Until the mid 1800′s, most rural Latvians did not have surnames. Some did, but it was mostly German nobility or people of Jewish faith. The ethnic Latvian people were serfs, or peasants, belonging to estates owned mostly by German barons and landholders. They were known by their given name, and the name of the estate or farm they lived and worked on. [More on serfdom: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serfdom]
Once serfdom was abolished (1816-1818), it was decided to give the peasants proper surnames. This process was carried out by government officials (scribes), who were usually of German ethnicity. Theoretically, the serfs were allowed to choose their own family name, adhering to the rule that the patriarch of the family would choose a name, and each of his sons would also receive that name. But each son of a deceased father could choose his own name. However in reality, many serfs were not well informed of what was going on and were not prepared with a name to give to the scribes when the time came. In these cases, a scribe might have suggested a name, or recorded whatever he pleased without asking for much consent. For this reason, sometimes Latvians have surnames that are more typically German.
Names were chosen in many different ways: some chose names based on the farm they resided at, some chose to be named after the surroundings near the farm where they lived (near apple trees = Abēle, near hills = Kalninš). Popular choices were names of birds (Balodis = dove), or other nature-things, professions,(Arajs = ploughman) and even physical traits (Bardinš = beard) .
Here’s the meanings of some of the more common Latvian surnames in my family tree:
Dzērve = “Crane”
Ozols/Ozolinš/Ozolnieks = “people from near the oak trees”
Melderis = “Miller”
Riekstinš = “Hazelnut”
And some less common names:
Vīnakmens = “Vinakmens” is “vin” (wine) and “akmens” (stone). It is literally a Latvianized version of Weinstein, a typically German Jewish surname.
Veisbergs = literal translation is “white mountain”
Zīverts = seems to be a Latvianized version of the common German surname “Siewert”
Akerfelds = literal translation is “fields, fields”
Tracking your ancestors in Latvia beyond the mid 1800′s can get a little tricky for this reason. Personally, I have yet to push past the point of hereditary surnames at this point. All in due time!!
More on Latvian surnames at this blog: