Researching Your Lebanese or Syrian Ancestry
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.
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