There are those who envy others with large homes and nice cars, and some who turn green at the sight of a pretty new dress. My own jealous streak rears its ugly head whenever I watch a show where someone can trace family trees and unlock generations of family secrets by merely uttering their surname to a historian. “Imagine being able to do that,” I whisper in amazement to anyone else in the room. “What I would give to be able to do same.”
I discovered the power of family connection in my teens when I travelled to Turkey, my parents’ country of birth, to live out the year. Up until that point, I’d considered myself 100 per cent Australian, but faced with millions of people who not only looked like me, but mirrored my mannerisms and expressions, I came to realise I’d always been a lot more Turkish than I’d realised. It was on this trip that I realised even the way I sit – always on the floor with one leg tucked under my bottom – was an Ottoman throwback, informing my body long before my consciousness even caught up. Up until the pandemic struck, I have gone back every year since.
I discovered the power of family connection in my teens when I travelled to Turkey, my parents’ country of birth, to live out the year.
When you’re of Turkish origin, all you really have to go off when it comes to putting the pieces of your ancestry together are family connections, elderly neighbours with excellent memories and the neighbourhood muhtar (village community leader). Your surname? It doesn’t count for a lot because in Turkey we only received surnames in 1934 in line with the Surname Law, an act which required all Turks to choose a surname for their family and register it. This means I can search my grandparents and great-grandparents but with only single names and next to no complete and reliable databases to go off (the Turkish Government unveiled a national genealogy site in 2018 but it is riddled with issues and inconsistencies), my ancestral search ends right about there.
Turks aren’t the only ones to face this problem of course. Descendants of Indian and Pakistani families often find many records created by the Mughals (and others) have been destroyed during battle, while many Chinese Indonesians were forced by Suharto’s regime to adopt Indonesian surnames, or become mononymous if the price of registration was out of reach for their family. Over in Portugal, it is not usual to find different naming patterns within the one family; two siblings could carry the father’s surname, one could carry the godmother’s while the remaining siblings take on mum’s.
Difficulty can also arise if the country of origin has been invaded or experienced changing boundaries, says genealogist Jan Worthington.
Difficulty can also arise if the country of origin has been invaded or experienced changing boundaries, says genealogist Jan Worthington. “It’s luck of the draw; success often lies in how well records were kept and whether the bulk of it was able to survive fire, floor and war,” she explains. “It’s been my experience that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City has the best genealogy library in the world; they’ve been known to replace records when a small island nation has theirs wiped out by floor or cyclone.”
Regardless of whether you’re likely to find your great-great-grandmother’s story by simply checking church records in England, or like me, you’re up for a potentially long and arduous task of seeking, stalking and interviewing locals in your country of origin, Worthington recommends taking the same approach.
“Go sideways; the more you know about your background before you start your search, the better you’ll understand if the information you stumble upon over time belongs to your family or not,” Worthington explains. “Contact elderly family members and ask to see old letters and photographs and note everything down.”
Engaging a private genealogist such as Worthington who is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, which has more than 3,000 members across the globe, can assist.
Engaging a private genealogist such as Worthington who is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, which has more than 3,000 members across the globe, can assist. “We each have an area of expertise so if your search is to take place in Turkey, for example, we would contact the genealogist who specialises in that country to assist.” A search of FamilySearch.org can also yield dividends with the right information.
And although overseas travel might be off the cards for now, don’t discount locking in a holiday back to your ancestral homeland when you can. “It’s been my experience that most towns and villages have a local historian or a ‘keeper of secrets’ who can help point you in the right direction,” Worthington says. “They can point out local graveyards, share stories or tell you where records are kept; once they realise you’re one of ‘their own’, you’re accepted right away.”