Most people researching their Latvian Jewish roots are the descendants of immigrants who braved the unknown to leave their home country and pursue a new life in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, South Africa, Argentina or elsewhere. Before going overseas to examine our roots, we first need to examine our immigrant ancestors and find out all we can about them and their extended families. In doing so, the researcher must learn about names and naming, immigration and naturalization records, and Latvian geography and history.
Much has already been written on names, both personal and the adoption and formats of Jewish surnames. Latvia became part of the Russian Empire in 1795, and as such, most of the official overseas documents that are relevant to family research will reflect Russian spelling. Jewish personal and surnames were translated to Russian equivalents according to their sound, so spelling was not consistent. When Latvia became independent after World War I, records reflect the Latvian forms of surnames. When looking at immigration records, especially ship manifests, the researcher needs to know both the original surname and the first name (typically in Yiddish) of the immigrant ancestor. Not every immigrant changed his or her name, and if it was changed, it was not changed by officials at Ellis Island. 1 The original surname may be the subject of family lore, and aside from the Ellis Island myth, may likely be true. Occasionally the original surname may be found on a naturalization record. Warren Blatt presented an excellent talk on Jewish Given Names and their variations. The classic work on the origins of Russian Jewish surnames is Alexander Beider’s reference book on the topic. 2 Jeffrey Mark Paull and Jeffrey Briskman have also written an interesting background article on the adoption of Jewish surnames in the Russian Empire.
In order to distinguish your ancestor from others with the same or similar name, it is helpful to know the given names of the immigrant ancestor’s parents. Possible sources: are marriage records, gravestones (older stones show the Hebrew name of the father), U.S. Social Security applications (SS-5 form), and death certificates. Documents filled out by the immigrant themselves are generally more reliable that those completed by descendants (e.g., death certificate informants), who may not have known the ancestor’s parents personally. Name changes that took place in Israel during the British mandate period are described below.
Town(s) of Origin – Getting Beyond “Russia”
While some families immigrated together, it was common for younger relatives to strike out on their own and immigrate as individuals, sometimes joining an older relative who had already made the journey. When researching the history of your family, be prepared to look for both individuals and families. People left for many reasons, some economic, some personal, some fleeing the draft or persecution. It was common for a father to leave his family behind while he got established in his new country, sending for his family some years later. The first task in researching an ancestor’s family is to learn about their immigration story in order to identify where they lived before they immigrated. There are multiple record types that can give clues about the immigrant’s place of origin. The trick is to find a source that is specific and not just a reference to the generic “Russia.” The categories of records which may be helpful include immigration records (ship manifest and border crossings), naturalization records, and passports. Note that not all immigrants naturalized in the country where they settled. In general, later records give more specific information than earlier ones. The earliest ship records point only to the country of origin. For U.S. naturalization information, pre-1906 certificates are not generally useful. Other possible sources of immigrant origin information include some vital records (birth, marriage, and death), identity cards, and family photographs.
Note that the documents under discussion may not always be accurate. People were not always knowledgeable about their birthdate or exact birthplace, depending on what they had been told by their families. Often immigrants gave the name of the closest big city, rather than the small shtetl where they were actually born or lived. The reliability of death records for parents’ birthplaces depends on the knowledge of the informant, which is sometimes lacking. Conversely, parents are likely to know the birthplace of their children, whose names and birth places may be listed in naturalization documents.
If there is no information about a specific ancestor, research collateral relatives who immigrated (parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, etc.). It is good practice to research the entire immigrant family, as records may exist for some members and not for others. By researching the entire family, it is possible to create a tentative picture of the family’s origins.
Vital records (birth, marriage, and death) vary greatly, based on jurisdiction. They are maintained by a number of different levels of government — municipal, state or province, or even country. Some contain specific information on the ancestor’s (or their parents’) birthplaces, while others only contain the country of origin. Availability of vital records depends entirely on location, both in terms of coverage and access laws. Some agencies have made great strides in digitizing records, while others have not, so records may need to be ordered online, via mail or even viewed onsite. Genealogy databases such as FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com ($), and MyHeritage.com ($) have also obtained both indexes and digitized copies of many vital records.
Vital records access is covered in a number of general genealogical “how-to” videos, and online or printed sources. The FamilySearch Wiki can be especially helpful, as it details information about vital records access by geographical location. Because of the wide variation of records and means of access, the beginning researcher should consult general genealogical sources to learn about the availability and contents of vital records for the areas where their ancestors settled. This discussion will focus on immigration and citizenship resources that may identify the town of origin, divided by the countries listed below.
Prior to 1891, U.S. passenger lists did not give much information on immigrant passengers. After 1891, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration was created to handle immigration affairs, and steamship companies were required to complete the manifests at the port of embarkation. Over time, responsibility for immigration shifted to other government agencies, and steamship manifests collected more details about new immigrants. Depending on year of the manifest, there will be columns for the “Last permanent residence” and “Place of birth.” Later manifests include the name and address of the nearest relative or friend in country of origin. This information was also collected at border crossings between the U.S. and Canada. Whether looking at a ship manifest or border crossing record, be sure to check for a page 2, which often has additional valuable information. If the immigrant sailed from Hamburg, there will be a German emigration manifest in addition to the American immigration manifest.
In most cases, immigrants arrived in the U.S. under their “old country” names. The exception might be if an immigrant lived in an intermediate country for some period of time (e.g., U.K. or Ireland) and changed their name prior to boarding the ship to America. The spelling of the immigrant’s name depends on the way it sounded to the recording clerk, and may vary according to the jurisdiction under which they sailed. Spelling of names was imprecise, so the researcher needs to be creative!
One useful video which will help in your search are Finding Your Immigrant Ancestors, by Crista Cowan on the Ancestry.com YouTube channel.
Obtaining U.S. Ship Manifests
U.S. ship manifests and indexes are available on a variety of websites, some free and some subscription. Ancestors coming in through Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, or other ports will not show up on the Ellis Island website.
Ellis Island records – passenger search
Castle Garden holds records of New York arrivals prior to the opening of Ellis Island, covering 1820 – 1892.
FamilySearch.org has Ellis Island and other passenger lists, as well as border crossings. Access is free, although you need to set up a userid.
Ancestry.com ($) – has manifests for ships arriving at multiple U.S. ports. It has a collection of Hamburg ship lists (in German) arriving at U.S. (and other) ports, and outward bound ship manifests from the UK and Ireland. It also has border crossing records from Canada to the U.S. and vice-versa. Ancestry.com and Ancestry.ca members have access to both sets of border crossings with a basic subscription.
MyHeritage.com ($) – has ship manifests for ships arriving at multiple U.S. ports.
Findmypast.com ($) - has a collection of passenger manifests, including Outbound UK ships destined for the U.S. and Canada.