My grandfather (medz ha’/eer) and grandmother (medz ma’/eer) immigrated from Kharpert (also known as Harpoot) in Armenia. Don’t try to find Kharpert on a map of Armenia–it’s no longer there. Kharpert was one of the casualties of the Armenian genocide, along with many of its citizens. According to Richard G. Hovannisian, Kharpert “…was truly a crossroads of ancient civilizations, where Hurrian, Urartian, Semitic and Indo-European peoples met and mixed, as did their customs, religions and vocabulary. Through Kharpert…passed the famous royal military army of the Persian Achaemenians and later the major supply routes of the Romans. Here lay a fertile plain, traversed by tributaries and branches of the Aratsani or Eurphrates River. The shimmering waters and the waves of grain made this the Golden Plain (Voski Dasht) of Kharpert.”
Truly a historic land, the local inhabitants endured generation after generation under Arab, Turkic, Mongol, Turkmen, and Ottoman dominion. Even through the difficulties endured under the dominations, Armenian life on the Golden Plain continued uninterrupted until 1915. Most Armenian children were in school, and literacy was becoming universal for boys. Many villages also operated primary schools for girls. These focused on reading, writing and arithmetic as well as sewing and training for homemaking.
Hardships of life were made bearable by a religious calendar filled with holy days that involved both fasting and feasting. Weddings lasted as long as seven days and seven nights. All but the smallest villages had an Armenian Apostolic Church, and many larger villages had Protestant and/or Catholic congregations. The church was the most prominent structure in all the villages.
Extensive emigration to the United States took place in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, driven by economic and political forces. They traveled overland to the seaport of Samsun, followed by taxing sea journeys via Constantinople and Marseilles to Ellis Island or other U.S. ports of entry. Men usually intended to stay only long enough to return home to purchase land or open a business. Their brides and children were left behind in the care of the extended family during their absence. Tragically, the massacres and genocide tore them apart.
Many members of all families, including my ancestors, perished during the genocide years. My grandfather left Kharpert in 1895 after marrying my grandmother, who was eleven years old at the time. (I do not know if they consummated the marriage at that time, although I know their first child wasn’t born until 1908.) My grandfather became a naturalized citizen in 1905. My grandmother arrived, according to public records, in 1907 or 1908 (existing records conflict). Between then and 1918 she produced five children–my father was the youngest.
While there are indications that my grandmother missed her homeland, the family as a whole embraced being Americans. As more family members joined them from “the old country,” some of the elders were less inclined to assimilate. But their offspring were so American they resisted speaking the language of their parents’ homeland (either Armenian or Turkish or both). The men fought in WWI and WWII. Armenian and Turkish was never spoken in the home I grew up in, unless elder family members were present – and even then it was a mix of Armenian and English! One of my aunts taught us how to count in Armenian, and of course a few swear words! But mostly they were so content in their new world, they increasingly left the old world behind.
Which isn’t always entirely a good thing, because that connection with your roots is a drive in all of us who didn’t have that first hand knowledge. That’s why so many services like Ancestry.com are so popular. There seems to be a drive in most of us to know who we are at the level of our genes – where we came from.