Many people claim Greek ancestry as part of their family tree, since the Greeks are one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Throughout Greece's history, various groups have occupied the country. The Bronze Age saw the success of the Mycenean and Minoan civilizations in Greece until around 1000 B.C. Later, Athens enjoyed its Golden Age during the fifth century B.C., where democracy was introduced and famous literary figures lived like Plato, Socrates and Euripides. Also, the Acropolis and Parthenon were constructed during this era.
After a short rule by the Spartans, the Macedonians, led initially by Alexander the Great, took over and began the Hellenistic Age. Greece then joined the Roman Empire followed by the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when Greece was acquired by the Ottomans. This rule didn't end until the Greek Independence War, fought between 1821 and 1829 and marked the first large wave of Greek immigrants to America. Passenger lists are largely available and make a great resource for discovering where in Greece your ancestors came from. It's important to search family documents to learn the original Greek surname, since many were changed upon arrival in America to shorten or Anglicize the surname.
The problem many people experience in researching their Greek heritage often lies in locating Greek records that go back more than two or three generations. Often, the original Greek surname was changed or shortened, meaning that trying to locate older records in Greece is nearly impossible because the names don't match. Original Greek surnames can offer potential clues to a family's specific Greek lineage, as many of the prefixes and suffixes designate geographic areas within Greece. For example, the suffix "akis" often designates a family from Crete. Similarly, the suffix "ellis" often means a family is from the island Lesbos, and "oudas" means from northern Greece (Macedonia). The prefix "Kondo" often designates a family from a Greek island (kondo means short").
Surnames weren't adopted in Greece until the fifteenth century, and even then they weren't always hereditary, although most were patronymic in origin. Parishes of the Greek Orthodox Church are valuable resources for Greek family records, and searches can begin with a family's church in the United States, if applicable. Greek immigrants tended to settle together and create self-sustained Greek communities, complete with their own coffee houses, grocery stores, Greek Orthodox Churches, political clubs and benefits societies.
The first actual Greek colony established in America was in New Smyrna, Florida, in 1768. Although this colony was disbanded by 1777, many of the original Greek residents moved to nearby Saint Augustine to become merchants, building a school and chapel there. The next major wave of Greek immigrants to America occurred between 1890 and 1917 due to low wages and high unemployment rates in Greece. Greek colonies were established during this time in Lowell, Massachusetts, Manhattan and Chicago.
The second great wave of Greek immigrants occurred between 1965 and 1999, mostly due to the 1965 Immigration Act that made it easier to emigrate to America. This is why census records, passenger manifests and immigration and naturalization records are all important tools for the family researcher. These records often list the Greek village or town where your ancestor came from, giving you a specific place to start with Greek records searches.
Greek vital records, including birth, death and marriage records, are essential to any family research attempt. In Greece, prior to 1925, the local priest was responsible for recording and maintaining vital records, since the major life events revolved around the church. In 1925, the Greek government established a civil registration department that was supposed to record and maintain vital records, although civil registration wasn't fully enforced until 1931.
Prior to 1925, the church records varied greatly in the type of information recorded and are often difficult to read, as they are chiefly handwritten in Greek. However, most birth records typically included the full name of the child, along with date of birth, parents' names and godparents' names. Death records typically included the full name of the deceased, along with the date of death, age, marital status, burial place, cause of death and the father's name.
Marriage records usually feature the names and birth places of the bride and groom, current residence, names of each party's parents, certificate issue date and whether it was a first marriage for either party. Thankfully, with civil registrations came more complete and uniform information. Birth records included more specific information about the parents, and death records incorporated more detailed information about the deceased. Today, there are many valuable online resources for researching vital records, and much genealogy research can be accomplished from a home computer.
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