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All About Latvia and the Grandfather of Catherine I in the 17th Century

Updated on September 20, 2014

Latvian Barn and Privy

Latvian barn.  From Latvian Open Air Ethnic Museum. Latvian privy and bathhouse.
Latvian barn. From Latvian Open Air Ethnic Museum. Latvian privy and bathhouse. | Source
Lindes muiža, 1917-03.  It was very near Kegums and probably the manor from which they came, although smaller at the time. The family Von Hahn owned it
Lindes muiža, 1917-03. It was very near Kegums and probably the manor from which they came, although smaller at the time. The family Von Hahn owned it | Source

All About Latvia and the Grandfather of Catherine I in 1700

Why would anyone care about Latvia? Let me say up front I am not Latvian. I am an American of Hungarian extraction. It is of course a beautiful country with forests, lakes and rivers. Half the land is covered with forest. But most of the world has beautiful corners outside of the cities. The terrain is flat as it is part of the eastern plains except in the north where a quarter of the land has low hills and lakes and rivers. The forests are unique in that they have little undergrowth and people in the rural areas pick mushrooms and berries in them. These facts are pleasant but not exceptional.

Germans landed there and took over everything in the 13th century. In fact this is why Poland and Lithuania united to avoid the same fate. But in the course of time Poland, Russia and Sweden fought over the country which had long since ceased to be German, although the landowners remained as 'Baltic' aristocrats. In fact all of Latvia was in the hands of Baltic Germans by 1700. The had been there for 400 years, always maintaining a culture apart.

Latvia has the misfortune of being located on the Baltic Sea which made them sought over property for the 3 neighboring empires in the 17th century. It was the battle ground of everyone.

Latvia is below Estonia which is below Finland and that whole area was dominated by Sweden, down to Riga. It is above Lithuania and to the west of Belarus which were both part of the Polish Empire, and this power ruled the part of Latvia below Riga. Russia tried to take over in the east and took the whole country a few times. But that was later on.

The Germans gave a percent of their earnings to whatever power they had to; all the Latvians were serfs. Latvia was divided in four pieces, owned by Sweden, Poland, the Duchy of Courland, and Russia; none of the parts were Latvian.

So Latvians say it was never an important place. Perhaps it might be more accurately said that it was rarely independent. It is a running joke that the country should be given back to Sweden, since they were the best of all the powers exploiting them.

I became interested in Latvia in 1700 because the wife of Peter the Great came from there. I was interested in her life, and who wouldn't be? She was the first woman to rule Russia when he died. She was not only the first foreigner and woman to rule, but also a peasant. She was picked up by the army and in a very short time found herself the mistress and then wife of the most important person in Russia; not before sleeping with some very high ranking officers.

Being a Jew I liked Latvia even more when I found out Latvians did not share in the popular and accepted prejudice against Jews at the time. I was tired of reading long ugly and prejudiced passages in the travelogues of the 19th and 18th centuries. Catherine I ordered all Jews from Russia; that is true. But it was ten days before she died, and she was very ill. It is likely this was the work of Alexander Menshikov, her lifelong 'friend' who kept her from others in her final illness and pressured her to have the next Tzar marry his daughter. He greatly disliked Jews, blacks, commoners like himself, and was very bad to the Polish. It is questionable that she even knew what she was signing.

Other reasons regular people might love Latvia also include the following: they became reluctant Christian in the 1300s at the hands of the Teutonic Knights. Then they were invaded by at least three Christian denominations, Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran, each with a monopoly on the same God. This led to a general religious indifference, and there is a very strong, and in the past forbidden, pagan worship of nature which does not exist in most European states. Latvian folk music and songs about the Gods and nature are easy to find all over the Internet. They have a festival with the largest folk chorus in the world. It consists of thousands of people in peasant outfits from their own region. This is held every four years. Their songs are odes to the Daugava River and agricultural Gods. Finally the Christmas tree comes from Riga and who does not love that. Also they look very nordic, serve good drinks, and wear animal costumes while they sing songs for Christmas.

It was the 1700s, when Catherine was picked up; 1702 to be exact. If there ever was a good period in Latvian history it was not the early 1700s. During the Great Northern War of 1700- 1721, 40% of the people perished from murder, starvation and epidemics.

But according to the statistics of Zarina, Gunita at the University of Latvia, before total war, life was also short. A quarter to a third of the women died in their first childbirth. Most of the remaining women gave birth to 5 children, of whom half died. 50 to 60% of the total deaths were children under 14. They were half the population. Most of people who reached adulthood died in their 20s. Only a fifth of the people lived to be over 30. Each year about 5% of the population died.

That was pretty grim and that was the good life. This level of prosperity was not achieved again for another 200 years. The population was estimated to be 404,000 in 1600 and 465,000 a century later in 1700, before being decimated in the Great Northern War.

We know from the statements of her Uncle William in 1714 that Meinhardt Hahn was the grandfather of Catherine I. He took his last name from that of the owners of the estate he ran away from, and his first name from the founder of Riga, who was a German though he probably did not know that.

Meinhardt was born a serf on the estate of the von Hahn family, around 1638. The family had come to Latvia with the Teutonic Knights. They were from Mecklenburg in the north of Germany close to Denmark.1 A runaway serf like her grandfather did not have far to go to be under the control of another country, in which case they would be free though penniless. But this was not easy. To do this a person would have to leave his family and friends forever and the land the family has been on for generations.2 A serf would not know how to interact with strangers. He had never made friends with anyone he had not known all his life. Also the family paid for the land in percentage of crops. In the city this would not be so.

Then there was hell to pay if brought back to an angry overseer. It was true the Swedes gave lords and serfs the same protections for the first time. That only meant a serf could not be killed.

Meinhardt's part of Latvia was Swedish. The Swedes had taken a large part of Latvia from Poland in the Swedish-Polish War at the start of the 1600s. The Swedes were considered good rulers. They had never had big estates or a feudal system themselves. Almost everyone was a small farmer.

But working the rocky land in Sweden was difficult. The conquest had added greatly to their food supply. The estates in Latvia were more productive than the small farms of Sweden.

The war had left the Swedish treasury without money and they needed the wealth of the landlords.3 So they left the big estates in Latvia alone when they took over. They now had cheaper food and they taxed the rich owners to replenish the state treasury. The Latvians paid a third of the costs of the war with Poland for Sweden. They tolerated what they considered moral injustice for economic gain.

Meinhardt originally lived liked most peasants in a two room cabin with his parents and any other siblings. The cabin was built of logs with a thatched room. In fact originally the people of the new world built their homes like the Indians, of earth and sod. The settlers from the cold parts of Europe taught the men from Ireland and England how to make cabins.

Behind the main cabin was another that was poorly built for storage. There they kept the grain and smoked meat. They also stored the wedding, festival and funeral clothes there and a bed for guests and wedding nights.

The dead were placed on that bed. The women sewed the shroud. The men of the village dug the grave and built a coffin. Someone in the family would marked the path from their cabin to the graveyard with pine. The favorite items of the deceased would be put in the coffin with him, a pipe, knife or tool. The men would put the coffin on their shoulders with wood planks to protect themselves and balance the load. They walked three times around the grave and then lowered it in to the ground with embroidered clothes. Afterward they had a huge feast where everyone got drunk.

A third building served as a privy and bathhouse.

The women planted, harvested and worked weaving flax. They collected herbs, berries and mushrooms. They also cooked the rather bland and unsalted food, and raised the children; they swaddled the babies using butt rags which they never cleaned but dried near the fire for 'health reasons'; a dirty baby was a healthy baby, and let the toddlers crawl on the floor in open tunics, cleaning up their bodily produce with ashes.

The men worked together in the fields and orchards on the estate. They went into the woods to collect wood from the forest and honey from pine trees. To do this they cut a part of the hive, left the rest and blew the bees off.

All the serfs on the estate thought they would have children and would raise them to be farmers and wives of farmers who could keep a house.

Why Meinhardt left is a mystery which will never be solved. One can speculate that he committed a 'crime' and was eluding the overseer or was escaping from a feud with another family on the manor. It is highly unlikely he left everyone and everything behind for no reason other than obtaining his freedom, although it is possible.

Kegums is close to Lielvārde. Lennewarden or Lielvarde4 is where a castle was built long ago to fight the enemy from Riga in 1255. But the conflict went back to prehistory. In those days 30 miles was all of a kingdom.5 This would have been a good town for Meinhardt to escape from. It is very close to Kegums but much more important with three times the population. Years later the granddaughter of Meinhardt, sister of Catherine I, was found here on the estate of the Wolf family.

When Meinhardt left he probably took a boat down the Daugava River. This is the biggest river in Latvia and it goes by Kegums as it leaves Riga. According to his son, he worked first 90 miles down the river at the Polish owned town of Daugavpils. His son said Meinhardt found farm work on another estate owned by the von Fekerzam family, in Polish dominated Latvia. Later he lived in Jekabpils which is 44 miles away, halfway between the two towns, Kegums and Daugavpils on that same river, founded by the Russians. It was created for runaway serfs. They needed the manpower to haul freight and they were at war with Sweden.

It was in Jekabpils that the parents of Catherine I met.

1See Von Hahn at

2 Belozersky, NA section IX her father was said to be Merhert Hahn but it is transliterated -Meinhardt founded Riga

3See Erik Esvelt The Swedish Empire in the Baltic Nations

4Castle Lielvarde Tour

5 According to wikipedia the estate there was owned by the Volfenšilds. The King of Sweden Gustav II Adolf gave the property to Heinrich Martin Wolf another Baltic German who was director of his mint. The family was from Saxony in Germany. Heinrich Martin must not have occupied it until the reign of the King's daughter daughter Christina, she ruled 1632. He took over the estate in 1646.


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