A History of Turks in America

Sevgi Zubeyde ERTAN
Translated from "Amerika'daki Turklerin Tarihi" published in "Turkler", Editors: Hasan Celal Guzel, Prof. Dr. Kemal Cicek, and Prof. Dr. Salim Koca, Ankara: Yeni Turkiye, 2002.

In the 16th century, the size and power of the Ottoman Empire reached its peak. Since the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, the Ottomans had engaged in active expansion, both in land and on the sea. Seeking the legitimization and prestige associated with guarding the Islamic Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, the Ottomans marched southward and eastward towards Arabia and Persia. But the conquest of Istanbul had opened the door to Europe, so the Ottomans also advanced westwards towards the Balkans. With the establishment of its Navy in the late 1400s, the Ottomans soon came in conflict with the seafaring Italian city states. By the beginning of the 1500s, however, the Ottomans had emerged as the dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean. These successes in turn paved the way for Ottoman seamen to enter the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, thereby threatening the European trade routes to the East, and bringing the Ottomans into conflict with the Portuguese.

In the face of such expansion, European states endeavored to form alliances that would balance the power against the Ottomans. However, even the Pope's calls for holy war against the Turks in response to the conquest of Istanbul was not sufficient to overcome the individual political and economic interests of the European states and create a unified counter-force. Rather, European states struggled independently against the Ottomans, with the Hapsburgs fighting the Ottomans in the Balkans, and the Portuguese and Venetians fighting the Ottomans in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. For the Europeans, the main concern was commercial, and this quest for alternate trade routes to India as well as new trading partners sparked the "Voyages of Discovery" that led to the Portuguese successfully discovering a way around the Cape of Good Hope, and Christopher Columbus discovering America in 1492.

Although Ottoman Sultans took interest in the Voyages of Discovery and followed European developments [1], as an Empire there was no concerted attempt to colonize or develop trade with the Americas as was being done by the Europeans. At that time, the Ottomans were the wealthiest empire in the world, and an average Ottoman had little reason to leave family, friends, and prosperity to struggle in the Americas. Additionally, Ottoman trading and military activity focused mostly on Northern Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East [2]. However, this does not mean that Ottomans never reached America. Like any other European, it was possible to pay for passage to America, and some Ottomans visited America in this way. For example, Hanna al-Mawsuli, a Syriac priest, traveled to the Americas aboard an English ship and documented his travels from 1668-1683 in a journal that was eventually published in 1906 [3]. And records of North Carolina Land Patents and Grants show that as early as 1635 some Turks were brought to the colonies as workers and laborers [4]. Thus, the trade that developed between the Americas and Europe, Europe and North Africa, and North Africa and the Middle East provided a link that on an individual scale permitted an intermingling of peoples.

But not all Ottomans came to the Americas willingly. Although some Ottoman seamen, soldiers and local townsmen captured during sea battles or sieges were returned to the Ottomans or exchanged for European captives, often times they were sold as galley slaves. Those who fell into slavery were used as labor on voyages to the Americas. Whether they returned to their native land in part depended on luck. For example, when Sir Francis Drake raided several of the Spanish holdings in America during 1585-1586, he liberated several hundred Turkish, Indian, and Negro prisoners and took them with him when he sailed north towards the English colony at Roanoke. It has been suggested that Drake took this assortment people with him to reinforce the colony, and he had promised the Turks he took with him freedom and repatriation to the Ottoman Empire [5]. However, while at Roanoke a furious storm sank several of his ships, and whether any of them were able to swim ashore is not known. But, when Drake returned to England, he did bring with him about 100 Turks and many of them did return to the Ottoman Empire. At this point it should be noted that anyone who was a subject of the Ottoman Sultan was referred to as a "Turk". Drake's Turks may have come from any part of the Ottoman Empire, and been of any ethnicity, such as Turkish, Arabic, Berber, Slavic, or Greek.

Regardless of how they arrived, traces of the descendants of Ottoman subjects who arrived in America during the 16th-18th centuries can still be seen today. For example, the "Turks" of Sumter County, South Carolina claim descent from Joseph Benenhaly (Yusuf Ben Ali), an Arab from Northern Africa (then part of the Ottoman Empire), who came to America circa 1780. And, recent research done in the 1990s has brought to light indications that some of the ancestors of the Melungeons may have been Turkish.


The Melungeons are a mixed-ethnic population located primarily in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and southern West Virginia. No one really knows when the Melungeons were first discovered, or even when they first came to America, but the first documented encounter of Melungeons by the Anglo-Saxon settlers from Europe was by Tennessee governor John Sevier in 1774. Although Melungeons themselves claimed they were of Portuguese or Turkish origin, for many years they were listed either as having indeterminate origin, or as a mixture of white, Indian, and Negro heritage. Because of their darker skin color, American census takers refused to categorize Melungeons as white, and instead recorded them as “free persons of color” or mulatto.

The use of the term “free persons of color” to categorize Melungeons had more consequences than issues of identity and origin: legally only whites were allowed to vote, attend public education, and own land - colored people were not. Thus, many Melungeon families had their lands taken away from them, and their children barred from attending "white" schools. Many also shared the fate of deported Indian tribes: many Melungeon families were forced to move to Oklahoma with the Cherokee Indians in 1834 during a forced relocation that has since come to be known as the "Trail of Tears." Although during the Civil War some Melungeons fought back by forming what came to be known as the "Melungeon Marauders," an armed band that exacted revenge on those who had taken their land, such actions only lead to even greater prejudices against them after the war. Such discriminatory practices continued into the 20th century, only diminishing with the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, which legally ended the United States’ skin-color based discriminatory practices.

To avoid being categorized incorrectly as “colored,” Melungeons avoided census takers and tried to conceal their true origins as much as possible. Parents would dress their children in long-sleeve clothes, even in the heat of summer, to prevent their skin from turning black. Photos and family records were burned and past mistreatment was denied to conceal Melungeon ancestry and avoid being look down upon by white Americans. As a result, the true number of Americans with Melungeon ancestry is unknown. Indeed, some Americans may not even be aware of their true roots, and believe themselves to be Anglo-Saxon.

Increasingly, however, Melungeons have been researching their roots, genealogy, and family history. The theory that had been advanced by the establishment for so long - the mixed white, Indian, and Negro heritage of Melungeons - is being shattered by the bulk of evidence that has come forth indicating that the very first Melungeon claims to Portuguese [6] and Turkish ancestry has merit – only later did Melungeons mix with Indians, and perhaps some Negroes.

Aside from the historical evidence that indicates that some Ottomans came to the Americas, there is also a significant amount of linguistic, cultural, medical, and genetic evidence that points to a Mediterranean and Ottoman connection to Melungeons. Examples of similar linguistic and cultural attributes are too numerous to list in its entirely here, but a few examples follow:

  • Allegheny, a mountain range in the eastern United States, may have come from "Allah genis", meaning "God's vastness";

  • Alabama, a southern state in the United States, may have come from "Allah bamya", meaning "God's graveyard";

  • Arkansas, a southern state in the United States, may have come from "Ar Kan Sah", meaning "where shamed blood lives";

  • Choctow, the name of an Indian tribe, may have come from "Çok Dal" meaning "many descendants";

  • Kentucky, a mid-west US state, may have come from "Kan Tok", meaning "filled with blood";

  • Niagara, a waterfall along the US-Canadian border, may have come from "Ne Yaygara" meaning "huge noise";

  • Pamunkey, the name of an Indian tribe, may have come from "Pamuk Iyi", meaning "Good Cotton,” a description that makes even more sense if you consider that the Pamunkey Indians lived in an area know for its cotton farms.

The word "melungeon" itself may have Turkish or Arabic origins. "Melun can" in Turkish and "melun jinn" in Arabic both mean "damned or cursed soul." Furthermore, some Melungeons have names which are clearly Anglicized versions of Turkish names or of places in Anatolia. For example, Danize (from Deniz), Vardeman (from Var Duman), Ollie (from Ali) and Adana (a city in southern Turkey). That many Melungeons have Anglican or Irish last names does not refute the Turkish connection: at that time Turks did not carry last names, and considering the discriminatory practices prevalent during those times, any Melungeon would want to appear as white or Anglican as possible by adopting English or Western European last names. Finally, Melungeons and Turks also share a common mannerism: tossing the head back with a slight vocal clicking to indicate "No" (çik).

Additionally, Turks and Melungeons share other cultural similarities: Typical Melungeon meals are similar to old Ottoman meals; Melungeon quilts include tulip designs which were common in Ottoman kilims and carpets; patterns of Cherokee quilt designs were similar to those Ottomans incorporated in the wooden lids of backgammon boards; Turkish folk dances share similar steps to Melungeon dances; the garb of Cherokee Chief Sequoya is similar to that worn by 16th century Ottoman seamen, and included the wear of a turban; and the Creek Indians actually wore a fez, a type of headgear that was characteristic of the Ottomans during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Medical, genetic and physiological similarities also exist. Melungeons have come down with sarcoidosis, Behçet's Syndrome and Machado-Joseph Disease, which are also common to peoples of the Mediterranean Sea region. Melungeons also sport a bump on the back of the head that is common to peoples from Central Asia, and have drooping eye folds that are also common to Asians. Finally, a 1990 gene study [7] comparing the genes of Melungeons with those of other world populations show similarities between Melungeons and peoples in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Cyprus, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon - countries of which many had been part of the Ottoman Empire - a result consistent with the Portuguese/Turkish ancestry theory of Melungeons.

We will probably never know for certain what happened specifically to the Ottomans who came to America in the 16th - 18th centuries. Perhaps some of them perished in the harshness of the American wilderness. But there are good indications that many of them in fact lived, and unable to return to their families in the Ottoman Empire, mixed with other similarly stranded or disadvantaged populations that came to America. Thus, the Melungeons include not just Spanish, Portuguese, Indians and Africans, but also Turks, Arabs, Berbers, Slavs, Greeks, and other ethnic groups from the Ottoman Empire. It is this mosaic which comprises the true ancestry of Melungeons [8].

Since the first public presentation of the possible Turkish ancestry of Melungeons in the early 1990s, research efforts have led to a new closeness and relationship between Melungeons and modern day Turks. The Melungeon Heritage Society has become a member organization of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations. The University of Virginia at Wise and Dumlupinar Univeristy in Ankara have established faculty and student exchange programs. The towns of Wise, Virginia and Çesme, Turkey have become sister cities. The main street in Çesme has even been renamed to Wise, in honor the Melungeons [9]. Melungeons have visited Turkey as a group on several occasions [10], and these visits have been reciprocated by Turks visiting the Appalachian regions of America where Melungeons traditionally resided. After the devastating earthquake in 1999, some Melungeon families even offered to adopt Turkish children who were left without family or home by the earthquake [11]. Ties have even extended to economic relations, with Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia supporting an Appalachian-Turkish Trade Project [12], and moral support, with Melungeons being supportive to Turkish efforts with regards to the Armenian Question [13].

Thus, regardless of what is thought of theories concerning Melungeon ancestry, the ties of friendship between Melungeons and Turks is sure to prove valuable for all Turkish-Americans.


Nevertheless, the first immigrants to come from the Ottoman Empire and maintain their Turkish identity can be traced to the mid-1800s. It is difficult to know exactly how many Turks were in America during that time primarily because immigrants from the Ottoman Empire included a variety of ethnic groups - Greeks, Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Bulgarians - as well as Turks. A census done in 1820 indicates that there were only 21 Turks in the United States at that time. Over the next century, this number was to grow dramatically. For the period of 1820 to 1930, the United States admitted 155,136 immigrants from the European part of the empire and 205,035 immigrants from the Asian part of the empire [14]. Most of these immigrants came after 1900, and most of them were not ethnic Turks, but members of the minority groups within the Ottoman Empire [15].

The United States was attractive to 19th century immigrants for primarily two reasons: political and economical. Politically, the United States advertised itself as a safe haven for anyone trying to escape oppression. For the minorities of the Ottoman Empire, who desired independence and were organizing rebellions, the United States provided a base to operate from. Minorities, in particular Armenians and Greeks, could come to the United States, become American citizens, and then actively engage in activities to subvert the Ottoman regime. Should they be caught, they would simply claim immunity from prosecution by displaying their American citizenship cards. To counter this, in 1863 the Ottoman regime enacted a provision stating that "If he [an Ottoman citizen] has naturalized himself as a foreigner without the preliminary authorization of the Imperial Government, his naturalization will be considered null and void, and he will continue to be considered and treated in all respects as an Ottoman subject." [16] Usually, such permission was not granted unless the emigrant agreed either to never return, or upon return, to regard himself as an Ottoman subject. Thus, almost all Ottoman immigrants in practicality left Turkey without permission, thereby putting the Ottomans in direct conflict with the American principle of free expatriation. In 1898, the Commissioner General of Immigration for the United States investigated Ottoman claims to misconduct on the part of certain naturalized Americans who returned to Ottoman dominions, and reported that indeed, such persons never intended to return to the United States and were not American citizens in any sense of the word. In 1893, President Cleveland stated to Congress that the Ottoman government claims were not without merit, and that certain Armenian language journals in New York, "openly counseled its readers to arm, organize, and participate in movements for the subversion of Ottoman authority in the eastern provinces of Asia Minor." [17] Nevertheless, American principles concerning free expatriation and its desire to protect its naturalized citizens regardless of where they were in the world continued to place the United States government in conflict with the Ottomans, even through the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. This situation also meant that prospective immigrants to the United States were required to board foreign ships sailing for Europe and the Americas in secret, taking advantage of the Ottoman Empire’s being on the verge of collapse.

The main cause for immigration to the United States, however, was economic in nature. The United States was reaping the rewards of the Industrial Revolution, and news of economic prosperity, opportunity and riches had spread even to the smallest Turkish village. The main objective of the Turkish immigrants was to find employment and work long enough to enable them to return home rich by Turkish standards. Additionally, the immigrants were all male: America was a far-away unknown place, and Turkish men preferred to leave their wives and children in the safety of their village, especially since they were planning to return soon.

Once in America, Turks found work as laborers in factories first in New York City, and later in Boston, Detroit, and other northeastern industrial centers. They were hard workers, and saved every penny they could to send back home. Turkish immigrants usually lived on the same street in town, shared living accommodations, cooked together, went to work as a group, and enjoyed the times they were not working together too. Turkish coffeehouses flourished in neighborhoods where there were many Turkish immigrants, and time was past playing backgammon, sipping tea or coffee, and wrestling. Turkish immigrants maintained their Anatolian lifestyle as much as possible. They slept on mattresses, sometimes even sleeping outside on a balcony or in a garden when the weather was hot. They continued to eat Turkish food, sing Turkish songs, dance Turkish dances, and were observant Muslims. Many Turks did not even find it necessary to learn English. Since they often worked in the same places, only one Turk knowing English was sufficient for all the Turks to communicate with their bosses.

But working conditions were not as easy as they thought it would be. During the early 1900s, the United States had no labor laws to enforce minimum standards on employers to ensure workers' health, safety, and a fair wage. The newest immigrants were often given the hardest, least desirable jobs - jobs that no native born American wanted to do. And employers often discriminated among immigrant workers. Irish, English, German, and French Canadian workers were commonly classed with American workers and given preferential treatment. On the other hand, Turkish workers had to overcome enormous odds before he was promoted and moved out of the most unwanted jobs.

The image of the "Terrible Turk" that ravaged and raped Europe, that fought against Christianity during the Crusades, and continued to threaten Europe through alliance with Germany was carried by almost all Americans. This prejudice not only affected employment prospects, but also inhibited the ease with which Turks assimilated in American society. Muslims remained outside mainstream Christian America. American women who chose to marry Turkish men were stigmatized - some families would not visit or see their daughter's children, and sometimes families even publicly disowned a daughter who married a Turk.

The onset of World War I was a turning point for many Turks who had come to America. They began to worry about their families back home, and about their male relatives who would be called into combat should the Ottomans join the war. Several hundred Turks immediately decided to go home and joined the Ottoman Army, preparing for whatever was to come. Most Turks however, decided to stay in America, hoping that neither the United States nor the Ottomans would get involved in the European war. But when the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies, some Turks enlisted in the American military. Turks did not mind fighting as long as it was not against Turkey, and one Turk was reported to have been killed in France [18] although the exact number of Turks who died fighting for America in World War I is not known.

The truly shocking news to the Turkish-American community came on November 13, 1918, the day Allied forces occupied Istanbul and several other Turkish ports on the Mediterranean Sea. American news reports were very partisan in nature, supportive of the occupying Allied forces. When that news was followed by news of the Greek invasion of Turkey, the response from the Turks was immediate. Fights broke out between Turks and Greeks in factories and streets. About half of the Turkish community in the United States packed up all of their belongings, along with their life savings, and returned to Turkey to fight against the invading foreign forces in what is now known as the Turkish War for Independence.

A second exodus of Turks occurred during the Great Depression. The conditions of the factories and the stress of the life in America disillusioned many Turks who had come here with high hopes. The tuberculosis that had swept through Europe and America also claimed many lives among the Turkish immigrants due to their close living quarters. Many feared dying and being buried on non-Muslim soil; some even made arrangements to have their bodies sent back to Turkey if they passed away in the United States. Many were just plain homesick. During this time, Turkey was also in need of healthy, able-bodied Turkish men. The Independence War had been a drain on the Turkish male population, and the country needed people to help with the reconstruction. When Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk sent Turkish ships to America, offering free passage home to any Turk who would leave, many Turks took up the offer and returned to Turkey. Of the Turks who came to the United States from 1899 to 1924, an estimated 86% went back to Turkey [19]. With the passage of the Johnson-Reed Quota Act in 1924, immigration from Turkey was also restricted to about 200 per year so that by 1940 only 104,000 Turks - less than 1/3 the original population - remained in the United States.


The next distinct wave of Turkish immigrants came after the end of World War II. But these immigrants were different from previous immigrants because they were usually educated professionals (not laborers) and also included many women and children. Most blue-collar Turks preferred to immigrate to Europe, because of its closer proximity to Turkey and cheaper travel fares. While many educated Turks also went to Europe, America was particularly attractive because of its solid university system and job opportunities. Especially after the lifting of quotas in 1965, substantial immigration from Turkey began again, resulting what has often been termed a “brain drain.” The extent of increase in immigration can be clearly seen from the following table based on INS statistics [20].

Time Period No. of Immigrants
1931-1940 1,065
1941-1950 798
1951-1960 3,519
1961-1970 10,142

Current immigration rates total several thousand a year; for example, the INS reports 3,675 Turkish immigrants during the 1996 fiscal year. In addition to these immigrants, however, there is also a substantial number of Turks who were admitted to the United States as non-immigrants. In 1996, the INS reports a total of 64,351 Turkish citizens who came to the United States, of which 11,518 were aged 15-24 and 18,978 were aged 25-34. From these numbers, the number of Turks who came as students for university study can be estimated to be on the order of 10-20 thousand per year. While many of those students return to Turkey [21], many also find employment in the United States and eventually become US citizens. Current estimates of the total Turkish population in America are around 300,000 [22].

For post World War II Turkish immigrants, return migration is minimal; however, many maintain ties to Turkey. Most Turks maintain dual citizenship – to give up Turkish citizenship is psychologically equivalent to rejecting their Turkish roots, something very few are willing to do. The development of air travel has also permitted financially well-off families to visit their native land during vacations, thereby enabling Turks to see family members still in Turkey, and to enable their children to stay in touch with their heritage. Furthermore, the advent of the internet and email has also permitted Turkish-Americans instant access to news reports in Turkey, and youth can tap into chat channels to keep in touch with friends in Turkey.

The establishment of regional Turkish-American associations has also enabled Turks to keep in touch with other countrymen, and organize Turkish cultural and social activities. The oldest association, the Turkish Cultural Alliance of New York, was established in 1933 and remained the sole formal association until 1956, with the establishment of the Federation of Turkish American Associations. The late 1950s and 1960s saw a blossoming of associations, so that nowadays every region in the United States has some sort of local association. Many of the associations of Turkic peoples from the Caucases, Central Asia, and Cyprus (Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Kazaks, Kirgiz, Karacay, Crimean Tatar, Turkish Cypriot, etc) are also included in the national organizations of Turkish-American associations. Because of the influx of Turkish students, almost every American university now also has a Turkish Student Association, which typically interacts with the local Turkish-American associations. This interaction has also resulted in the establishment of “Turkish schools” at major universities. These are informal schools which provide for language instruction and exposure to Turkish culture for Turkish children born in the United States. Often, instructors are Turkish university students and parents. In some schools, professional teachers are brought in from Turkey. For example, the Atatürk School established by the Association of Turkish-American Women in 1971 and the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk School established by the Turkish American Community Center in 1995 both bring in native Turks trained as teachers. Instruction is typically on Sunday, designed to coincide with the time that Christian Americans attend church, and includes classes on Turkish, the geography and history of Turkey, and Turkish folk dancing and music.


As a community, however, Turkish-Americans face several challenges, the primary being in relations with Armenian-Americans and Greek-Americans. On an individual level, Turks, Armenians, and Greeks get along fine – in fact, some Turks find good friends among the Greeks and Armenians because of the similar culture they share that developed over the centuries that they were all part of the Ottoman Empire.

However, historical disputes continue to bring the communities into conflict. Armenian allegations that Turks massacred Armenians in 1915 has deeply divided Turks and Armenians – both in their respective countries, and in the United States. While initially maintaining a “noble silence” on the subject, Turkish-Americans were jolted into action by the advent of Armenian Terrorism during the 1970s and 1980s. Armenian terrorists used the issue as “moral justification” for assassinating or attacking over 30 Turkish diplomats in the United States and in Europe [23]. Attacks were not limited to Turks – on October 4, 1977, the home of UCLA Professor Stanford Shaw was bombed. Although such terrorism has subsided, Armenians continue to try to discredit scholars who question their version of the Armenian Question. Princeton University Professor Bernard Lewis was sued by Armenians for stating that in his opinion there was no evidence to justify allegations that the Turkish state ordered a genocide of Armenians [24], and Armenian protests were successful in dissuading UCLA from accepting a 1 million dollar grant from Turkey to establish a Turkish and Ottoman History Chair [25]. Furthermore, Armenian efforts to pass “Armenian Genocide Recognition” legislation, to introduce “Armenian Genocide education” in public schools, the use of TV to advertise the alleged Genocide, the erection of monuments and even neon lighted signs proclaiming, “Remember the Genocide of Armenians in 1915,” all create an atmosphere in which Turks are under siege and continually forced to defend themselves.

A similar dynamic exists in relations with Greeks. The main source of friction between Greeks and Turks is Cyprus and the Aegean Islands. As an example of the kind of bickering that is characteristic of the two communities, consider the interaction between Turkish and Greek Student Associations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Every time Greeks post a panel about Cyprus, accusing Turks of “invading,” and slaughtering Greeks, Turks respond by protesting in the student newspaper, “The Tech.” Thus, the verbal fighting proceeds in a very public way in The Tech [26]. At one point, such disputes got so caustic that even a dean of the university had to intercede and declare a “cease fire” – banning both groups from publicly quarreling [27]. At a national level, Greeks also politically support Armenian efforts with regards to the Armenian Question, and have even taken action to prevent the production of a movie about Atatürk, by pressuring actor Antonio Banderas to refuse the lead role of Atatürk. In a massive mail-campaign to Banderas, Greek-Americans accused Atatürk of “denying the Armenian Genocide, and of the genocide of 350,000 Greeks of the Pontic region, a holocaust of Greeks and Armenians in Smyrna, and ethnic cleansing of cleansing of Greeks.” [28] Letters further included such insulting remarks such as calling Ataturk a “savage maniac” who was a “child molester.” [29] This is but one example of how Turkish history is distorted through such propaganda campaigns.


Undoubtedly, American views of Turks are significantly effected by the actions of the Armenian-American and Greek-American communities. Not only do they mislead Americans and defame Turks, but actions that affect academia and public education also inhibit Americans from learning both sides of historical controversies. Currently American public schools teach next to nothing about Turks or Turkey aside from the Crusades and mentioning the Ottoman involvement in World War I on the side of the Germans. The movie “Gallipoli” is shown in class to teach about the Battle of Gallipoli, emphasizing that Turks were “the enemy” and never mentioning that in fact it was the Allies who were invaders. Should Armenian efforts to introduce “Armenian Genocide” education be successful, not only will a very one-sided view of history be presented, but Americans will be yet again be sent the message that Turks are wicked and brutal. Even as a middle school student at Clark Middle School, Lexington, Massachusetts from 1987-1990, the author of this article was taunted by other children by being called a “murderer” of “2 million Armenians.”

A populace uneducated about Turks and Turkey such as the general American population is also very influenced by the media and the press. News reports from Turkey are almost exclusively about disasters, instability in the government, terrorist bombings, or disparaging reports about the Army’s battle with the PKK that accuse the Turkish Army of slaughtering innocent Kurds. The author has personally met Americans who think that Turkey is a dictatorship, or an Islamic state – they are in shock when told that Turkey is in fact a secular democracy, that Turks do not run around in turbans, that they do not speak Arabic, and that Turkish is written with a Latin script. And films like the “Midnight Express” have tremendously influenced Americans to fear both Turks and Turkey, and has been a major source of prejudice against Turks [30]. To this day, there are still Americans who are afraid to go to Turkey lest they be arrested and go to a Turkish jail. In contrast, Americans who actually visit Turkey or have Turkish friends hold the exact opposite impression, describing Turkey as a wonderful place and Turkish people as very friendly and warm.

Unfortunately, Turkish-American efforts to organize against the misinformation of the Armenian- and Greek-American lobbies has proven ineffective. Most individual Turks are more interested with their daily lives and do not want to spend valuable time arguing with “misguided, baseless accusations.” Those few Turks who are politically active in Turkish-American organizations and wish to fight Armenian allegations in Congress and the school board are very small in number when compared to the numbers of Armenians and Greeks. Sometimes, the Turkish-American community itself is divided by Turkish politics. Furthermore, Turkish organizations have much less financial resources than Armenian and Greek organizations, and Turks who do have money often prefer to donate it to cultural causes as opposed to political battles. For example, Turkish engineer and founder of Hittite Microwave, Dr. Yalçin Ayasli, established the Turkish Culture Foundation in January 2000, and in April 2001 donated $350,000 for the Ayasli Fund for Turkish Language Studies at the University of Chicago [31]. The Turkish-American aversion to politics is also evident by the fact that they have virtually no members in government, politics, or journalism.

Nevertheless, Turkish-Americans continue to be highly successful in their professional lives, with well known members in fields such as science, engineering, music, and business. Dr. Kenan Sahin founded Kenan Systems, now part of Lucent Technologies. Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegün became millionaires after founding the Atlantic Recording Corporation in the late 1940s and became high placed executives in Warner Communications. Scores of Turks are well known professors in various areas of science, engineering, and medicine. Even David Chokachi, one of the lead actors in the TV series “Baywatch” is half-Turkish from his father’s side.

Thus, the increasing number of 2nd and 3rd generation Turks as well as continued immigration from Turkey will not only make the Turkish community more well established, but will also increase America’s understanding of Turks, and contribute to America’s strength far into the future.


[1] In 1513, Ottoman cartographer and sea captain Piri Reis drew the oldest map of the Americas based on questioning sailors who had traveled with Columbus. This map was presented to Sultan Selim I in 1517. Piri Reis also wrote a major geographical work entitled "Kitab-i Bahriye" or the Book of Sea Lore, which he completed in 1521. An expanded version of his Book of Sea Lore was presented to Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent in 1526, and in it he describes in detail the Voyages of Discovery, European seafaring methods, and the Americas. For more information, see Andrew Hess, "Piri Reis and the Ottoman Response to the Voyages of Discovery", Terrae Incognitae 6, 1974, pp 19-37.

[2] The extent of the voyages of Turkish seamen is still under active research through both the Ottoman Archives and the records of the Navy. English archives show that some ships destined for the Americas were intercepted in the Atlantic Ocean by North African or Turkish pirates [Nabil Matar, "Turks Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery." Columbia University Press, New York, 1999]. And some believe Ottoman seaman Murat Reis may have sailed his fleet to North America [N. Brent Kennedy, "Melungeon Research Team Completes Filming in Turkey", Gowen Research Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 11, July 1995].

[3] Hanna Al-Mawsuli . "Rihla". Edited by Antoon Rabbat al-Yasooi'i. Beirut, Catholic Press, 1906 cited in Matar, "Turks", 1999.

[4] N. Brent Kennedy, "The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People." Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia, 1997, pp 165.

[5] David B. Quinn, "Turks, Moors, Blacks, and Others in Drake's West Indian Voyage." Terrae Incognitae 14, 1982, pp 97-104.

[6] A discussion of the history of the Portuguese aspect of Melungeon history will not be presented in this article, but for a more detailed presentation of the Portuguese and Spanish connection to the Melungeons, see Kennedy, "Melungeons", pp. 108-119.

[7] James L. Guthrie, "Melungeons: Comparisons of Gene Distributions to Those of Worldwide Populations," Tennessee Anthropologist 15/1, Spring 1990 cited in Kennedy, "Melungeons," pp. 147.

[8] It should be noted that some Turkish journalists have referred to Melungeons as the "Melungeon Turks" (Meluncan Türkleri). In fact, such terminology is incorrect, as it implies that Melungeons are some kind of Turkish tribe, like the Kazaks or Kirgiz - which is not the case.

[9] Carol Morello. "Beneath Myth, Melungeons Find Roots of Oppression." Washington Post, May 30, 2000, pp. A10.

[10] "Melungeons Visit Turkey" Office of the Prime Minister, Directorate General of Press and Information, Newspot #5, 1997 and "Meluncan Türkleri Anitkabir'de" Superhaber Online, 12 June, 1998.

[11] "Meluncan Society Wants to Adopt Child Victims of Quake." Anadolu News Agency, 4 September, 1999.

[12] "This Historical Tragedy Hits Closer Than We Think." Bristol Herald Courier, March 27, 2001.

[13] "This Historical Tragedy Hits Closer Than We Think." Bristol Herald Courier, March 27, 2001 and "Soykirim Tartismasi Yine Gündemde." Özgür Politika, March 4, 2000.

[14] Frank Ahmed. "Turks in America: The Ottoman Turk's Immigrant Experience." Columbia International, USA, 1993.

[15] Precise statistics are not known, but Ahmed estimates that 45,000-65,000 ethnic Turks immigrated to the United States prior to the First World War. [Ahmed, "Turks in America", pp 108] Based on emigration statistics, Leland Gordon estimates that 5% of immigrants from the Ottoman Empire, or roughly 18,000 of the immigrants were of Turkish ethnicity. [L. Gordon, "The Turkish American Controversy over Nationality", American Journal of International Law, Vol 25, Issue 4, October 1931, pp. 668] And Talat Sait Halman estimates that "of about 360,000 immigrants from Ottoman Turkey in the period 1820-1950, probably less than 10 percent [or 36,000] were Turks." [Halman, Talat Sait. "Turks" in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, 1980.]

[16] Gordon, "The Turkish American Controversy," 1931, pp. 660.

[17] Gordon, "The Turkish American Controversy," 1931, pp. 661.

[18] Ahmed, "Turks in America," pp. 40.

[19] Halman, "Turks," pp. 993.

[20] Halman, “Turks,” pp. 994.

[21] Many government sponsored scholarships for graduate study abroad require that students return to Turkey upon graduation to combat the “brain drain.” However, students can escape this requirement by paying back their scholarships. Some students find employment in the US to save money for this purpose.

[22] Estimate of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations.

[23] A complete listing of Armenian terrorist attacks and killed diplomats can be found from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site: http://www.mfa.gov.tr.

[24] Dalia Karpel. “There was no Genocide.” Haaretz Daily, Jerusalem, January 23, 1998. [An interview with Prof. Lewis about the trials.]

[25] Kenneth Weiss. “Strings on Foreign Aid Trouble Colleges.” The Los Angeles Times, Nov. 24, 1997.

[26] See the following columns in The Tech: K. Limon and L. Talgar, “Infinite Corridor Posters Push Fascism for Cyprus” (October 14, 1994), C. Dellarocas, “Turkish Allegations Are Exercise in Absurdity” (October 21, 1994), C. Hadjicostis, “Turkish Students Misinterpreted Infinite Corridor Posters” (October 21, 1994), S. Keskin, “Biased Opinions on Cyprus Issue Bode Ill for Peace” (October 28, 1994), and C. Athanasiadis, “Turkey Deserves More Blame for Cyprus” (Nov. 1, 1994).

[27] Based on author’s experience as an undergraduate and graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1993-2000 and as a member of the Turkish Student Association.

[28] Michael Javelos, Associate Director of the American Hellenic Media Project, “Crimes Against Humanity – A Legacy of Ataturk.” New York Times Letter to the Editor, July 20, 1998.

[29] Stephen Kinzer, “Banderas Quits Controversial Film About Turkish Leader.” New York Times, July 16, 1998.

[30] For example, a Turkish prisoner who spent 15 years in an American jail was denied parole because the wardens believed he still had not atoned for the sins of the “Midnight Express.” More examples are provided in Haluk Sahin, “Midnight Express 20 Years Later: A Turkish Nightmare.” New Perspectives Quarterly, Fall 1998, Vol. 15, No. 5, pp. 21-22.

[31] The Turkish American Cultural Society of New England Bulletin, July 2001.


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