Back to Baltics

By Lisa A. Alzo Premium

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Each of the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—has its own cultural identity. But all three countries, bordered by the brackish Baltic Sea to the west and largely overshadowed by Russia to the east, have in common a tumultuous history, characterized by centuries of foreign occupation and domination interspersed with brief interludes of independence. 
Despite the occupations and other turmoil, many records in the Baltic nations have been well preserved—you just need to look in the right places. Start discovering your Baltic roots by following these eight fundamental steps. 

1. Start on this side of the Atlantic.

You may be tempted to go right for the “good stuff”—the records housed in archives, churches and town offices in the old country. But your chances of success over there depend on how well you do your homework here. Start by talking to your relatives to learn your immigrant ancestor’s correct name and hometown. Be careful not to buy into family lore too much, though. For instance, you may find that an ancestor immigrated through Baltimore or even arrived in Canada—not New York, as your aunt told you. 
Take what you learn from relatives, and check all available US records—that includes census, vital, immigration and naturalization records. You can find many of these documents on subscription websites such as and Footnote, as well as on free websites such as FamilySearch. Be sure to research your kin in deeds, court records, ethnic newspapers and other offline sources, too. 

2. Brush up on Baltic history.

You may be wondering why certain records say your Lithuanian ancestor was born in Poland or your Estonian ancestor emigrated from Russia. It helps to understand the region’s complex past—in particular, each country’s relations with neighboring states.
In the 13th century, crusading German knights subjugated the territory of modern-day Estonia and Latvia. Later, Sweden dominated the northern Baltic lands, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the southern. Russia gained control during the 18th century. 
After World War I, Estonia and Latvia enjoyed a brief period of independence before the Red Army imposed Soviet control in 1940. The Soviets brought in masses of Russians to industrialize the area; subsequently, the Estonian and Latvian shares of the population significantly decreased. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, both states regained their independence.
As for Lithuania, it allied with Poland in 1385, when Grand Duke Jogaila (later Wladyslaw II) of Lithuania married Queen Jadwiga of Poland. Jogaila’s cousin Vytautas assumed power in 1392 and extended Lithuania’s borders from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Lithuania stayed connected to Poland in some form for about 400 years. 
In 1569, the two kingdoms formally united as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was partitioned in 1772, 1792 and 1795 by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Russia occupied Lithuania and much of present-day Poland. Both countries re-emerged as independent states in 1918, but then Lithuania was annexed by the Soviets in 1940. Like its two neighbors, Lithuania regained independence in 1991.

After 1918, Finland was considered a Baltic state, but today Finland is more often grouped with the Nordic countries. (See the September 2010 Family Tree Magazine for more on Finnish research <


To study each of the Baltic nations’ histories in more detail, look to online sources such as Wikipedia, Cyndi’s List and WorldGenWeb.
You also should check with your local library for books on Baltic history.

3. Investigate immigration patterns.

Aside from a few early settlers in the 1600s, Estonian immigration to the United States was limited until the late 1800s, with the first significant wave coming after the failure of the 1905 revolution. About 15,000 Estonian immigrants arrived in the United States after World War II; many settled in Chicago.
If you’re searching immigration records predating 1922, when Estonia’s independence was officially recognized, you’ll most likely find your Estonian ancestors listed as Russian. Or you might find them listed as Germans or Swedes, depending on the language they spoke.
The first four Latvian immigrants arrived in 1638 from the Swedish-controlled northern region of Livonia, in what’s now Latvia and Estonia. Emigration from Latvia to the United States began in earnest between 1880 and 1920. 
Latvian immigrants fall into two distinct groups: the Old Latvians (or veclatvieši), who settled in the United States before WWII, and the Latvians who arrived after the war. Most of the early immigrants were young, single men who journeyed to America in search of their fortunes—or to escape being drafted into the Russian czar’s army—although some single women and families also came to the States at the end of the 19th century. 
These immigrants settled primarily on the East Coast, in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, and in Midwestern cities such as Cleveland and Chicago. Some went to the West Coast, putting down roots in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. Scattered immigrants also moved to rural areas, although usually not in significant enough numbers to form long-lasting “cluster” communities. Political views further divided the early immigrants into two groups: those who supported the creation of an independent Latvia and those who supported socialism. Until the 1930 census, the US government lumped Latvians in with Lithuanians and Russians.

Lithuanians were by far the largest of the three Baltic immigrant groups. A number of Lithuanians immigrated to the New World before the American Revolution, but the first significant wave of Lithuanian immigration began in the late 1860s. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an estimated 300,000 Lithuanians journeyed to America. Then the immigration tide slowed considerably because of World War I and US-imposed quotas.

Exact immigration numbers are hard to pinpoint because US census records didn’t officially recognize Lithuanian as a separate nationality until the 20th century. The 1920 census was the first to allow “Lithuania” to be listed as a place of birth. Prior to the 1920 census, “Lithuanian” was an acceptable entry only for the language category. Your ancestors’ ethnicity may have been recorded as Russian, Polish or Jewish. 
Lithuanians settled predominantly in the large cities and industrial towns of the Northeast and Midwest, and the coal fields of Pennsylvania and southern Illinois. Many of the first immigrants were mobile, searching for work all over the United States. Some were so-called “birds of passage,” who intended to work hard for a few years and then return to Lithuania with enough money to purchase land. 
Lithuanian-American communities also sprouted in small industrial towns in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But by 1930, nearly half of all Lithuanian-Americans lived in just 10 metropolitan areas, including Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York and Boston. After 1945, WWII refugees flocked to many of the same areas as their predecessors. 
For a more complete picture of Baltic immigration, read this article from the journal Lituanus: <>.

4. Find Baltic buddies.

In the early stages of your research, it helps to seek out those who share your interest. “One thing that you have to realize is that genealogy is a team sport,” says genealogist Thomas Sadauskas, an expert in Lithuanian research. “That means that there is strength in numbers. Much of my success in family research has come with the aid of others.”
Organizations such as the Lithuanian Global Genealogical Society, the Estonian Genealogical Society and the American Latvian Association are excellent resources for genealogical and cultural information. Find additional organizational links in the Federation of East European Family History Societies (FEEFHS) Genealogy Resource Directory.

5. Note the names.

Don’t expect your ancestor’s first name or surname to be spelled the same way in US records as it was in the old country. Many immigrants Americanized their names as they assimilated (contrary to popular belief, immigrants’ names weren’t changed at Ellis Island). 
“One family surname I was researching started out in Lithuania as Derliunas, which went through several variations (Derlunas, Derlun, Darlunas) in the United States, finally ending up as Darlun,” Sadauskas says. You may find changes in both given names and surnames. For instance, men with the given name of Kazimieras (Casimir) might’ve gone by Charles; men named Vincas/Vincentas may have changed their name to William (rather than to the more expected Vincent). 
Sadauskas says that prior to the formalization of the Lithuanian language in 1918, the letters sz (pronounced sh, as in should) and cz (ch, as in chain) were used in lieu of the current š and c used to represent those sounds. So if you’re using spellings from pre-1918 documents, remember that you might need to translate them to the modern Lithuanian spellings. 
Furthermore, married women had surnames ending in -iene (for example, Sadauskas became Sadauskiene), while unmarried women had names ending in -aite, -ute or -yte, depending on the family surname (Sadauskas became Sadauskaite). Typically, Lithuanian male given names ended in a consonant (Vytautas and Jonas, for instance), while female given names ended in a vowel (Birute, Ona, Egle). For more help, read the Polish Genealogical Society of America’s article on name changes.

Common Estonian surnames include Tamm, Pärn, Sokk and Kask. Estonian men tend to have first names ending with the letter o (as in Arno, Eino, Ivo and Ülo). Other common given names include Jaak, Jaan, Peeter and Rein. Common female names include Aime, Ester, Krista, Leida and Mari. Learn more by visiting Pronunciation and Meaning of Estonian Names.

In the 1830s, all Estonians received surnames, says Kahlile Mehr, Slavic collection manager at FamilySearch. Before that, they’d followed the naming customs of their ethnic heritage. Germans used surnames, Swedes followed the Nordic patronymic system, and Estonians used nicknames and parents’ names plus their given names. An Estonian may have gone by Murrista Jaco Madde, where Murrista was a nickname, Jaco was the father’s name and Madde was the given name.
Surnames such as Irbe, Sniedze, Viesturs, Dzintars and Auseklis are unique to Latvians. The most popular man’s name in Latvia is Janis; you’ll also see Andris, Juris, Edgars, Maris and Aivars. For women, the most common names are Anna, Kristine, Marija, Inese, Inga and Ilze. 
Look for more information on names and naming practices on Cyndi’s List, RootsWeb’s Surname Resources site and Behind the Name.

6. Grasp the geography.

In order to trace your Baltic heritage successfully, you need to pinpoint the location of the ancestral town or village. Two obstacles may stand in your way, though: spelling differences and border changes.
“Most likely you will not find the exact place of birth in Lithuania on the first document you find,” Sadauskas says. “If you do, it might use the German or Polish spelling of the place name.” To keep track of place names, he maintains a spreadsheet listing place names in Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, German and Yiddish. 
The same principle applies to Estonia and Latvia—don’t expect the geographic or political boundaries to be clear-cut. You’ll need to consult both historical and modern-day maps, atlases and gazetteers and learn the administrative makeup of the area. A good place to begin is with The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of Eastern Europe by Dennis P. Hupchick and Harold E. Cox (Palgrave).
FEEFHS has an excellent collection of 19th- and 20th-­century maps online, including one of the Baltic states circa 1882. For maps of Estonian territorial division, see <>.
Under imperial Russia, the administrative structure of the Baltics consisted of the town or village, the uezd (county) and the guberniya (province or state). Modern Estonia comprises the Estonia guberniya and the northern half of Livonia guberniya. Modern Latvia includes the Kurland guberniya, the southern half of Livonia and a small piece of the Vitebsk guberniya. Modern Lithuania consists of the Kovno guberniya, and half of Vilno and half of Suwalki (Polish) gubernii. 
There were six Lutheran consistories: Kurland (which included Kurland, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Minsk, Vilna, Grodno and Kovno), Estonia, Livonia and the cities of Oesel, Reval (Tallinn) and Riga. There were two Catholic dioceses: Samogitia (comprising Kovno, Estonia and Livonia) and Vilnius (Vilna south to Brest). Orthodox dioceses shared boundaries with civil jurisdictions.

7. Find foreign records.

When you’re ready to cross the pond in search of your Baltic ancestors, seek record groups similar to those on this side of the Atlantic. Look for these resources in particular: 
  • Metrical books: These church registers of births, marriages and deaths were first recorded in the 1700s.
  • Census records: The 1897 census was the only universal census in czarist Russia. Estonian censuses exist for 1860 to 1917. Estonian and Latvian personal registers for 1926 to 1940 also exist.
  • Military records: As of 1874, all 21-year-old males were eligible for military service. Look for conscription lists of those entering or drafted into the military.
  • Revision lists: Called Seelenlisten and kept from 1795 to 1858 to support a national Russian poll tax, these lists are comparable to a census, listing each individual’s name, age and relationship to the head of household.

Other records such as resident books (compiled in Estonia and Latvia), nobility and genealogy collections and passport applications (available for Latvia only) may provide additional personal or genealogical information.

You can access some of these records in online databases (see step 8) or on microfilm through the Family History Library’s (FHL) branch Family History Centers (find locations at <>). As an example of how to structure your searches, here are the steps I took to find an 1811 Catholic death record from Lithuania.
2. Type the town name, Meteliai, in the Place box and Lithuania in the Part of box; then click Search.
3. Clicking through the search results, you’ll see Lithuania, Meteliai—Church Records and then “Kopie ksieg metrykalnych, 1808-1884 Kosciól rzymsko-katolicki. Parafja Metele (Sejny).” Clicking on that last link will bring up details about this manuscript on microfilm: “Roman Catholic parish register transcripts of births, marriages and and deaths for Metele (Sejny), Suwalki, Poland; now Meteliai, Lithuania. Includes the towns Buckuny, Macharce, Metelica, Obelica, Zebrzyski. Volumes are individually indexed. After 1868 text in Russian.” 
4. Click the View Film Notes button, and use the appropriate film number to order the microfilm from your local Family History Center.
5. For help translating foreign terms, use online translation aids, a Polish-English dictionary or FamilySearch’s Polish Genealogical Word List. Or find someone who is familiar with the language to translate the document for you.
For records not on microfilm or online, you’ll need to write to the archives where they’re stored.
Of course, most of these foreign records won’t be in English. Consult online or print dictionaries, translation aid or the aforementioned FHL word lists. The German Gothic handwriting guide and examples at <> also may help.

8. Go online.

Although you won’t find a ton of Eastern European records online, the Estonian Historical Archives website offers inventories of records and images for free. You must register with your name and e-mail address before you can view them. 
Click on Databases in the left-hand column to see a full list of the archives’ online offerings. The Saaga digital records collection includes church records; revision lists; and Wachenbuchen, inventories of farmsteads and their obligations. (Once you get to the Saaga home page, you may need to click on ENG in the top right corner to get the English translations.) Also useful is the register of revision lists, an inventory of census records. Search for a county (maakond) and the parish or place (kihelkond) by using the options in the drop-down boxes. Search at the county level if you don’t know the specific place.
For general research assistance, visit the Estonian Genealogical Society website. You’ll find a database of Estonian WWII casualties at <>.
Following the Estonian Historical Archives’ lead, the Latvian State Historical Archives also provides a database of digitized records called Raduraksti. Currently, the database contains about 5 million images of genealogical records, including church records and the 1897 Russian imperial census. To view the records, you’ll need to complete the site registration, which is free. Raduraksti is just one of the resources offered by Latvia’s state archival system. To access other databases, go to <>
The Lithuanian Archives Department website lets you search for descriptions of record groups housed in the State Historical Archive. You can’t view digitized records, but you can see what records the archive holds—if you’re able to translate the descriptions, which aren’t in English. Hover your mouse over the State Archives tab at the top of the home page, and select Lithuanian State Historical Archives. 
Then click on National Archival Database in the left-hand column to search for collection descriptions.
To access foreign records that aren’t accesible online or on microfilm here in the United States, your best bet may be to hire a professional researcher based in your ancestral homeland and knowledgeable about the area’s geography, history and languages. 
Before you send money, check the researcher’s credentials, and ask up front about the fee schedule, payment terms, any additional travel costs or miscellaneous expenses. You should be able to get referrals from an ethnic-based genealogical society or by consulting the websites for the Association of Professional Genealogists or the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists. For research in Estonia, check with the Estonian Biographical Center. If your ancestors were victims of Nazi persecutions, consider contacting the International Tracing Service.
Just two decades ago, the opportunities for researching in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were limited. Thankfully, the tides have turned, and today, getting back to your Baltic roots is easier than ever.
Tip: Use Steve Morse’s One-Step Webpages to streamline your search for immigrant ancestors in passenger lists.
Tip: Try the JewishGen ShtetlSeeker to search for your ancestral town or village.
Tip: View samples of Estonian genealogical records at <>.
More Online

From the November 2010 issue of Family Tree Magazine.