Tracing your family tree back to the ancient isles of Greece is an exciting notion, but it also can be a daunting one. Genealogists with more-common European ancestries—German, Irish or Italian, for example—have it easier. Countless books, Web sites and other resources exist to facilitate their research. Greek genealogists don’t have quite as many tools at their disposal.
Although there’s no magic formula to color in the Greek leaves on your family tree, you still can make significant progress. Follow classic genealogical strategies: Begin with what you know and travel backward, generation by generation. You probably can’t trace your tree all the way back to Homer’s day, but you might find some more-recent movers and shakers in its branches. Our guide to Greek history, emigration, surnames and records will get your research off the ground.
Greece is one of the oldest and most historically innovative civilizations. During its classical age—the fifth and fourth centuries BC—the country produced such major cultural and intellectual staples as the Parthenon, Plato’s Republic and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.
Warring between city-states eventually weakened Greece, though. In particular, the Great Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC) between Athens and Sparta left the country vulnerable to attack. By 339 BC, Philip of Macedon had conquered many of the war-weary city-states, paving the way for his son Alexander the Great to stretch Macedonia’s rule and Hellenism into Egypt, Persia and India. By 146 BC, however, Greece and Macedonia had fallen to another great ancient power: Rome.
In 395 AD, the Roman Empire split into eastern and western kingdoms, and Greece became part of the opulent Byzantine Empire. But by the 12th century, Byzantine power was undercut by invasions from Catalans, Franks, Genoese, Normans and Venetians, leaving the empire open to a takeover.
In 1453, the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, and most of Greece came under Turkish control by 1500. By the early 19th century, a resurgence of Greek nationalism had helped launch the War of Greek Independence against the Turks. Russia, France and Great Britain aided Greece’s quest for independence in 1827, but decided after it was achieved that Greece should be a monarchy, and installed a non-Greek ruler. The monarchy lasted until 1967, when a group of army colonels staged a coup d’etat. Military rule collapsed in 1974, and a democratic republic was established later that year—the first for Greece in roughly 2,400 years.
Regional conflict and economic hardship led thousands of Greeks to immigrate to the United States, primarily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time, more Greeks lived outside Greece—in the Balkans, Egypt, Turkey and along the Mediterranean—than in Greece, according to A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Immigrant & Ethnic Ancestors by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Betterway Books).
Your ancestors likely departed from one of two main Greek ports, Patras or Piraeus (near Athens). Until 1907, there was no direct steamship line from Greece to America, so they would have stopped in another European port to change ships. The majority of Greek immigrants were male unskilled laborers, many of whom crossed the Atlantic only to make enough money to return home and buy land. They often made the trip three or four times before permanently settling in America with their families. (That means ship manifests will prove particularly useful to your research.)
When they did settle, they most often chose Chicago, New York and other cities in the northeastern and north-central states. Many Greek immigrants got into the restaurant business, opening greasy spoons, confectioneries and ice cream parlors. Organizations such as the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association helped them assimilate. (The Greek American Progressive Association, another major immigrant organization, discouraged assimilation and promoted the preservation of Greek culture.)
The assimilation process often involved changing one’s name—which means your great-grandfather John may have been Ioannis back in the old country. If you can’t find records for a particular ancestor, perhaps you’re searching under the wrong name. Try plugging the known given name into D’Addezio.com’s First Name Translator to find its American or Greek equivalent.
It also helps to consider Greek naming practices. Traditionally, Greeks named their first son after his paternal grandfather, their first daughter after her paternal grandmother, the second son after his maternal grandfather and so on. For middle initials, children of both sexes took the first letter of their father’s given name. Upon marriage, a Greek woman would change her middle initial to the first letter of her husband’s name. Although many of our ancestors adopted more Anglo-sounding names once they got here, they carried on these traditions. For instance, your great-aunt Christina Maria likely went by Hristina M. back in Greece, which would tell you that either her father’s name or her husband’s name started with an M. To learn about ancient Greek given names, consult the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names series from Oxford University Press.
You may need to translate your Greek ancestors’ last names, too. Even if an immigrant decided to keep his original name, it could have changed over time.