taking of estonian surnames

Monday, March 29, 2010 @ 08:03 AM Bluebird

The Estonian areas – Estland, northern Livland or Livonia – of the Russian Empire in the 19th century were dominated by the Baltic German elite until the russification programme of the late 1880s started to shift power away from them. Nobility, landowners, merchants and clergy were all German. Estonians constituted the peasantry and craftsmen in the countryside and the labouring poor in the towns. Those few upwardly mobile Estonians learnt the German language and usually took German names.

Serfdom was abolished in the period 1816 to 1819, initially in Estland and then in northern Livland. However, this was not the same as land reform: land was not redistributed to the peasantry and the peasants remained tied to the great estates with limited personal freedom and the obligation to labour for the landowner. Very few peasants moved to a different estate, let alone to the towns. The only Estonian peasants likely to move away from their places of birth in the first half of the 19th century were those conscripted into the Russian army for 25 years.

The taking of surnames among the peasantry followed the abolition of serfdom. Surnames are generally thought to have been given to the peasants, rather than taken by them. Usually they were given to a family by the landowners or by the clergy or parish clerks at the time of baptisms and marriages; the taking of surnames took place gradually and continued over the course of years into the 1830s. Where branches of families lived on different estates or farms, or were given names at different dates, they usually received different surnames. Names were derived from the usual sources – patronymics, occupations, places of residence (derived from the name of the manor or farm, or descriptive of the location), physical attributes, nature and so on – but also more talismanic and whimsical names. Often the names were Germanic rather than Estonian.

It is usually possible to research Estonian family history confidently back to the period of the assigning of surnames and, with luck and patience, beyond this date using family reconstruction techniques based upon the parish registers and revision lists. However, before the 1820s/30s personal records usually identify an individual through a combination of his own personal name, his father’s name and his paternal grandfather’s name (with women often described as being wife, widow or daughter of a particular man). The picture can be complicated further by the assigning of the name of the manor, the farm or the farmer to an individual.

If you require professional help with family history research in Estonia, Bluebird Research recommends:

Fred Puss
Estonian Biographical Center
www.isik.ee/english/index.html

Fred is based in Tartu.

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