracing your average peasant seems to fade to a hopeless shade of pale.

But no, wait. A technique and resources can be applied in many cases to take the researcher farther back another generation or two. Church registers for nineteenth-twentieth century vital events—when surnames are in use—will normally show a place name for the parents of a child, or for a bride and groom. That place name is your clue to residence, and residence means the estate where they lived. An estate name is an identifier.

The Baltendeutsche nobility had great landed estates across an area that included both Latvia and Estonia. Each estate had numerous farms worked by the peasants. Estate owners learned to keep track of their farms and workers, enumerated on irregularly compiled lists of inhabitants called revision lists. Revision lists date from 1795. We are fortunate that the lists have survived because the first ones pre-date the general use of surnames. By and large, serf families were “tied” to one estate and seldom moved outside it. In fact, many surnames evolved from farm names.  

Yes, learning the residence of an individual from a religious baptism or marriage, you can probably connect him or her to a family in the latest revision list of 1858. The lists were updated from time to time with later information; for instance, movement from one farm to another was added if it occurred. In lists prior to about 1826, it’s possible to identify specific family groups by a cluster of forenames and their relationships. Although as expected, the earlier the list, the less information is recorded. Generally, all individuals in a household are (fore)named, including children and extended family. Ages are usually given and sometimes other identifying information, such as a notation of father’s name for the head of household. You could even learn the name of the farm on that estate. 

Surri, Estonia, Revision Lists 1834-1851; EAA 1279.1.142, frame 258
Religious registers of Latvia, all faiths, are freely available as digital images at the Raduraksti databases—a gift of the Latvian State Historical Archives. It has English translation, to a degree. Record books for the prevailing Lutheran denomination may exist from the early 1700s but may only chronicle the landowning gentry until the nineteenth century. So the clues you need for a residence will be in the later church books. First you must pinpoint a religious parish or jurisdiction (sometimes they correspond approximately with the old estate boundaries; the name of a town or village will help) in order to pursue a baptism or marriage. That’s where you do your homework on this side of the world.

Estonia’s people shared much of the same historical patterns and a fluid boundary. Their Estonian State Historical Archives has also developed the Saaga site of multiple databases for digital browsing. Technologically, this site is easier to use. In the German of the period, the above illustration indicates that one of my families on the Surri estate had come from the Torgel estate and later moved to Alt-Salis (contemporary German names*). The two former are presently in Estonia and the latter in Latvia.
Furthermore, a family might have switched to the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1840s or so, for political reasons not discussed here. If so, an added bonus is the Russian patronymic usage (as in marriages) that demonstrates the paternal relationship, such as Ekaterina Feodorova (Katrina or Katherine, daughter of Feodor).

My post does not address map usage or language issues once you access the documentation. Hey, no-one said it would be painless. 

For expert information, see Antra Celmins, Discovering Latvian Roots especially "Working with Revision Lists” (, 24 October 2010) and “M is for Manorial Estate” (, 11 August 2012).

* Surri = Surju (Estonian); Torgel = Tori (Estonian); Alt-Salis = Vecsalaca (Latvian).


Anonymous said...

It would seem people would be well advised to have British ancestry.

BDM said...

It is what it is, Anon, but love your comment. Forgive me for restating the obvious: We have what we have. In the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, "… know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.”

Laura Cosgrove Lorenzana said...

I love your observations and this is a resource I didn't know about! Thank you for passing it along. And, I'm happy to be 'second'

Anonymous said...

I'm having a tiny problem I can't seem to be able to subscribe your feed, I'm using google reader by the way.

BDM said...

Anon, I have RSS feed allowed so not sure why this happens. I changed one little thing in my settings so maybe it will work now. Can't see anything else I should adjust.

Michael Hait said...

For those of us researching slaves in the antebellum southern U. S., no surnames is the norm. Like you discuss, it is all about using alternate identifiers.

BDM said...

Thanks for widening my perspective, Michael!