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zieds1mazs.gif (257 bytes) Free Latvians at 1800

 

At the beginning of the 19th century only very limited migration was possible for Latvians, because the majority of them were serfs and could move to another place only with permission of their owner. The majority did not mean all of them, and in reality not so few Latvians were free. For example, the reading of the information compiled by A.Vītols /Vītols/ about the situation in Cesvaine parish in 1762-1804 convinces that one or several free Latvians lived in each of the manors there. Another example - Samuel Strauch described his donations (in German) and mentioned that in 1800 he had paid the debt of his father-in-law to Jahn Grawer. This J.Grawer could be a free Latvian, because he had a name, and it was a Latvian name. In that time practically only free Latvians could have hereditary family names. A. Švābe in /Švābe/ informs that about 25,000 of Kurzeme [Kurland] peasants were free at the end of the 18th century. Unfortunately, it is not known how these peasants could retain freedom.

There were several ways how the Latvians could get freedom:

1.

During the previous centuries the serfs, who fled from their owners and managed to live in Riga city for a year and a day without being claimed by their lord, became free. In some periods this "hiding time" was two years and one day, sometimes the owners got back their property after this safe time. And, in general, it was not an easy task to escape the lord. However the number of escaped serfs was enough to create the population of free Latvians in Riga city. At the end of the 18th century there were more than 8000 Latvians in Riga who were mainly the descendants of escaped serfs. The total number of Riga population was 27,800 at that time /Balodis/.

There was a well known group of free Latvians who were members of the guild of mast brockers (sorters). The best source of genealogical information about them seems to be a paper of Melita Svarāne /Svarāne 1/. In this paper the following families are reviewed: Steinhauer, Dalbiņš, Gruendel (Grindelis), Muyschel, Kalniņš, Purītis.

From the paper one can conclude that these initially Latvian families as a rule dissolved in Germans by marriages in the course of the 19th century. I was really surprised when found 6 individuals of the name Muyschel in the Internet telephone directory of Germany. I am pretty sure that the name in no way sounds as a German one. At the same time, only 2 individuals with the Latvian spelling of this name (Muižels or Muiželis) were found in the Address book of Riga city 1935.

2.

The owner of a serf could grant him/her freedom, say, for good and enthusiastic work. Such cases are known and maybe were not very seldom. It is mentioned in the will of Samuel Strauch that his home servants should be set free after his death. The text of the will is available on this site (in German).

The signatures on the circular letters from my document collection once distributed in Trikata parish show rather many Latvian names a good time before the serfdom was abolished and before the total naming of former serfs was completed, but I should study more the signatures. The holders of these names were manor managers or had similar very good positions. I suppose that they were set free for being useful.

3.

Theoretically, a serf could buy the freedom for the money that seemed sufficient to the owner. Theoretically again, a Latvian serf could earn the necessary money, if he begun a successful business in trade, with permission of his owner, of course. The laws of Russia allowed (from 1763) every Christian to trade if he had necessary capital. However a Latvian serf bought his freedom only in very rare cases.

4.

Another free Latvians known as "kuršu ķoniņi" were inhabitants of 3 pagasti in Kuldiga [Goldingen] apriņķis. They are thought to be the descendants of the superiors of the Kurs tribe in Kurland - the same tribe that gave the name Kurland to their land. All of them were peasants possessing independent farms (did not belong to any lord), but they were not allowed to own serfs. Their family names were Aparjods, Peniķis, Tontegode, Vidiņš, Dragūns, Saukants etc. If you have found the names Aparjods or Peniķis in your family tree, you may be sure this people should be descendants of ķoniņi. Tontegode is a name easily found by any Internet search engine and seems to be not rare in Scandinavia. Vidiņš is a common Latvian name. These were the modern spellings of the names. Unfortunately, I do not know how these names were spelled in German 200 years ago.

5.

Recruited soldiers became free persons after they terminated the military service, and they could settle everywhere in the Empire. This right, however, did not have time to work in Vidzeme [Livland] and Kurzeme [Kurland], because the recruiting was started at 1795, and the serfdom was abolished in 1817-1819 i.e. 24 years later, while the service time was 25 years. Much more important was the rule that the men who were not recruited, because they paid the appropriate amount of money, also became free. In Latgale, as in the whole Vitebskas province, the serfdom was abolished in 1861, so there relatively many free soldiers could be found, but, to tell the truth, I do not know anybody.

 

© Bruno Martuzāns. 1995-2002