Beyond the Basics: Aristeia Awards, 1821 Revolution

March 25 is a day of celebration and pride for Hellenes throughout the world, as we celebrate the commencement of the War of Independence from 400 hundred years of Ottoman rule. Men throughout Greece banded as brothers to battle for the freedom of their homeland. Those who fought with exemplary actions and bravery were awarded an aristeia (αριστείο). The word άριστος (aristos) means excellence; and the award is one of great prestige and distinction.* Men who received an aristeia displayed exceptional bravery in battle and were considered heroes.

There are three levels of Aristeia awards: silver, iron, and bronze. These are on display at the War Museum in Athens, which I visited in 2017 with my friend and guide, Giannis Mihalakakos. (Take a virtual tour of the museum here.)

War of Independence Awards, display of Aristeia awards

Many fighters of the Revolution received aristeia awards from the Government of Greece. Among them are members of my extended family. In a previous post, I wrote about Ioannis Zaharakis, born circa 1798 in Theologos, who received an Aristeia for his service. I have since learned of others, and on this commemorative day, I recognize these men of my family with honor and pride:

  • Mihail Aridakos / Aridas of Agios Ioannis
  • Efstratios and Dimitrios Iliopoulos of Agios Ioannis
  • Christos Kostakos of Anavryti
  • Georgios Christakos of Agios Ioannis
  • Christos Lerikos of Agios Ioannis
  • Dimitrios, Vasileios and Nikolaos Maltziniotis of Agios Ioannis
  • Kalogeros Papagiannakos of Agios Ioannis
  • Ioannis Zaharakis of Sellasia/Theologos
  • Dimitrios, Ioannis and Georgios Zarafonitis of Sklavohori

This image shows recipients Kalogeros Papagiannakos (line 42) and Georgios Christakos (line 51) of Agios Ioannis who received the Iron Medal.

Aristeia Awards, Line 42: Kalogeros Pappagiannakis; Line 51: Georgios Christakos, both of Agios Ioannis, Sparta. Research by Konstandinos Koutsodontis, 2020

The General State Archives of Greece is the repository for Aristeia Records. It has thousands of lists, each filled with thousands of names. There are files online at the GAK , but working through them to locate villages and names is beyond my ability. Researching in this collection is best left to Greek genealogy professionals. Those who have examined these archives for me are: Gregory Kontos of, Konstandinos Koutsodontis of Greek Genealogist, and Giannis Mihalakakos of Maniatika. I am grateful to each of them, my colleagues and friends. 🙂

Next year on March 25, 2021, and throughout the year, the 200th anniversary of the Revolution will be celebrated. Konstandinos, Gregory and Giannis will be writing about the men who freed Greece from captivity. Use their resources to find the heroes in your family, and contact them for research help. Gregory Kontos’ “Tracing Freedom: 1821” collection has just launched with searchable lists of captives from Lakonia.

Your ancestors fought and secured the freedom of Greece, thus securing a sovereign nation for the birth of your family. They deserve to be recognized and honored.

*A Hellenic historian shared the following: Aristeia is an ancient Greek word meaning “prize for excellence, prowess, the best and the bravest.”

Exactly When Were You Born?

Family historians are more than fact-finders–we are “fact-fixators,” obsessed with finding one more piece of evidence to prove a theory or a relationship. We want to be sure that the families we are piecing together are accurate. This determination to find the “proof” is what keeps us “in the hunt.”

I have learned not to expect absolute, but varying, birthdates for my immigrant ancestors in U.S. records. I know that they celebrated namedays, not birthdays; and maybe someone was nervous when being questioned by an official and could not remember. Or even more common, he/she just did not know.  I get it, and I accept it.

But I do expect accuracy in primary sources. Church books, created by priests at the time of the event, should constitute a high level of proof. Yet I am finding contradictions in the very records that should set the standard of correctness.

Like many Greek villages, Agios Ioannis, Sparta, has more than one church. Koimisi tis Theotokou was the old one, but it is now open only on certain religious holidays. Agias Triadas  is the church currently used for Sunday services and religious events such as baptisms and marriages.

Each of these churches has a set of books, and their years overlap beginning in 1913. Many people are listed in both books–the names are the same, but in many cases, the event dates are different.

Here is an example:   Kalliopi Lambropoulos was the daughter of Anastasios Lambropoulos and Vasilo Metronou. She was born and baptized in Agios Ioannis, but WHEN was she born?  [click on images to enlarge]

Kalliopi Lambropoulos, born October 16, 1916, no baptism date

Kalliopi Lambropoulos, born January 19, 1917; baptized October 15, 1917.

Kalliopi Lambropoulos, born January 19, 1917; baptized July 2, 1917.

Two different birthdates. Two different baptism dates. Same person.

I have ruled out that these are three different people with the same name because:

  • the earliest birthdate, October 16, 1916 and the latest birthdate, January 19, 1917 are only three months apart
  • the parents and godparent are the same in all three records
  • the family structure in other records shows only one daughter named Kalliopi

I had been working from an index, and the indexer typed one of the birthdates as January 15. It was not until I examined the original record that I caught the error. Always, always look at the original!

Because two of the three records give a birthdate of January 19, 1917, I will assume that is correct. But the baptism dates are three months apart. To resolve this conflict, during my next trip to Sparta, I could go to either the Lixarheion (municipal office) or Dimarheion (Town Hall) and request to see the civil birth record for Kalliopi. In Greece, civil birth records also record the date of baptism.

This experience of finding conflicting information in records emphasizes the importance of trying to find ALL the records available for an individual. In this case, even finding one church record cannot “prove” a fact when the data sources vary.

Is being a “fact-fixator” important? Absolutely! The more facts we have, the sounder our conclusions. Facts are ways to prove an assumption, and in genealogy, that assumption means a specific person belongs to a specific family.

But ultimately, all that matters is that we have connected the right people as families. Does it truly matter if Kalliopi was born October 16, 1916 or January 19, 1917? She is in the right family, and ensuring that fact is why I remain “in the hunt.”

Beyond the Basics: 1856 Parish Census

There comes a point in any genealogical research where we finish examining the “basic” record sets. To the Greek genealogist, these are:

We have extracted relevant data, entered information into our research databases, saved original images (digitizing any paper copies) and written exact source citations. After evaluating what was found, we decide if we want to go further. Most of us do, but we don’t know how to proceed.

  • What additional records are available?
  • Where are they kept?
  • How can we access them?

To add to our confusion and frustration, we face the language issue. Old documents are generally handwritten and even our familiar surnames can be difficult to decipher. See this 1844 Voter List for my great-grandfather, Andreas Kostakos / Ανδρέας Κωστάκος:  [click on any images in this post to make them larger]

1844 Election Register, Line 1205; Andreas Kostakos, age 35

The first name looks like “Μαθ” not “Ανδ”. The first two and last two letters of the surname, “Κω” and “ος” are easy to read, but I struggled to decipher “στακ” in the middle.

Despite this somewhat daunting scenario of finding and reading records, there is hope! Last month, Gregory Kontos, established a name-searchable website, His goal is to preserve and make accessible records from Greece.  I went to the search page, clicked on Lakonia, and began entering surnames in English. (Searches are bi-lingual and can be done in Greek or English).

In July 2017, I had found the marriage record of my 2nd great-grandmother, Eleni G. Dimitrakakis, at the Metropolis of Sparta, which named her father as Giannakis from Mystras.

Mitropolis of Sparta, Marriage Index Book
Book: Sparta, 1852-1859
Entry #524
License Date: February 13, 1859
Marriage Date: not given
Groom: Panagiotis Lerikos, no father listed; residence: Agios Ioannis
Bride: Eleni Dimitrakakis, father: Giannakis; residence: Mystras
Church: Agios Georgios
First marriage for both bride and groom
Image DSC_0182
Photographed by Carol Kostakos Petranek, July 2017

I wondered if there could be any records for that family, so I typed Dimitrakakis (Δημητρακάκης) and the following results appeared:

Dimitrakakis surname in Lakonia,

The right hand columns give the record collection name and date. Besides the 1844 and 1871 Voter List, there is an 1856 Parish Census. The first entry is for Giannakis Dimitrakakis, my 3rd great-grandfather and his wife, Politimi!

I ordered the record and received the following original image and translation with full source citation. Giannakis Dimitrakakis is on line 67:

1856 Parish Census, Mystras / Kato Chora

1856 Kato Chora Parish Census Transcription

I am so grateful to have this translation! Although the priest’s writing is neat, it is still a challenge to read and I may not have been able to identify my Dimitrakakis name.

Clicking on the “Collections” page of GreekAncestry provides information about this record set and other collections available on the website:

Parish censuses were censuses of all the families of a parish conducted by the local priest. They were important for church organization reasons. A parish census includes the name of the head of the family (which, in some cases, were widows), his wife’s name, as well as the number of their children, male and female.

It’s hard to describe my excitement at learning the name of my 3rd-great grandmother, Politimi, in this document! Finding the names of women in Greek records is especially challenging, which is why this collection is especially important. To learn more, see “Women in Greek Archives – Missing Half of Us.”

I will be sharing any additional “beyond the basics” information that I become aware of  through GreekAncestry and other sources. Stay tuned and stay hopeful–our research can and will move forward!

RootsTech 2020: A Time for Greeks to Shine

RootsTech, the largest genealogy conference in the world, took center stage in my life this past week. This massive event is known for hosting 25,000+ attendees, hosting a myriad of vendors, and providing hundreds of sessions.

Although I attend every year,  this one was especially meaningful. For the first time at any major genealogical conference, a class on Greek genealogy was held. Presented by professional genealogist Kathleen Doherty Kaldis, the session focused on the essentials of beginning Greek family history research.

Kathleen Doherty Kaldis presents, “Opa! It’s All Greek to Me.”

Using the metaphor of a Greek dance where the circle begins small and gradually expands until all participate, Kathleen described the importance of utilizing all resources available and working within our Hellenic community. Her family is Scottish/Irish, but her husband’s family is from Xirokambi, Lakonia and Pyrgos, Messinia. She used examples from her Kaldis family research to demonstrate the research methodology needed for success. There was a warm feeling of community in the lecture room. We are all in the same position, seeking information as to how we can learn more about our families. It was heartwarming to see people gather at the conclusion of the lecture to compare information. Bringing our community into the national spotlight is a HUGE step forward–thank you, Kathleen 🙂

Gathering and sharing information at the end of the lecture

I was very happy to spend time with Greek friends who also came to RootsTech, as well as Dawn and Trisha who work at the Family History Library. Dawn is a volunteer on Wednesday mornings and she has roots in Argolidis. Trisha is an employee who is at the Library daily and her roots are in Chios. They provide an invaluable service of having the knowledge to help anyone who needs assistance with Greek research.

Trisha, Carol and Dawn at the Family History Library, International Section

As I visited vendors in the Expo Hall, I asked several who focused on European research if they had inquiries about Greek genealogy. The answer was yes and the majority either had a Greek grandparent or great-grandparent; or, they had taken a DNA test and found they had Greek ancestry. In both cases, they were new researchers. There is much we can do to help our beginners: provide encouragement, teach practical “first steps” and share resources.

I met with people at FamilySearch and MyHeritage to discuss ways to make more Greek records available. It is a challenging task due to the contractual negotiations required between Greek repositories and the genealogy companies, but I am confident that the increased surge of interest and the public’s sincere desire will yield positive results.

MyHeritage has launched a truly amazing photo colorization program, which will automatically colorize black and white photos. Their booth featured a magnet board where people uploaded photos which had been colorized through their process and in turn, received a magnet. I am holding a picture of “poker night” at my papou Kostakos’ home in Brooklyn (sorry, it’s upside down!).

My Heritage Photo Colorization

People who are not members of MyHeritage can colorize ten photos at no charge; members can colorize an unlimited number of photos.
Try it here:

There are many facets of family history research. Finding our ancestors is one, but so is capturing the memories of the ancestors that we do know, or whose stories have been passed down by our elders. This conference theme was “The Story of You,” and many sessions were held which described ways to save and record memories. One of my favorite sessions was “Five Simple Steps for Writing the Story of You” [or, a loved one]. Presenter Devon Noel Lee championed the use of photos as writing prompts. Her suggestion is to take a photo and write about it:  who is in the photo? where did the event occur? why is it significant? After doing this for a series of photos, the basis of a personal history is established and it is easy to add details. I am inspired to do this, starting with the photos from my grandparents’ album such as the one I am holding above.

I attended many sessions this week, including several on DNA. One of my favorites was a class with an important but under-discussed topic, “The Circular Flow: Researching Return Migrants.” I learned about immigrants who came to the U.S., but then returned to their homelands and perhaps back to the U.S. again. I will be writing a post about this, as there is much to share.

Conferences are an excellent way to learn and connect. I appreciate FamilySearch for sponsoring RootsTech for 10 years. Please join me in Salt Lake City next February!


Kosta’s Map

I love speaking with the villagers in Sparta. They know their land with a level of intimacy that astonishes me:  every hiding place in the Taygetos mountains, every olive tree on their land, every goat trail that leads to an abandoned kalivia (shepherd’s hut), and the origins of every family in the village. Last summer, simply by hearing the surname, Christos told me that my great-grandfather, Andreas Kostakos, was from the now-abandoned village of Perganteika (read that post here).

The Kostakos family origins have mystified me for years and have morphed into my never-ending quest. The -akos suffix designates the Mani region, but I can’t find the family in any records outside of the Sparta area before 1844. The reason? Greece became an independent country on February 3,1830, after 400 years of Ottoman rule. It took time for the new government to begin record keeping; not much exists prior to 1840. Thus, all Greeks have the proverbial brick-wall during this timeframe.

Christos’ insistence that the Kostakos family was first in Perganteika, then in Anavryti, then in Agios Ioannis after the War of Independence (about 1835-40) has not satisfied my desire for proof. (An elusive commodity in Greek research). So, I pester anyone whom I meet with many questions. In return, I get bits and pieces, and sometimes a treasure like the one below (click on image to enlarge it).

Last July at the home of Peter Adamis in Pellana, I received an exensive history-geography lesson from Peter’s friend, Kosta. A native of the area and a renowned stone and marble mason, Kosta’s artisan work is found in government buildings, churches and homes throughout Lakonia. He has a comprehensive knowledge of the region and its people. And he shared much with me.

Kosta explained what I heard many times:  people fled to the towering Taygetos mountains to escape Ottoman dominion; after 1830 they started their descent into the valleys to begin a life of freedom. Kosta patiently and carefully sketched the map above to depict “layers of villages,” beginning at the top of the Taygetos range and descending into the plains of Sparta. I could now plainly see how the villages were staggered and, at times, stacked upon each other. As his pen moved down the page, I could almost visualize people moving down, incrementally, from the peaks. It was a logical movement of humanity and a powerful moment of clarity.

Kosta’s stories mesmerized me. These people–my people–were resilient, tough, inventive, smart, and scrappy survivors. The more I hear about village life in the 1800’s, the more I want to learn. I love Kosta’s map. It has not solved the Kostakos origin mystery, but it has enhanced my understanding. My respect for my ancestors grows with each fact I learn, and I am proud to be their descendant.