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.
History in the making
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.
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:
- Kefalonian Roots’ Small Greek Grammar for Family History Researchers
- Online translation tools such as Google Translate
- Our quick-reference chart of good-to-know Greek genealogy words
For the record
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.
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.
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 converter can 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