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Finding Your Greek Roots

greek_rootsHave you ever tried to trace your genealogy? If you are of whole or part Greek descent, this can prove a bit elusive, especially since sites such as ancestry.com are geared toward catering to the Anglo Saxon American sort and not good for immigrants who want to trace their heritage back to the Old Country. With that said, there are tricks and general guidelines for doing some research to find your ancestors. And let’s face it, our ancestry winds back not just a couple of centuries, but several millennia. I am sure if every Greek or half-Greek looked back far enough, she would find that she descended from a goddess or a god. (We are all gods, we Greeks).

There are several key points you should keep in mind for doing your own genealogy digs:

It’s Starts With A Name

Start with finding the most genuine version of your last name on either side. Remember many names were Americanized or shortened or in general anesthetized to conform to American pronunciation. Many names changed spelling to the point that they are unrecognizable from the original Greek form.

Once you have the genuinely Hellenic epitheto as they call it, it will give you a clue as to the place of origin or traditional trade of your ancestral family. For example, anything with Pappa in it derives from the fact that you can trace a priest or cleric at some point in your lineage. Even funny last names such as Saltomanikas, salty cuff, hold a clue to the place or profession of the family. (That one was found on the island of Tinos tracing back to a maritime family of Venetian merchants).

Your last name can indicate the region of origin of your family. For example, many Papadopouloses herald from the region around Sparta and the Peloponnesus and might be able to trace their origins further into the past as this area was the domain of the indomitable Mycenean tribe. if your last name ends in a derivative of “akis” then you are from Crete. Similarly if your surname ends in “glou” your family probably originated in Asia Minor or Pontos, as that suffix denoted the Turkish accusative form “of the –whatever last name”.


Interview the Old Folks

Nothing can bring you closer to the past than a chat with the old folk in your clan. Your giagia and pappou or even great giagia or great uncle hold a treasure of memories stored in their heads if you could sit down and talk to them long enough. As long term memory tends to strengthen while short term decreases with old age, the older generation is a land mine of gold. You can discover all sorts of stories, snipets of song, anecdotes, forgotten rumors just by spending some time and jogging their memory with some questions. Whenever I get a chance I flock to the older generation and just sit around asking them questions. Not only do they tend to be fantastic story tellers, but they can relate historical tidbits. I once interviewed a 90-year-old gentleman who got so enrapt with my questions that he started singing the love ballads in their entirety he had used to woo his sweetheart with. Entire epic poems came out of his mouth which was missing a few teeth. An older member of your family can provide you with a name, a place, a significant detail that might lead you closer to uncovering your roots.

Take a Stroll through Village church and cemetery, monastery and regional library

If you are really committed to tracing down those old bones, and if you do not mind taking time out of your precious vacation time the next time you are visiting Greece in the flesh, a lot can be discovered by strolling through the archives of the local church, town hall, cemetery or regional library. The village church or central cathedral is probably a more accurate source for pinpointing that long lost grandfather or mother because ironically each church keeps records of weddings, funerals, and baptisms on parchments, some dating back centuries. The municipal authorities who are in charge of issuing marriage certificates, birth and death certificates sometimes do not have records that are complete or accurate (it’s another matter if you can even get a busy doing nothing civil bureaucrat to help you in locating such documents, but it’s worth a try).

A stroll through the regional cemetery might manifest a few leads especially if it is a cemetery attached to a church. The municipal cemeteries in Greece are so tight on space that real estate for cadavers is so scarce that every three years a body is unearthed and the remains relegated to a safety deposit box the dimensions of an office filing cabinet with a silver name plate under the handle. This is true especially in overcrowded urban areas where both the living and the dead vie for space.

However, if you can visit a town’s local library, there could be mother lodes of genealogical information that might help your quest. Some libraries because they are specific to the area hold on to incredibly rare edicts, government records, and even have news or photo archives specific to families in the area. If you snoop inside the dusty basement there’s no telling what kind of skeletons you can uncover. The general strategy is to hone in on your probable place of origin and then delve into the specific places of interest and conduct some research at those sites posing a few questions to key locals such as the priest, the principal of the local elementary or high school, the mayor or librarian. Because Greeks trace their roots more by the place than the people, finding out the exact neighborhood or town/village your family heralds from yields more fruitful leads.

Don’t forget the monasteries.  As centers of learning with for the most part unbroken histories, some monasteries have kept centuries old parchments and historical documents.  They are living museums of history if you can arrange to have one of the monks give you a sneak peak at the library (most monasteries do have libraries.)  This is where I found a manuscript that led to a major lead in my family search.

Find Entry Evidence for Ancestors in the US 

If you wanted to track when your predecessors entered the United States as opposed to where they came from in Greece, there are some resources you can consult without having to book a round trip ticket to Kalamata. Ellis Island history center is a wonderful place you can visit virtually at. Using the digitized records of those who came off the boat  ( Check out http://www.ellisisland.org ).
Another search strategy is to track down naturalization papers by contacting the US naturalization and immigration service. These people ate the guardians at the gates so unless your person came over illegally and left no entry mark, this issuing authority can provide some leads, especially if you can provide some of the more pertinent information such as year of arrival, surname, and port or city of entry.Additionally, census data dating back to the mid-1800s can also be searched.  A great resource to help you do this is the Roots Web series of lessons with links for conducting these paper searches (check out http://rwguide.rootsweb.ancestry.com).

You can also check out some fraternal or syllogi for lists of members that date back for some to the turn of the 20th century. Most new immigrants settled in major urban centers with local AHEPA chapters. If you are really ambitious you can conduct your own newspaper microfiche research by consulting the news archives of Greek language newspapers for obituaries and marriage announcements. Like The New York Times, some of these early Greek language newspapers, some defunct, have historical archives.

There are also some university affiliated ethnic studies or immigrant study institutes that you can try contacting for more info. The New Hellenic museum in Chicago runs an oral history project that documents the passage of Greek Americans into the country. They have amassed an impressive collection of bibliographic resources to conduct your own genealogical research at the Gus and Mary Stathis Library and Research Center. Their audio and visual documentaries about the Greek immigrant experience into America are certainly edifying in their own right, but they can shed the light on other’s experience to trace their roots.


The search to find my ancestry catalyzed the writing for this article. What I discovered about my ancestors put goosebumps on my head. My father’s family comes from one of the smaller Cycladic islands called Ios, (incidentally it is the party island for anyone under 30 for many decades now.) My last name is rare even by Greek standards. In fact it is a surname mostly found on Ios. I knew from the family stories handed down that my paternal grandmother was originally from Crete, from Sfakia to be precise (no doubt as she was a really hard cookie;she’d beat my grandfather over the head with a frazola and it was rumored that she had killed a couple of German soldiers during the parachute occupation of the island during World War II.) My ancestry had to originate from Crete. After meeting with many years of stalls and false leads, my uncle told me that he had had a conversation with a professor of Byzantine history who had tipped him off about the Twelve Archontopoula. Apparently, after the Arabs invaded and left Crete during the Byzantine period, the island was left in disarray. In the 11th century Byzantine Emperor Alexius II Comnenus, grandson of Alexius I Comnenus, issued an imperial order that divided the island into twelve provinces and appointed twelve princes from the Byzantine Empire to govern them. Each prince was known as an archondopoulon (“petty lord”; cp. English baron) and he would arrive with his extended family to settle in the area allocated to him. From this event, a number of great aristocratic families of Crete emerged, some of them still in existence today.The Byzantine Emperor did this in a “chrysoboulio”, an edict stamped with his golden seal, assigning authority to 12 noble families from Constantinopole to the twelve provinces in Crete in an effort to gain bureacratic control over the island. This actual chrysoboulo has been kept in a monastery “Ιερή Μονή Γωνίας” in Kolibari Kissamou, in the region of Sfakia, a copy of which has been translated into English by the descendants of one of the original archondopoula on their website “The House of Skordili” (skordilis.org). What an amazing shock I got when I read that one of those 12 Archondopoula carried my surname! I read it clearly Thomas Archoleos. The name was not exactly as we spell it today, but it was close enough. According to the professor of Byzantine history, the descendants of Thomas Archoleos intermarried with the inhabitants of Crete until one or two made the relatively short sea journey to Ios (approximately 3 hours away) and started a colony there. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I descended from a line of nobles from the Byzantine Empire.
With enough patience and resolve, you too can uncover your hidden history. If you look far and back enough, I am sure you will find that you descended from a god. This new source of knowledge about my ancestry has brought an extra dose of pride and confidence. I was proud enough heralding from Ios and Crete; now I have the historical documents to prove it. (An article by Professor George Dalidakis tells the story–Cretan nobility and the legent of the twelve young rulers).

Some more links to use in your search for ancestors: