Gargždai town is one of the oldest settlements in Lithuania that were mentioned in historical sources. It has been more than 750 years since the first mention. Such a long historical period saw Gargždai “performing” very different functions: it has been a border town, a trade town, a nobleman’s manor, a parish centre, a Jewish shtetl (town, where a large part or most part of the population is Jewish), and a number others. One way or another, all of these functions were reflected in the historical sources. There is a direct connection between historical sources and course of history - historical sources record everything what was, and the course of history dictates what will be recorded in historical sources.
Since the 16th century, when the name of Gargždai manor was first found in historical sources, Gargždai had a number of land owners, majority of whom are undoubtedly known to those who are interested in history of Lithuania: Gargždai was governed by the families of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: Kęsgaila, Vaina, Radvila, Sapiega, Oginskis families; for a short period the manor and surrounding territories belonged to Grand Duke of Lithuania and the King of Poland Sigismund Augustus, his mother Bona Sforza, sister Anna Jagiellon. In 18th century after the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had collapsed, the manor was overtaken by German-born Igelstrom and Rönne kins. Almost every change in manor owners was documented; there still are some remaining transfer privileges of manor and surrounding territories.
It is accurate to say that several communities lived together in Gargždai town: the manor, Gargždai parish peasants, Gargždai townspeople, the Catholic Church and Jewish community. As a part of internal and inter-relations of these communities, the following documents were issued: Town and Parish Regulations, dated 1929, which harmonized inter-relations between townspeople, manor landowners and peasants, their rights and obligations; Anna Jagiellon’s foundation for Gargždai church, dated 1590, which obliged parish inhabitants and manor landlords provide full support for the church. Some of the manor landlords need not be prompted – as show the remaining documents from various periods in which donations from landlords to church are recorded. In the 17th century Gargždai saw a significant increase in Jewish population, they were welcomed and provided with variety of benefits and privileges, such as ruler Władysław IV Vasa’s privilege, dated 1639 granting the Jews of Gargždai the same rights as the townspeople.
Jews were attracted to Gargždai for its border town status, which allowed both the Jews and the townspeople to exploit favourable conditions for trade, which continued to improve due to trade privileges of the years 1600 and 1782. The privileges allowed for markets and trade fairs to be held in Gargždai for a certain number of days, during which Gargždai townspeople and parish peasants come together to sell their own goods - agricultural products, various crafts. We are familiar with Gargždai craftsmen occupations (and in some cases even the names) from Gargždai town and parish inventory of 1672; income and expenditure books from Salantai manor, where Gargždai craftsmen provided the services, dated 1765-1795, and other sources.
Church documents make up a significant and unique part of historical sources. There is quite a variety of them, from the priests’ letters to the rulers of the Grand Duchy to everyday agricultural agreements. Remaining documents include wills of the priests, letters, reports, statements, church visitations, inventory notes, etc. Considerable number of church documents is not surprising given that the Gargždai parish is one of the oldest in Telšiai diocese, and due to the fact that the church has a word not only in spiritual matters, but also economic, social, administrative and cultural issues, where decisions were and are regularly documented.
In addition to the written historical sources, many other types of historical sources remain - photographs, maps, town plans, architectural objects, and so on. Well-known historical sources, some of which will be exhibited in the Gargždai Area Museum provides only general historical picture; most of the historical facts remain unclear, and even more are unknown. Wars, frequent fires and other calamities destroyed or scattered the historical sources related to history of Gargždai.
Hopefully, the currently available sources account only for a minority of the surviving historical documents, and a further search in Lithuanian and foreign archives will clarify and expand Gargzdai Town history.