15 Steps to Get You Started in Greek Genealogy
So like we talked about in our first genealogy post, your very first step is talking to your relatives. Get paper, pen or even a tape recorder if they're cool with it, and start asking all the basics. Start with your parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins - whoever is available.
Try to get a hold of the oldest folks in the family - they're closest to the source. In almost every family there is someone who is the unofficial historian or collector. Find out who that is in your family, go visit, and pick their brain. Bring dessert - it can't hurt.
1. Their full name, date and place of birth. Add a nickname if they were also known by that. Also if there was an English translation, ie., "Ekaterini" might have become "Katherine" when she immigrated, or "Konstantinos" may have been better known as "Gus" in his Chicago neighborhood. Add that as well, as it may help when searching for documents.
2. Any siblings' names, dates and places of birth.
3. Their parents' names, dates and places of birth. And please, get the women's maiden names! One of the irritating facts about doing genealogy can be how little is known of the mothers and grandmothers. They are generally known only by a first name, if at all. As a woman this saddens and upsets me, and as a genealogist it will stymie and annoy you. Please, if your family knows the maiden names, write them down.
4. Their grandparents' and great-grandparents' information, if they know it. How far back can you go? Write down everything, even allowing for what they may think is inaccurate or incomplete, or even a rumor or family lore. Make a note or put a question mark in parentheses if they think they know a name or village, but are unsure. Future research may confirm or correct their memory.
Ask the same questions of everyone you interview; there may be some discrepancies as people try to remember that far back, but document everything and don't assume one person knows it all.
Make notes as to what information you got from where and who. In a year or two when you're looking back at an ancestor's info and you see their date of birth or whatever, you may have no idea how you knew that, and you'll be glad you kept notes. (I cannot even count how many times I've done this myself, confidently assuming I'd "just remember". HA!)
5. Who was the first one to emigrate to the US/Canada/Australia, etc? Did they come alone or with family? Are there any stories about their arrival that your relative remembers?
For immigration material, www.libertyellisfoundation.org is a helpful resource for Greeks coming in through New York. One thing I found (and this is true with any immigration document search) is you have to learn to deliberately misspell your ancestors' names in as many creative ways as possible. My paternal grandfather's immigration documents were eluding me for over a year, until I was at the point where I seriously considered he may have been a stowaway. I toyed with the English spelling and BOOM! Found him on the first try. Greek names transposed into English can vary wildly in spelling, so keep that in mind.
6. Collect photos. Start with what you already have, then start sending out the call to relatives to see what they have. Invest in a small but decent scanner if you don't have one already. You can either bring it plus a laptop to a family member's house to scan on the spot, or if they can, have them send high-quality scans to you. It's important to get the best quality scan you can; they will make for big files, but the ability to print them, crop them or otherwise use them will be much improved if you can get a nice large image.
Alternately if you have a smartphone and a steady hand, you can just take photos of their photos. Make sure they're as crisp, well-lit and glare-free as you can get them. In some circumstances this may be the only time you ever get to see these photos, so you'll want to get shots that are as clear as possible.
7. Organize, organize, organize. Make folders on your computer for each branch of your family, and file photos and scanned documents into the appropriate ones. Having something random like "Genealogy" as a folder and shoving everything in there willy-nilly will make you hate your life once your info-gathering picks up steam.
Paper folders can work in a pinch if you need to go that route, or if have actual paper documents to save. A little organizational effort from the outset will save you lots of time and headaches. This is a hobby that has a way of snowballing into an avalanche of birth certificates, wedding photos, baby pictures and whatnot, so make sure everything has it's place so you can find it when you need to.
8. Invest in a decent family tree-making program that you can keep on your computer that you don't have to pay a subscription fee for. I use Ancestral Quest, and while the interface looks like it comes from back in the Clinton Administration, it's a good basic system and does the job at a reasonable price point. You may find others you like - there are plenty out there. Hunt around, read online reviews and see what might be a good fit.
9. If you have enough people in your family who are in the diaspora, a subscription service like Ancestry.com is worth paying for. They have a ridiculous amount of immigration documents, city directories, birth, marriage and death information, and even some high school yearbooks.
But be aware; they have nothing on Greece. I KNOW, right? Don't bother ponying up for their premium "World" subscription service thinking you'll find Papou Stavros' birth certificate from the village - they have nothing of the sort (at least not of this writing).
10. Consider having your DNA tested. I'll have more to say in a future post, but finding DNA cousins online who are willing to compare notes can be a huge help in your research.
You'll find more if you Google "Greek genealogy".
Keep in mind that there are frequently regional websites dedicated to a particular area or city; for example, two of my grandparents came from Alatsata (modern day Alacati) in Asia Minor/Turkey. There's an organization called alatsata.net which has been incredibly helpful. Cast your net wide and deep - you never know what snippet of information will break through a brick wall.
12. Speaking of which...the Brick Wall. You will hit it. Every genealogist does. It will suck, because you feel like you've gone as far as you possibly can and you have no way of getting past a particular ancestor or finding a crucial piece of information about someone. Go with the flow. Put a pin in it and take up another family thread for now. You may find new information or someone who can fill in the blanks down the road.
13. Of course, if you have family in Greece and you speak Greek (or they speak English), then you're way ahead of the game! Invite them to co-research with you. Have them ask the old folks there what they remember, and see if there are photos or documents they can scan to you. The closer to the source you go, the better information you'll get. I got a phenomenal amount of information just via email from family overseas.
14. Consider hiring a professional Greek genealogist. I have worked with an excellent genealogist, Gregory Kontos, who has been an enormous help. Working with someone in Greece who knows where to look in what archive - and can read what's there once they find it - is worth every penny.
As a result of working with Gregory, my maternal Samos line has grown back to the 1700s, we've come this close to verifying family lore about one branch of the family originating in Crete, and found new surnames to explore. I have digital copies of their birth certificates, death certificates, and marriages (even including who the priest was).
My family in Samos was gob-smacked at all the new information, and joked that it took an American to help them discover their own history.
He was able to find details of my two family branches from Asia Minor - my toughest information to get, due to the families being refugees. The documentation included details of the property they had to leave behind when they were forced to leave Asia Minor for Greece, down to how many vineyards, olive trees and animals they had.
Sometimes a genealogist will find contracts for land sales, dowries and wills. These, of course, are all chock-full of potentially important details.
15. Use Google like you own stock in it. You can type in family surnames and place names (particularly helpful if you can type them in Greek) and see what comes up. Using Google Translate for this is very hit or miss, but it can be useful to get the ball rolling. Most of your hits won't be very helpful, but you never know if you'll get that one link that has fantastic information.
In this next article we'll talk about another potential source of genealogical information - DNA cousins!
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