Researching your Lebanese ancestry

By Sandra Hasser Bennett

It is estimated that there were between one and two million Americans of Arab descent living in the United States in 1980. Most were descended from Lebanese or Syrian Christians who began arriving during the 1870s. As a direct result of political upheaval in the Middle East, many thousands more arrived during the last two decades of the Twentieth Century.
This article will concentrate on the earlier immigrants. I will leave to others the task of reporting on the new arrivals – with the admonition that they should start now to gather information, while their primary sources still live.

Very little genealogical research has been published about early Lebanese/Syrian immigrants to the United States. I will attempt to give some background, and guide beginning researchers to information and records that will further their knowledge of this special and unique heritage.

Because immigrants from Lebanon and Syria only began arriving in the United States in the 1870s, their descendants probably will not gain membership in the Daughters (or Sons) of the American Revolution through their Middle Eastern Ancestors. The plus side is that, because of their relatively recent arrival, the historical, cultural and family information so dear to the hearts of all genealogists is close by — perhaps as near as a grandfather’s home.

History (and a Little Geography)

Notwithstanding current political disputes, Lebanon and Syria share a narrow strip of land 400 miles long by 150 miles wide, extending from the Taurus range and the Euphrates in the north, to the Sinaitic peninsula in the south, hemmed in by the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the desert to the east.

According to Dr. Philip Hitti, an early Twentieth Century historian, occupants of this land are a mixed Semitic race, descended from ancient Phoenician-Canaanite and Aramaen Israelite tribes who arrived between 2500 and 1500 B.C., and Arabs who drifted in from the desert and gradually passed from a nomadic to an agricultural life. Arabic spoken today reflects this heritage. Modern-day inhabitants of Lebanon and Syria – and their Arab-American cousins – may be descended from Greek settlers of the Seleucid period, Crusaders, or Kurdish and Persian invaders and traders of more recent times.

From the early 16th Century until World War I, Syria and the Mount Lebanon region were part of the Ottoman Empire. For this reason, most Lebanese and Syrians immigrating before 1918 had Turkish passports, and were grouped in U. S. Census Abstracts under the heading “Turkish” or “Asian.” After the First World War, Lebanon and Syria operated under French mandate, gaining independence in the 1940s.

The close relationship of these two countries from the earliest days of recorded history helps explain a present-day puzzle. Until the 1950s, most of the immigrants referred to themselves as “Syrian” whether they came from Syria or the Mount Lebanon region. One explanation is that at the time of their heaviest immigration, “Syria” was a familiar word in the United States, and “Lebanon” was not; to simplify things, they said “Syrian.” Another may be the fact that many came from areas which were in Greater Syria when they immigrated, but which later became part of Lebanon because of the redrawing of national boundaries and the politics of governments. In any case, identification with their village and religion was more natural to them.

Immigration

Because Lebanon and Syria were under foreign domination for centuries, life was difficult for the common people. Periods of religious warfare between Moslems and Christians, land disputes, and intertribal fighting often occurred. Nevertheless, the impetus for immigration most often was the lure of economic opportunity in the United States. Recruiting efforts of steamship agents and reports of traders returning from the 1876 International Exposition in Philadelphia also spurred immigration. The French Line and Fabre Steamship Lines carried many Lebanese and Syrians to America, docking first Havre or Marseilles, and then New York.

Between 1860 and 1890, a few hundred Lebanese and Syrians entered the United States each year. The first Syrian family was that of Professor Joseph Arbeely who, with his wife, six sons and a niece, arrived in 1878. Two of his sons later founded the first Arabic newspaper in the western world, another was Consul in Jerusalem under President Grover Cleveland, and yet another was in the Immigration Service.

Several thousand Lebanese and Syrians entered the United States each year after 1890, reaching a peak of 9,000 in 1913 and again in 1914. During World War I, the numbers declined. A brief post-war resurgence occurred until the Quota System became law in 1924, at which time there were 200,000 persons of Lebanese/Syrian birth or descent living in this country. By 1940, that number had grown to 350,000.

Passage, particularly in steerage, was not easy, and was relatively expensive. The entire trip took three to six weeks, depending on weather. Sometimes the immigrants came in family groups. More often, young men (or occasionally, young women) came to this country first, hoping to find work and save money for the passage of other family members. They usually came with others from their village, or had friends or relatives awaiting them in America. If the family could afford passage for only some of its members, they split up, the father taking the older children to America, the mother and younger children staying behind until money was earned to send for them.

Life in America

Although by 1907 there were colonies of Lebanese and Syrian farmers in the Dakotas, Wyoming, Washington and Montana, they settled mostly in urban areas. New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio had the largest concentrations; there were smaller settlements all across the country, in St. Louis, Chicago, and New Orleans, to name just a few. People from the same village tended to settle near each other, so that in a larger community, there might be blocks or neighborhoods where all the people were from Hadsheet, or Zahleh or Damascus.

The first order of business after arriving was to find employment. About 20% of the immigrants were skilled workers in their homeland, and a few had been professionals, but most were small landowners or tenant farmers. When they arrived in this country — landless, almost penniless, and unable to speak English — few jobs were open to them. Some went to work in factories, or took jobs with city governments, but a great many became small tradesmen or merchants, operating restaurants, dry goods stores, or small kimono factories.

No report of early Lebanese/Syrian immigrants would be complete without mention of the peddler, who went from door-to-door, town-to-town, selling laces, dry goods, threads and pins to housewives across the country. Both men and women peddled, leaving home for days or weeks at a time, carrying large leather pouches or sample cases from which they sold their wares, taking orders for delivery on the next trip. Often the peddler was the “traveling” half of a partnership, the other partner staying home to take care of the store, or mind the children.

The Lebanese and Syrians were close-knit groups, almost to the point of clannishness. They were diligent, hardworking and thrifty people who were close to their families and churches. According to Historian Philip Hitti, in 1924 there were 34 Maronite churches, 21 Greek Catholic churches, 24 Antiochian Greek Orthodox churches, 31 Syrian Greek Orthodox churches, and a few Mosques attending to the religious needs of Lebanese and Syrian people in the United States. Marriage within the community was encouraged, with parents often arranging marriages for their children.

They rarely became involved in politics (one notable exception being the St. Louis colony). The community exercised a great deal of control over the individual and, for this reason, the crime rate among Lebanese and Syrians was very low. They organized to raise money for causes in their local communities, and in the Old Country as well. Education was highly regarded; second and third generation Lebanese and Syrians have excelled in every profession.

Researching Your Heritage

Americans of Lebanese and Syrian descent have a unique opportunity to research their own personal family histories, while at the same time researching and preserving the ethnic and community history of their people. Each project adds to the accumulation of knowledge in this field, especially if results are deposited with libraries or historical societies for others to build on in the future. The methods used to research Lebanese and Syrian family history are similar to those used for families of European origin, however, a few pertinent points will be briefly discussed.

Where to Begin

Talk to family members – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Since the heaviest immigration occurred between 1890 and 1914, a few of the original immigrants are still living; certainly many of their children are alive. A tape recorder and notebook are your basic tools. Ask the immigrants about their family in the Old Country, their town of origin, reasons for immigration, customs they kept, and the lives they lived. Ask the children and grandchildren of your immigrant ancestors about their childhood — stories they heard from their parents, foods they ate, holiday celebrations, the interaction of the family with the larger American community, wartime experience.

Keep your questions open-ended, so that they don’t elicit only yes or no answers. Don’t ask, “Did your father play with you much?” Instead ask, “What’s your first memory of your father?” David Weitzman’s book “Underfoot” has several excellent chapters on designing interviews, and will be helpful as you plan your questions. The opportunity to ask questions of these people is fleeting, and if you don’t carry your research any further at this time, at least do this much. Public records will be available to you later, but the personal recollections of these original immigrants and their children will die with them.

Look for family papers and photographs to reconstruct your family history. For example, Declarations of Intent to Become Citizens will contain valuable information, including the name of the ship and approximate date it docked. Once you know this, ask the National Archives to search Passenger Lists; if they find it, they will send you a copy of the page upon which your relative is listed. Passenger Lists not only have information about family members traveling together, but often names relatives who stayed behind. The fee for this service is nominal.

Many ships records and passenger lists may also be found on the World Wide Web. The 1900, 1910 and 1920 U.S. Census can be helpful in locating those who arrived before 1920. The public library in the capitol of the state where your relatives lived should have the Census for that state on microfilm. In addition, the Bureau of the Census will search census records upon application by you and payment of a small fee.

Contact the Church your relatives attended. For many immigrants, it was the center of their cultural and social lives, and may have birth, marriage or death records of your family. The Church will certainly know the history of that particular congregation, possibly even have it in writing. You will want this information because it will help in your personal research. If you contact the church by mail, enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope. There may be a charge for any record they provide, but in any case, make a donation for their help.

Research in Lebanon and Syria is difficult, but it can be done. The Jafet Library at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, for example, is receptive to questions, and its staff will help if they can. If you know the Arabic names and the appropriate dates, you may be able to obtain birth and death certificates from district or central offices of the Bureau of the Census. Address your inquiry to the Census Office in the community (i.e., village, city, county) where your ancestor lived.

The Syrian National Archives staff in Damascus informed the author some time ago that birth, death and marriage records do not exist for Syria until very recent times, except in the parish records of various churches. Churches in many areas have survived the bombings; if you know the church your ancestor attended, contact it directly. Church records have not been catalogued, but they do exist. For example, church records for the Maronite and Armenian communities in Aleppo date back to the mid-19th century. If you can write your letter in Arabic or know someone who will write it for you, do that. If that is not possible, write the letter in English. Most areas have someone who can translate for the recipient.

The Syrian National Archives contains records of the various courts located in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama for the years 1517-1919. The court records are a complete but rather confusing record of inheritance cases, property purchases, divorce proceedings, and other legal matters for Muslim, Christian, and Jewish urban populations. These records are not catalogued; given the lack of family names in pre-modern Syria, historical research on individual families is difficult and requires much patience. Syria’s development of archival records is such that they may not be able to provide services for researchers abroad. However, I’ve been told they would warmly welcome anyone who came to Damascus for research. In that case, obviously, knowledge of Arabic or a good interpreter would be most helpful.

Keep in mind that the translation of names from Arabic to English often left much to be desired. Try to find out if the name you are researching has been changed; if so, you need to find out what it was in the Old Country before you can research abroad. As with other ethnic groups, there are names associated with occupations, i.e., Khoury/priest or Kaout/tailor; character traits or physical conditions, such as Eyen/sickly; or place names. A thorough investigation of the names you are researching is worth the effort, and will save time and money later.

Doing your homework.

The History Department of your public library will have (or can get you) very good books about Lebanese and Syrian immigrants. Dr. Alixa Naff’s “Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience” (1985) is excellent, and should be read by anyone whose people came from Lebanon or Syria. Be sure to read Dr. Philip Hitti’s “Syrians in America” (1924), and Lucius Hopkins Miller’s “A Study of the Syrian Communities of Greater New York” (1904). If your library does not own them, you can probably obtain them through interlibrary loan. Although not recent, the latter two books have the advantage of being contemporary with the original immigrants. A very good resource book for researchers of non-European families is “The Family Historian’s Handbook” by Yaffa Draznin. Tell your librarian what you are doing and ask for suggestions. He or she can guide you to other books and sources of information.

If you like to cook, or are interested in food history, two recently published books will be of interest to you. “Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen” by Sonia Uvezian is beautifully illustrated with lovely old pictures and drawings of Lebanon and Syria, in addition to stories and mouthwatering recipes. Also worth reading is “A Mediterranean Feast” by Clifford A. Wright, a well-researched history of Mediterranean countries, with recipes and culinary histories for each of them.

You may want to do a community history or a series of interviews — an oral history — as my brother and I did in St. Louis and Dr. Alixa Naff did on a national level.

An interesting result might be that others in the community will begin working on their family histories. Organize classes to teach children about their heritage, and help them begin their own family histories. Offer Arabic language classes at your church or community center. You will have other ideas for your own family and community. All these projects will result in a greater interest and pride in our legacy, and a greater appreciation for those ancestors whose courage enabled us to live in this Country of peace and freedom.

Finally, don’t let your hard work go to waste. Give each of your children and other family members a copy of your family history. Give a copy to your public library and local history association, and if a church serving members of your community exists in your area, give them a copy as well. Be generous with the fruits of your labor – family and community histories are most valuable when they are shared.

Online Research

There are so many excellent genealogical websites that it is hard to know where to begin. There are general sites providing on-line instruction in genealogy that can be downloaded and studied at your leisure. Some are available at no cost. The FamilyTreeMaker website (http://www.familytreemaker.com) has an excellent beginners course, and much advanced material that is useful no matter what ethnic group you are researching. FTM also has millions of names in their indexes, some of which are free, and some requiring membership or a payment. I am most familiar with FTM because I use their genealogy programs, however, other sites with similar websites, like Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com), will also be useful to you.

Sites exist for most ethnic groups. Of special interest to those researching Lebanese families is http://genforum.genealogy.com/lebanon. Another appealing site is http://www.mit.edu:8001/activities/lebanon/map.html featuring an interactive map of Lebanon. Do a search on “Lebanese (or Syrian) Genealogy” and you will find many sites sure to increase your knowledge of these countries.

Numerous on-line genealogy newsletters are available. Genealogy Today (www.genealogytoday.com) and D’Addezio.com (http://www.daddezio.com) are two of the best, providing free information, updates, instructional articles and more, with special sites for Italian or German researchers. Cyndis List (http://cyndislist.com) hosts thousands of genealogical websites, many of which will be useful, both for general research methodology and specific ethnic interests.
A Final Caveat

Information and records found on the Internet should be considered secondary sources, and followed up at the primary source, to make certain the information is accurate. Double-check information you find on the ‘Net – before you add it to your family tree — just as you would information from other secondary sources. Research is only as good as the person doing it, and mistakes happen. Sloppy research happens too. Don’t let it happen to you by repeating someone else’s mistakes.

Copyright © 2000, Sandra Hasser Bennett — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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