Thursday, May 12, 2016

1909 Greektown Chicago -- You are There

One of my most fervent wishes is to get as close to my ancestors as possible. I yearn to look into their apartment windows, listen to their dinner conversation, or shadow them as they go about their daily work. Perhaps what I want most is to sit with them and ask questions:  what made you leave your birth country, where did you settle in the US, what were your communities like in America, and what did you do for entertainment?

I came closer to my ancestors than ever before when I discovered a journal article on JSTOR by Grace Abbott, “A Study of the Greeks in Chicago,”

Grace Abbott, 1878-1939, 1930 Nov. 17, 
Library of Congress Prints and
 Division Washington, D.C. 
20540 USA

published in 1909. (Note: for more information on JSTOR, please see my post of Sept 30, 2014) Not only did Ms. Abbott live in Chicago during the times my Greek ancestors were there, but she studied Hull House census data gathered from the Greek community and then wrote about her findings. As I read her piece, I found answers to some of my questions about the lives of the Greek immigrants to Chicago, including my great grandfather Peter Flessouras, who came to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

From my research, I know that Peter Flessouras came from Pigadakia, a small village south of Tripoli in the Peloponnese area of Greece. (Please see my post of Nov 16, 2015 to see maps of Peter’s Greek homeland.) 

But I didn’t know until I read Abbott’s Study that:
 “Most of the Greeks who come to the United States (were) from the Peloponnesus.” (p. 380) 
This area of Greece has so much rocky terrain that farming is difficult. When my husband and I visited the Peloponnese in September of 2015, we saw this challenging terrain.

View of terraced land once used for
farming in Vatheia, taken
by Bert Schuster, Sept 2015

With agriculture as the principle means of livelihood at that time, the lack of good crop land led to a larger migration from the Peloponnese than from other parts of Greece where the soil was more conducive to farming. This small piece of geographical information partially answered my question to my great grandfather: why did you leave Greece?

Ms. Abbott also reveals an interesting behavior of Greek immigrants: 
“All of them talk of ‘the Athens’ as though it had been their home, but although it belongs to them in a very intimate sort of way, very few of them have ever seen it. For example, out of 424 who live within a few blocks of Hull House 205 came from Sparta, 102 from Tripolis, and 5 from Athens. Moreover, most of those who say they came from Sparta and Tripolis, have not really lived in those towns but in the country villages nearby.” (p. 380)
I can see why my great grandfather might say he was from Tripolis as no one outside of his community would have heard of Pigadakia, 15miles south of there. 

Ms. Abbott provides a fact about the life of my ancestors in Greece that I did not know: 
“There is peasant proprietorship of land in the Peloponnesus and most of those who emigrate have lived on small farms which they owned and worked for themselves.” (p. 385) 
So, my Greek ancestors were not tenant farmers as my Irish and Swiss forebears likely were. 

Perhaps this experience working for themselves helped steer the Greeks into areas of the American economy that would allow them to be more independent than if they went to work in factories.

I have heard from talking with Greek Americans that an entry-level job for Greek immigrants, as for many other ethnic groups who came to America, was working on the railroad. Ms. Abbott confirms this:
 “Like other foreigners most of the Greeks must first serve an apprenticeship in the gangs that do the railroad and general construction work for the country.” (p. 386) 
Steam shovel doing construction work for the Western
 Pacific Railroad, Thompson, P. J., 1906, LC-USZ62-29487,
  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
 Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

But the fierce desire for independence and an entrepreneurial spirit which the Greeks brought from home combined to make their time on the railroad
 “…shorter than with most nationalities.” (p. 386) Within a short while “…he has learned some English and has accumulated enough money to venture on a small commercial enterprise for himself. He becomes a peddler, perhaps later owns a fruit-stand and finally an ice-cream parlor.” (p. 386)
Since there were no farms in early 20th century Chicago, Greek farmers adapted to their new conditions by peddling food instead of growing it. Some photographs from the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division show how peddling foods was not unfamiliar to Greeks. (Note: I came across these photos on the internet but did not know their source. I sought the help of Maureen Taylor who is known as "the photo detective" for her skills in photo identification. Thank you, Maureen, for identifying the source of the following two photos.)

Poultry pedlar in Greek costume, Athens, Greece, c1895,
 LC-USZ62-65904, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
 Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

Areopagus and Theseion, N.W. form Athens, toward sacred way to
 Eleusis, c1907 Jan. 31, LC-USZ62-66122, Library of Congress
 Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

Peter Flessouras described himself as a peddler and huckster on several birth records of his children and on the 1910 Chicago, Cook, IL federal census. However, unlike many of his cousins, he did not progress to become the owner of a grocery, a candy store or a restaurant. Here is a photo that could have been my great grandfather:

Street peddler pushing his cart past Kentron Cafe and Mouzakiotis
 Music Store on Halsted St., courtesy of the
National Hellenic Museum, Chicago, Illinois

Another question that tugs at my mind: what kinds of institutions did the Greeks build in their new American communities? Again, Ms. Abbott provides an answer:
 “The largest settlement of Chicago Greeks is in the nineteenth ward, north and west of Hull House. Here is the Greek Orthodox Church, a school supervised by the priest in which about thirty children are taught a little English, some Greek, much of the achievements of Hellas…here too, is the combination Greek bank, steamship ticket office, notary public, and employment agency, and the coffee-houses, where the men drink black Greek coffee, play cards, speculate on the outcome of the next Greek lottery, and in the evening sing to the accompaniment of the Greek bagpipes or -- evidence of their Americanization -- listen to the phonograph.” (p. 380)
As part of the Hull House papers, period photos were taken that add to the data collected from door-to-door interviews conducted by census collectors trained by Hull House. Fortunately, some photos from the Hull HouseYearbooks of the early decades of the twentieth century are online, thanks to the University of Illinois at Chicago. These add to Ms. Abbott’s description of the activities that the Greeks pursued after hours:

A Group of Greek Wrestlers – Hull House Gymnasium,
6375.JPG, Hull House Yearbook, 1927, p. 39,

Hull House Yearbook, 1910, p. 24,

In conclusion, genealogists seek ways to connect with their ancestors. Since we are physically unable to talk with those who have passed away, one tool that enables us to “visit” the times our ancestors lived is through contemporary written and photographic materials. Journals from our target time period can be very useful in building a picture of vanished lives. JSTOR provides a way to access many such journals. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Mining DNA data with GEDmatch

My readers may have wondered where I have been for the last six months. I have been analyzing my autosomal DNA using GEDmatch.

Dna by Виталий Смолыгин,

I found the best definition of GEDmatch in a pdf document “Using GEDmatch” that Kitty Cooper highlighted in her blog post

“GEDmatch is a FREE, non-profit, “do-it-yourself” genomics website that allows DNA testers to upload raw data from FTDNA, AncestryDNA, and 23andMe to compare with a large database of data that has been voluntarily uploaded by other testers.”

 After learning more about GEDmatch from my cousin Sallie Atkins, I decided to try it out. For anyone who learns best by listening and seeing, I recommend watching Angie Bush’s video “GEDMatch Basics” on before even opening GEDmatch.

By 112.Georgia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
 via Wikimedia Commons

Depending on the company that you chose to test your autosomal DNA, follow the instructions (shown in the video) to upload your data. Remember to heed the caution given in several websites/blogs about this process: GEDmatch is run by volunteers and can be so inundated by users so that the program seems to freeze at times. Just be patient (and grateful for the wonderful tools this site offers) and try again. One more caveat on uploading: if another person in your household is on the internet at the same time you are uploading, the upload may fail.

After your data is on GEDmatch, you can begin using the tools to identify the people who match you. Aside from the technical aspects of getting your data on GEDmatch, something very important to your success in connecting with your “matches” often gets overlooked. After you run the “one to many” query and see all those potential matches, what do you do?

CC BY-SA 3.0,

 Let’s look at how to communicate with our matches. Rachel Ramey talks about just this subject in her post “A Few Things I’ve Learned as aBeginner at GEDmatch.” Among her tips to include in your message to your matches is your kit number and why you are contacting the person. Also, highlight any surnames that you want your match to consider.

You will be surprised when you see just how many matches GEDmatch delivers in the one-to-many tool. I liked Ms. Ramey’s suggestion that you save GEDmatch tables into Excel or another spreadsheet tool of your choice.

: 2007 Nuno Pinheiro & David Vignoni & David Miller &
 Johann Ollivier Lapeyre & Kenneth
 Wimer & Riccardo Iaconelli / KDE / LGPL 3

You can do so much with the data columns using the “Sort” feature in Excel. Be sure to use the advanced sort where you can choose primary and secondary columns on which to sort. Depending on the sort, you can see different patterns in your data.

Well, now we have our data uploaded to GEDmatch, we have developed a template message to our matches, and we have some spreadsheets where we can organize our data in different views. What do we do when we start receiving e-mail responses from the matches? That’s where Excel again comes into play. And again, Kitty Cooper comes to our rescue. In her post of Jan 17, 2014, Ms. Cooper offers a guest blog post by JimBartlett, “Organizing Your Autosomal Information with a Spreadsheet” (actually with two spreadsheets.)

As you might have concluded from the topics covered in this post, understanding genetic genealogy is not a walk in the park. The field demands a lot of study and concentrated effort if you wish to harvest the rich information from DNA testing, including getting the most out of  the list of matches you receive. But from my experience, nothing in my genealogy research has given me the volume of information that DNA testing has done. It’s just there waiting for me (and you) to analyze and massage it into a usable format.

A great advantage for anyone interested in exploring how to use DNA is the large number of on-line resources. The basic go-to site to for information is The International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG). In addition to the professionals I mentioned in this post, be sure to check out Roberta Estes’ blog, DNAeXplained, for her amazing ability to explain esoteric subjects. Emily Aulicino is another person who is so adept at decoding technical information in her blog, Genealem's Genetic Genealogy, that non-scientists can understand the concepts.

I wrote this blog post for those who have been hesitant to try their hand at incorporating autosomal DNA into their genealogy research and for those who have tried but got bogged down because they didn’t know the resources out there to help them.

categories: DNA 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Seeing Greece the Best Way

One of the greatest joys of the journey to learning family history is meeting fellow travelers. Never has this come so clear as when we (my husband and I) visited Greece this September of 2015.

Map of Greece from CIA World Factbook,
 22 August 2013,
gr.html, Wikimedia.

I first met Margarita Thomakou on in 2008 (before the site was purchased by Ancestry) when she responded to my query about my Greek Flessouras family. In her response, Margarita said she lived in Athens and enjoyed helping Americans look for their Greek roots. We e-mailed occasionally over the years, just to keep in touch. About eight months ago, I let Margarita know that we were planning our first visit to Greece. She was as excited to welcome us to her country as we were to visit!

Our tour was part family history, part Greek history and a whole lot of Hellenic hospitality. Margarita met us at our hotel in Athens, and we planned our itinerary. First we would go to Pigadakia, the ancestral village of the Flessouras clan, which is in the Peloponnese between Tripoli and Sparta.

By Pitichinaccio (Image:Peloponnese relief map-blank.svg) [GFDL 
(, CC BY-SA 3.0
 (, GFDL
 ( or CC BY-SA 3.0
/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We had rented a car, and Margarita suggested that we follow her. It was good to have two cars because sometimes Margarita would have some business to conduct (she is in the real estate field) while we did some sight-seeing.

 “The cradle of civilization” is a phrase many of us heard in history class applied to Greece. The Greeks are very proud of their history, including their painting, sculpture, theater and poetry. But they have a special reverence, as Margarita attested to, for the honor, courage, and fighting prowess displayed over the eras by those who have inhabited the Greek land.

Our first visit was a day trip out of Athens to the town of Marathon. Many Americans, even those who participate in running marathons, may not know where the word comes from. Well, now I do. But first some history. Margarita took us to the site of the Battle of Marathon that occurred in 490 B.C. when the outnumbered Athenians repelled the Persians.

The battle field at Marathon as it looks today,
9/6/2015, taken by Bert Schuster

Battle field relief, taken by Bert
Schuster 9/6/02015
Then she gestured to a huge hill behind us. This large mound is the final resting place of the Greek soldiers who gave their lives in the battle.

Burial Mound at Marathon, taken
by Bert Schuster 9/6/2015

And how did the modern marathon come from this historic battle? After the Greek victory, a messenger was dispatched to take the news to Athens – running all the way. The modern contest is a little over 26 miles, the same length as the distance from Marathon to Athens. 

The day after visiting Marathon, we started our trip to Pigadakia. The chance to visit one’s ancestral village is a rare and precious gift. Just before reaching the village, Margarita introduced us to a small restaurant all by itself on the side of the road, a treasure as it turned out that you would never find unless you had a wonderful guide. We sat eating and discussing Pigadakia and the Flessouras clan. A neighboring diner had been listening to our conversation and pointed out, in Greek of course, another departing diner: “There, there is a Flessouras.” Well, luck, happenstance and chance are welcome companions on any ancestor-hunting trip.

Street in Pigadakia, taken by
 Bert Schuster, 9/6/2015
Margarita followed the man thus described and struck up a conversation. And most certainly, the gentleman was a Flessouras from Pigadakia! He came with us to show us the small village and talk about his family tree. As of right now, my Flessouras tree is short – it starts with my great grandfather, Peter (Panoyiotis.) I am still working on going further back.

Street in Pigadakia leading to small shrine,
taken by Bert Schuster 9/6/2015

After Pigadakia, we headed to the Mani, Margarita’s ancestral homeland. She is proud to be from Maniot stock, and she knows the history of the land.
By al-Qamar (File:Peloponnese relief map-blank.svg)
 [GFDL (],
 via Wikimedia Commons
We saw a lot of historical towns and villages, but two places stand out in my mind.

First, is Aeropolis (see map above), where, as Margarita told us proudly, the Greek War of Independence started in 1821. We stood in the very square where Petros Pierrakos (his birth name), later known as Petros or Petrobey Mavromichalis, declared war on the Ottoman Empire which had ruled Greece since 1453. In addition to the historical significance of Aeropolis, the village has much natural beauty and traditional houses.

Petrobey, a Greek Hero,
in Aeropolis taken
by Bert Schuster 9/9/2015

Typical Aeropolis street, taken by
Bert Schuster 9/9/2015

Still life, Aeropolis, taken
by Bert Schuster 9/9/2015

A second Mani destination with fascinating history was Vathia with its breathtaking sea views, century-old towers standing proudly next to new models, and acres of carefully dug terraces by farmers of old.

Sea view from Vathia, taken by
Bert Schuster 9/9/2015

 Margarita explained that the towers were built not only to protect the residents of Vathia from attacks from foreigners but also from the onslaughts of feuding neighbors.

Towers and terraces of Vathia, taken by
Bert Schuster 9/9/2015

After a few days of sightseeing, it was time for some rest and relaxation. Margarita took us to her favorite beach and hotel in this part of the Mani, the Alkion Hotel/Apartments owned by Yannis Bechrakis.

Beach in front of Alkion
Hotel/Apartments, taken
by Bert Schuster 9/10/2015

What a paradise! After a day at the beach or visiting nearby scenic/historical attractions, you have only a short drive to Gythio with its choice of restaurants.

Our week in the Peloponnese with Margarita came to an end all too soon. We left her to finish her business in the Mani, and we took off to Napflio and then to the islands of Naxos, Santorini, and Rhodes. 

Two weeks later on our last day in Athens, Margarita had a surprise for us. She took us to her favorite hair salon which is located in the upscale Divani Caravel Hotel.

Hotel Divani Caravel, Dimitris Kamaras,
August 21, 2015, Vasileos Alexandrou
 st., Athens, Greece,

Bert and I spent the next two hours in the hands of the talented staff of Yannis’ Salon:

Yannis -- the transformer of women, the man who makes music and miracles with his scissors.

Anna -- the lady with the colors and the styles right from the red carpet

Kostas -- the master barber who gave Bert the shave of his life

After this fabulous trip to Greece, I came away with a new awareness of  my Greek heritage and with a wonderful Greek friend.