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What does it mean to have Greek heritage? Whether your family hails from the northern areas of Macedonia and Thrace, or the Peloponnese in the South, or one of the 200-plus inhabited islands, Greece is your homeland—your ancestry. A way of life. For a Greek-American, culture permeates every aspect of life: religion, food, music, language.
More than 1.3 million people in the United States claim Greek ancestry, including the likes of Jennifer Aniston, George Stephanopoulos, Tina Fey, Pete Sampras and Olympia Dukakis. Pursuing Greek roots isn’t without challenges; you’ll need an understanding of the country’s sometimes-turbulent history, geopolitical changes, migration patterns, language, culture, naming traditions and available records. The journey, though, is immensely rewarding—and it begins with these records and resources.
History in the making
At its geographical peak during the Hellenic period, Greek civilization reached from Greece to Egypt and to the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. After the Romans arrived in the second century, Greece became part of Byzantium. Christianity took hold late in the third century. The Great Schism in 1054 split the Catholic church into its Western and Eastern Orthodox components, still in existence today.
The Ottoman Turks invaded Greece in the mid-15th century and began a long period of domination, finally ending with Greek independence in the 1830s. Greece sought to enlarge its boundaries to include ethnic Greeks who’d settled outside the country proper. Britain returned the Ionian Islands in 1863. The Ottomans ceded Thessaly. After the Balkan Wars with Turkey (1912-1913), Greece claimed Epirus, southern Macedonia, Crete and the Aegean Islands. In 1947, it added the Dodecanese Islands from Italy.
In 1923, a post-Greco-Turkish War treaty made about 1.5 million Greeks homeless: A mass population exchange between Greece and Turkey kicked them out of Anatolia, Eastern Thrace and Pontus. Nazi occupation during World War II killed thousands of Greeks and deported Greek Jews. A postwar power vacuum helped cause the Greek Civil War, which lasted from 1946 to 1949. A military coup in 1967 led to the end of the monarchy in 1973. Democracy was eventually restored in 1975.
These political and economic forces converged to launch a massive immigration of Greeks to the United States and elsewhere starting in the late 18th century. Geography also has been a contributing factor: More than 75 percent of the country is mountainous, with only 30 percent of the land being fertile enough to support crops and livestock.
Most Greek migration to the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa began around 1880. The first significant American Greek community arose in New Orleans during the 1850s; it built the country’s first Greek Orthodox church in 1866. By 1890, almost 15,000 Greeks lived in the United States. Most of these immigrants had come from Asia Minor and Aegean Islands still under Ottoman rule. Many passed through New York’s Castle Garden immigration depot (the forerunner of Ellis Island), which they pronounced “Kastigari.”
The influx picked up, with more than 450,000 Greeks arriving between 1890 and 1920. Almost 90 percent were men, who generally had every intention of returning home once they made enough money. In fact, you might discover passenger records showing several trips back and forth to Greece over a period of 10, 20 or 30 years.
Most Greek immigrants worked in major Northeastern cities, with some working railroads and mines in the West. An enterprising spirit often led them to establish businesses. Owning a restaurant attracted Greeks for a simple reason: The business was a family affair and relatives would become waiters, waitresses, dishwashers and cooks. In 1919, one in three Chicago restaurants was Greek-owned.
Today, the Windy City, New York City, Detroit, Boston, Baltimore, Dallas and Cleveland have high concentrations of Greek Americans. But the population prize goes to Tarpon Springs, Fla., where about 11 percent of residents have Greek roots.
In the 1920s, with US immigration restrictions and continued war in Greece, other countries saw an influx of immigrants from Greece and Cyprus. Almost 700,000 Australians claim Greek heritage, as do more than 250,000 Canadians.
Wars, a coup and the switch from a monarchy to republic mean that location names may have changed since your ancestors departed their homeland. You can search by place in a tool called Name Changes of Settlements in Greece, which draws from a database of name changes resulting from official administrative acts in Greece between 1913 and 1996. In addition to your ancestors’ town name, you’ll want to learn the municipality (dímos) to which the town belongs, as well as the district (eparchia) and county (nomos).
It’s all Greek
Understanding the basics of the Greek alphabet and genealogy words will be invaluable when it’s time to decipher resources. Invest in a Greek-English dictionary and use these learning aids:
Translating Greek names requires additional tools and knowledge. What might seem like complicated conventions to the non-Greek are part of Greek customs. Some of the following traditions are changing in the modern world, but they can offer clues to family historians.
Given names: The Greek tradition of naming a newborn after a grandparent can be traced back to antiquity. Usually, the firstborn son is named after the paternal grandfather, the first daughter after the paternal grandmother, the second son after the maternal grandfather, and the second daughter after the maternal grandmother. A baby also may be named after an older child who died. This continuous use of a name can help you theorize about grandparents’ names.
Another tradition: A child is never named after a living parent.
Because most Greek children are named after saints, a child celebrates his “name day” on that saint’s feast day. Typically, a Name Day celebration was more important than a birthday. SeeGreek Name Days to find a specific Name Day based on a given name.
Watch out for alternate forms for a given name. For example, Aikaterini (which translates to Katherine) may appear as Katina; Dimitrios (James) could appear as Dimos. It was common for Greeks to Americanize their names to the closest English equivalent, or occasionally, an unrelated name. A helpful resource is theFirst Name Translator, which lets you to translate to and from Greek and English.
For middle initials, children of both sexes took the first letter of their father’s given name. Upon marriage, a Greek woman would usually change her middle initial to the first letter of her husband’s name. When requesting records or asking for information from Greek repositories, it’s best to leave a middle initial as is: Georgios I. Metropoulos, not Georgios Iannis Metropoulos.
Surnames: Most Greek surnames are patronymic: They derive from the first name of the original father of the family, often with the addition of the suffix -opoulos, meaning “descendant of,” or -akis (associated primarily with Crete and the Aegean Islands). If you can learn the suffix or prefix, you may find clues to your family’s origin (see Greek surname clues here). A girl’s surname was the possessive form of her father’s given name.
Official records will use a formal style with names. For example, Metropoulos Georgios tou Iannis translates as “George of John Metropoulos” or George Metropoulos, son of John Metropoulos.
Greek immigrants often shortened their surnames after arriving in America. The name Papadopoulos might have become Pappas, or Mastoropoulos became Poulos.
The best method for tracing your Greek ancestors is to start with their lives in America. Verify where they settled, determine when and where they arrived and gather records from as many US sources as possible. Then if needed, start working with resources in Greece. These US records will be particularly helpful:
Census records: Trace your family in every census record available during their lifetime. The easiest way is to use online services such as subscription sites Ancestry.com and Archives.com, and the free FamilySearch.org (which has indexes and/or records for most US censuses, and links you to subscription sites to view some census records). Some census records are free at Internet Archive, though without a searchable index. Remember to check surname variations; census takers may have had a hard time spelling multisyllabic Greek names.
City directories: Once settled in America, your Greek ancestors might appear in local directories. Libraries often have print versions for the local area, as well as microfilm of directories for the local area and beyond. Online, use the links at the free Online Historical Directories and search the collections on Ancestry.com and subscription site Fold3.com.
Immigration records: These encompass several types of records. Passenger lists could give you the passenger’s name, origin and importantly, destination in America (later lists tend to provide more information). Resources for these include the Castle Garden (pre-1892) and Ellis Island (1892-1924) websites for New York arrivals, and Ancestry.com for all US ports. Remember that not all Greeks arrived in New York. Check lists for ports such as Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans, as well as Canadian border crossings.
Naturalization records include “first papers” or declarations of intention to naturalize, and “second papers” or petitions for naturalization. Not everyone filed for citizenship, but if your ancestors did, you may learn their birth date and place, date and port of arrival, and more (here, also, later records have more details). Naturalizations for 1906 and later are available for a fee through the Citizenship and Immigration Service Genealogy program.
Before then, records could be at any courthouse, so check court records where your ancestor lived. Run a place search of the Family History Library (FHL) catalog to see if it has microfilmed records for your ancestor’s county. You can rent the film for viewing at a FamilySearch Center.
Some state archives have naturalization records from their county courts; visit the website for your ancestor’s state archives or call and ask. The aforementioned online services also have naturalization indexes and/or records for various regions of the country.
Church records: The predominant religion among Greek-Americans is Eastern Orthodox Christianity. A number of others descend from Greece’s small Sephardic and Romaniote Jewish communities.
The Greek Orthodox Church not only served a spiritual role for the community, it was also the social center of Greek life. The Church provided Greek language schools, ladies’ societies, Sunday schools and social functions—including the modern-day festivals full of food and dancing. The Church also helped Greek immigrants integrate into American society and develop their social and business networks.
Write or visit your ancestor’s church to make your request for baptism and marriage records. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America can help you locate a parish where your ancestors lived. There are some obstacles, though: The church may not allow public access to its records, and the records are often handwritten in Greek and difficult to read. But don’t let this deter you. It helps to call before you send a request, and consider making a small donation to cover staff time.
Once you’ve exhausted US sources and learned where your immigrant ancestors were from, you’re ready to move on to records in Greece. Navigating these sources is a challenge, to say the least. I recommend Lisa Catsakis’s guides to family history research in Greece and her Greek Gazetteer.
You’ll find more resources listed, along with contact information for Greek archives, in our Greek genealogy toolkit.
Fortunately, the Family History Library (FHL) has microfilmed records including civil registrations and military records from a number of Greek counties. To see available film, type the town name (or simply Greece) into the FHL online catalog’s place-names search.
For civil vital registrations, which start in 1925, contact the municipality to which your ancestor’s town belongs—or, in the case of a village, write to the community (koinotis or koinotita). Before 1925, write to your ancestor’s church for records of births, marriages and deaths. Start with the church in his or her village, and if you don’t get an answer, write the Greek Orthodox church headquarters in Athens for the name of the diocese (mitropolis) covering the village.
Tip: Explore the Greek website OpenArchives.gr (click the British flag for an English version), which harvests historical documents from 57 repositories and digital libraries in Greece.
Tip: Much of the Western world had adopted the Gregorian calendar by 1753, but Greece didn’t do so until 1923. The Rosetta Calendar convertercan help you translate dates from Julian to Gregorian.
Greek History Timeline
3000 BC: Minoan civilization begins on Crete
1550 BC: Mycenaean culture develops on the Greek mainland
776 BC: First games held at Olympia
546 BC: Persian Empire conquers Greece
431 BC: Peloponnesian War breaks out
336 BC: Reign of Alexander the Great begins
146 AD: Romans conquer the Greek Empire
1054: The Great Schism divides the Catholic church
1453: Constantinople falls; Ottoman Turks invade Greece
1821: Greek War of Independence begins
1833: Greece becomes a kingdom
1896: First modern Olympiad held in Athens
1912: Balkan Wars with Turkey begin
1946: Greek Civil War begins
1952: Greece joins NATO
1967: Giorgios Papadopoulos leads a military coup
1974: Turkey invades Cyprus
1975: Democracy is restored
1981: Greece joins the European Community (now Union)
2004: Athens hosts the Summer Olympics
2010: Greece faces a major debt crisis