Placenames may reveal Latvian ancestry

Thousands of tourists are streaming to the real Rīga this year as Latvia’s capital city celebrates its 800th anniversary. Those who can’t make the trip to Latvia might try searching for the Rīgas, or Rigas (without the diacritical mark), in their backyards.

Several places with the name of Rīga can be found in the United States, not to mention other Latvian-sounding sites such as Livonia or Baltic. And the United States isn’t alone: Similar sites can be found in Canada and Australia.

The Web offers online placename databases for several countries that can be used to find the spots.

Perhaps the best digital resource in the United States is the Geographic Names Information System, run by the U.S. Geological Survey. A search of the database for “Riga” turned up places or geographic objects in Connecticut, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Dakota and Virginia. The database is linked to Microsoft’s TerraServer database, allowing users to see USGS topographic maps and, in many cases, aerial images of places.

The places with Rīga in their name include:

  • A lake, a dam and a mountain in Litchfield County is western Connecticut. The mountain, Mount Riga, also is claimed by New York’s Dutchess County, which also has a Riga Lake.
  • A populated place in Trego County in Kansas.
  • A township, cemetery and a canal in Lenawee County in Michigan.
  • A populated place in Ripley County in Missouri.
  • A township and a school in North Dakota’s McHenry County.
  • A town in Monroe County in New York.
  • And a stream in Virginia’s Orange County.

But the database doesn’t reveal much if anything about the history of these places. While most of the places in North America that have names suggesting some tie to Latvia probably have little connection, a few do.

For example, Riga is a small town in the western New York’s Monroe County, southwest of Rochester. Established in 1808 in the breakup of the larger Town of Northhampton, the community historical committee on its Web site reveals nothing about why Riga was chosen as the name. Even documents such as J.H. French’s 1860 Historical and Statistical Gazetteer of New York State shed little light.

Another Riga, in southeastern Michigan’s Lenawee County, is a lightly populated spot where “For Sale” signs appear frequently. A visit to the community’s cemetery reveals that the town has been home for people of German ethnicity. The town also in 1990 was briefly considered for a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility, but was removed from a list of potential sites after it successfully sued the state of Michigan.

"Riga" placenames also are found in Canada and Australia.

Libau, a community in Canada’s province of Manitoba, does have links to Latvian history. The community, on the south end of Lake Winnipeg, is where a group of Latvian immigrants settled in the early 20th century to take up farming. Libau is the German name for the port city of Liepāja.

To the east of Manitoba’s Libau, on Lac du Bonnet, is Lettonia Bay. The community of Lac du Bonnet, southwest of the lake, was home to Latvian immigrants in the early 20th century.

According to Geomatics Canada, the province of Quebec is home to a Lac Riga and to a Lac de Riga. And in Ontario, near Sudbury, there’s a Riga Lake.

The South Australian State Gazetteer’s online version reports a homestead called Riga Downs.

Livonia is the name of the province that became part of modern Latvia. Quite a few Livonias can be found in the United States in Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York and Pennsylvania. But again, the story of why a place was named Livonia isn’t always clear. And when it is, the trail may not point back to Latvian ancestry.

For example, Livonia Township in Minnesota’s Sherburne County, northwest of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, apparently has little to do with the province. It was named instead for the wife of a judge who settled in the area in 1864, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

The same is true for Baltic. In many cases, the naming of a place as Baltic-something probably has more to do with seafaring or with other lands that touch on the Baltic Sea.

Riga, Michigan

An abandoned building in Riga, a small community in southeastern Michigan, bears a welcoming sign. The town is among the places in the United States with a name that suggests a Latvian connection. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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