Brick Walls

Uncovering the ancestries of my maternal grandparents

In genealogy, a “brick wall” refers to a question that remains unsolvable even after significant research. For example, determining the parents or grandparents of an Armenian Genocide survivor is often a brick wall for genealogists. Sometimes a source appears that can break through the wall. In other cases, a solution requires a creative reassessment of available sources.

The ancestries of my maternal grandparents, Giragos Der Manouelian and Margaret Garabedian, for a long time were two of my brick walls. Both my grandparents were born in small villages in the region of Palu, my grandfather in Sakrat and my grandmother in Uzunova mezre (a hamlet of the village of Uzunova).

In the case of my grandfather Giragos, oral tradition and documents recorded the names of his father, Mesrob, and paternal grandparents, Sarkis and Vartouhi. In addition, as his family members were priests in Sakrat, I was able to identify the Der Manouelian household in the 1840 and 1847 Ottoman population registers. The Der Manouelian surname was used by the family continuously starting in the 1700s. Logically, Sarkis’ father must be listed in the Ottoman records, but I could not confirm which of the men listed was his father.

Book cover of Archive of Armenian History

A year and a half ago, Mihran Minasian, a scholar in Armenia, sent me images of an 1878 Armenian census for Sakrat. He had previously shared with me the summary census returns for different regions, which I used in demographic research, but the detailed returns had not come to light until then. In fact, the detailed returns from 1878 for the region of Palu only, and not every village, were published in 1915, volume ԺԳ (13) of Դիւան Հայոց Պատմութեան (Archive of Armenian History, Tiflis).

1840 Ottoman census, Uzunova Ghazarian household

Fortuitously, the list of men in one Der Manuelian household did include the relationships between the men, and it was that one household I needed to break through my brick wall. My great-grandfather Mesrob was listed, as was his father Sarkis, and crucially for me, his grandfather Avedis, the child who was born between 1840 and 1847!

The Der Manouelian household in 1840 numbered 12 males across three generations ranging in age from 1 to 77. By 1847, the one-year-old had perished, and one additional child had been born, thus still totaling 12 males. By 1878, the Der Manouelian family numbered 63 people in three households (34 males and 29 females). 

The 1878 census only lists the names of each male and female in the household. It does not include their relationships to each other or any demographic information, such as age or year of birth. However, fortuitously, the list of men in one Der Manouelian household did include the relationships between the men, and it was that one household I needed to break through my brick wall. My great-grandfather Mesrob was listed, as was his father Sarkis, and crucially for me, his grandfather Avedis, the child who was born between 1840 and 1847! There was also a Vartig listed among the women who must be my great-great-grandmother Vartouhi.

So now I have an uninterrupted connection from my grandfather Giragos (born 1906-1907) to Mesrob (born 1875-1878) to Sarkis (probably born 1858-1860) to Avedis (born 1840-1847) to Baghdasar (born ~1803) to Der Minas (born 1760s) to Der Manuel. This is quite unusual to achieve through documents as an Armenian and something I did not think possible when I began genealogy 35 years ago.

1878 Armenian census, Sakrat Der Manouelian households

My grandmother’s ancestry posed a completely different problem. She and her sister, the only Genocide survivors from their family, had identified their parents’ names as Garabed Garabedian and Tarvez Baghdasarian. But I always suspected that they may have used Garabedian simply as an indication of their father being Garabed, meaning that the surname had not been in usage in their family for any length of time. After all, there were no Garabedian households listed in 1878 in either Uzunova or Uzunova mezre. As the oldest child of Garabed and Tarvez was born around 1898, it seemed probable that Garabed was under the age of 10 in 1878, and thus should be listed in one of the households.

There were three Garabeds listed in Uzunova mezre and four Garabeds in Uzunova. But which one was my great-grandfather?

While speaking with my mother about these things, she recalled that when she was young, her mother and aunt discussed what surname they should use, Garabedian or Sarkisian. This was the first time I heard of this possibility.

Earlier this month, while looking into a DNA match to my mother, I verified that their family also originated in Uzunova. In their case, I identified their family in the 1840, 1847 and 1878 censuses using the Mkhitarian surname. While speaking with my mother about these things, she recalled that when she was young, her mother and aunt discussed what surname they should use, Garabedian or Sarkisian. This was the first time I heard of this possibility.

Armed with this new information, I went back to the 1878 Armenian census. While relationships and ages are not included, through experience I have determined that names are listed in order of the head of household, older then younger generations. The first Garabed listed in Uzunova mezre was the head of the Haroutiunian household, so this could not be my great-grandfather. The second Garabed listed was the head of the Aprahamian household. Again, for the same reason, this could not be my great-grandfather. The third Garabed was in a household with only three people, likely a husband, wife and child, and the head of household was named Sarkis!

Sarkis was listed with the surname Margosian, and his wife was named Rehan. As no other household in either Uzunova mezre or Uzunova matched the criteria, it seemed very likely that this was my great-grandfather’s household in 1878, and Sarkis and Rehan are my great-great-grandparents.

Descendants of Margaret and Mariam (or Garabed and Tarvez): George Aghjayan, Dr. Sarah Aghjayan and Steve Mesrobian, Uzunova, 2012 (Photo: Nanore Barsoumian)

This is a prime example of a family using patronymic surnames that changed every generation. Garabed most likely went by Sarkisian, while my grandmother and her sister used Garabedian. Thus, it was fair to presume that the father of Sarkis was named Margos.

In 1840, there were only two Margoses listed, and both lived in Uzunova (not the hamlet). One of the Margoses was listed in the Mkhitarian household, the family of the DNA match. My initial thought was that this would explain the DNA relationship; however, that Margos still lived in the Mkhitarian household in Uzunova in 1878.

Aghjayan’s maternal grandmother Margaret (right) with her only surviving sister Mariam

The second Margos was even more interesting. He was born around 1813, and his father was named Sarkis. It was common practice to name a son after his paternal grandfather. Margos, one of five brothers, worked in Istanbul beginning in 1838. But by 1847, Margos’s father and two older brothers were no longer listed in the Ottoman census and had most likely died. Margos and his two younger brothers were shown as having moved to Uzunova mezre. Thus, the evidence supports that this was the household of my family. Sarkis, the grand patriarch of this family, was born around 1778. His father was named Ghazar. So, Ghazarian became Sarkisian, which became Margosian, then Sarkisian again, and finally, Garabedian.

So another brick wall came down, one I never thought I would solve, and one more small link was repaired in a chain broken by the Genocide.

Maternal grandparents’ family tree
George Aghjayan

George Aghjayan

George Aghjayan is the Director of the ARF Archives and a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Central Committee of the Eastern United States. Aghjayan graduated with honors from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1988 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Actuarial Mathematics. He achieved Fellowship in the Society of Actuaries in 1996. After a career in both insurance and structured finance, Aghjayan retired in 2014 to concentrate on Armenian related research and projects. His primary area of focus is the demographics and geography of western Armenia as well as a keen interest in the hidden Armenians living there today. Other topics he has written and lectured on include Armenian genealogy and genocide denial. He is a frequent contributor to the Armenian Weekly and Houshamadyan.org, and the creator and curator westernarmenia.weebly.com, a website dedicated to the preservation of Armenian culture in Western Armenia.

2 Comments

  1. George, this was really touching. It’s amazing to see how you broke through those ‘brick walls’ and brought your family’s past to life. Thanks for sharing this journey—your work is a beautiful reminder of the resilience and enduring legacy of Armenian heritage.

  2. George my mind is blown by your tenacity and drive to break through the “brick wall”. It is rewarding to know your story. Keeping Armenia alive is helped by your efforts. Thank you.

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