Lakonian Emigration

This summer in Areopoli, Mani, I visited the one-of-a-kind Adouloti Mani bookstore. The owner, Georgios Dimakogiannis, is also a publisher and his store is a treasure for anyone seeking information about the southern Peloponnese and Mani in particular.

In his magazine, Adouloti Mani – Laconia Odos, Issue 3, 2019, was an article about emigration from Lakonia in the early 1900’s. That was the experience of all four of my Spartan grandparents, and I wanted very much to read the story. I tackled the translation using a dictionary and online translators. It is by no means exact and it is somewhat redacted, but it certainly illuminated for me the realities of their experience. I scanned the original article and it can be accessed here. If you read Greek, you may prefer to read that untouched version which also has additional photos.

Lakonian Emigration

by Donald-George McPhail  (author, researcher, historian)
published in Adouloti Mani – Laconia Odos, Issue 3, 2019

From 1896 to 1921, more than 400,000 inhabitants emigrated from Greece. The legend of America as the “land of promise” and as a refuge for emigrants around the world  undoubtedly permeated Laconia. The years of misery that plagued the predominantly rural population—agricultural disasters, government mismanagement, uncertainty and insecurity, frequent military drafts, and grief over the loss of the war in Thessaly–caused thousands of Greeks to board foreign ships and emigrate. They left haunted by poverty, with the sorrows of their homeland in their hearts, and trusted that things will change in the New World. They believed that in this way they would pay off their homes, marry off  their sisters, and help their parents, their families, and their villages. They hoped that in a few years they would return rich, honored and equipped for a better life.

Emigration was also due to the fact that the demand for labor was greater in America and the wages paid were much higher than in the immigrant’s home country. The Greeks who immigrated to overseas countries had no qualifications other than physical fitness. They were illiterate, naive and innocent deprived people who had no awareness of their power, nor of course their rights.

Greek Immigration to the USA


  1. First Immigration: 1873-1899; 15,000
  2. The Great Wave: 1900-1917; 450,000
  3. The Last Exodus: 1918-1924; 70,000
  4. The Era of Restrictions: 1925-1946; 30,000

Preparation for Departure

The trials of the poor and destitute migrants, who cared little for amenities they had never tasted, began long before the trip. Most were unaware of the great difficulties that awaited them in the New World, which hundreds of immigration brokers presented as the Promised Land.  The trip required a lot of money, and the loan agents were looking for security. So, among the emigrants  were many small farmers with mortgaged land.  Even for the very poor and the landless, there was a way. They were bound by employment contracts and so they paid off their fares, as slaves literally, by working in the railways or mines.

Usually the departures of the ocean liners, especially the Greek ones, were festive. The decks were packed by immigrants who waved their handkerchiefs to those who led them, along with the curious crowds who thronged the pier. The band of the municipality played, the ship’s whistles blew, and flags decorated the ship and pier. Last greetings were exchanged with those poor immigrants who had left their hometown and had lived for a few hours in Gythio and Kalamata.

Before 1907, the Greek transatlantic wave to America was overseen by foreign steamer companies until the establishment of the first Greek passenger line. The ports of departure were Piraeus and Patras. Subsequent Greek ocean liners were generally poor, small, slow-moving, and badly traveled trips without even the minimum comforts of a boat.

Life on Board

Judging by the horrible living conditions during the journey on the ships, especially those from 1907 to 1937, immigrants were considered as “cargo.” The third-class steerage areas beneath the main deck were packed with rows of iron or wooden double beds. Passengers were literally on top of each other in desperately narrow spaces. From the very first day, the crowds, the exuding fumes of vomit, the smell of passenger bodies and the lack of elementary cleanliness caused the atmosphere to be suffocating.

The bunks were filled with straw or seaweed. There were no chairs, stools, or  tables. Luggage, clothes, utensils and all belongings had to somehow fit  between the narrow beds. Separation of women passengers was impossible. In their quest for isolation, women hung clothes around their beds to create a rudimentary curtain. The women had the opportunity to dress before eating breakfast and leaving their compartments. They could not arrive late or there would be no food available. Usually, they were not as harassed by their male passengers as by the crew men.

Upon boarding, each passenger was given a spoon, a fork and a tin cup. When breakfast was announced, everyone crowded into an open area as there was no dedicated dining room except for a space with a few tables and benches where women and children would usually sit. The men had to go through the serving area and then find some place to eat, or go out on the windswept open deck.

For ventilation, the law provided for two small “windshields” for every fifty passengers. These “windshields” ended up on the main deck, which was usually a short distance from the surface of the sea, causing third-class passengers to be sprayed with frozen ocean water.

Baths were taken on open decks between seats and compartments.  Showers were in small iron “cabins” and the water was seawater. Needless to say, passengers rarely used them. They were used for washing dishes and clothes, without soap or towels and with cold salty water.

The ticket issuing agencies described the food as healthy and nutritious.  In reality, however, it was so poorly cooked that many found it inedible. The only exception to the whole trip was the last meal before arrival, a supper that could smell like delicacies such as fried potatoes.  The farewell dinner dinner was intended to give pleasure to the next day’s arrival and inspection by the health authorities.

Various states had been slow to adopt provisions for the proper transport of passengers, resulting in steamboat companies exploiting the unfortunate immigrants. An American law stipulated that each passenger could have no less than 2.83 cubic meters. Two children under eight years were counted for one passenger. If this space was not available, the ship’s master had to pay a $50 fine per passenger, but there was never any control by authorities and no relevant fines were imposed.


When the ship anchored in America, a fleet of small boats encircled the ocean liner. Men from the Immigration and the Public Health Services boarded the ship and quickly passed through the first and second class cabins, giving a cursory inspection of the passengers in those seats. They then went down to the “fragrant” compartments where the third-class passengers were to examine each traveler. This was the most time-consuming part of their job. When the Public Health people reboarded their boat to go to other vessels, the ship raised the anchor and  slowly headed to the port of New York Harbor, traveling through the fumes of the tugboat towing it.

Upon  arrival, the immigrants’ day was just beginning. After an endless wait on the ship for the checks to be completed, they began to finally descend the staircase of the ship, loaded with their luggage. So overloaded, they headed to the Aliens Service boats waiting for them to take them to the famous Ellis Island known to the Greek immigrants as “Castigari” (from Castle Garden).

Ellis Island

Ellis Island, off Manhattan, was the main hub for immigrants arriving in America from the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. There, immigrants were put to the final test, undergoing medical examinations to approve their entry into the United States.  There was tight control for medical conditions that were contagious. Most passed the check and then forgot the hassles of traveling. But if someone was ill or unbalanced he was obliged to return to the port and surrender to the steamship company for repatriation. These unfortunates were sent back to their homeland at company expense, a fact which made steamship companies careful when selecting passengers.

When stringent requirements for trachoma and other contagious diseases were understood, health authorities in Greece examined travelers and checked for trachoma because eye disease would prevent entrance into America. Ophthalmologists in Greece were stationed in Ageranos, Mani and elsewhere in Laconia where prospective immigrants went to make sure they had no contagious conditions or, if they did, to make them well.


The immigrants, after endless suffering, were finally admitted onto the new Promised Land where other adventures began for them. Most newcomers, at least in the early years, stayed in New York and New Jersey. There were small hotels and small shops owned by Greeks, who welcomed them when they were unloaded from the boats that brought them to the south of Manhattan from the Ellis Island. The city was expensive and most had less than thirty dollars in their pockets, so they were in a hurry to continue their journey.

The Greeks who progressed in America were mostly employed in textiles, heavy industry, coal mines and railroads. They often worked for twelve hours and lived in unhealthy homes, cramped in small rooms. Life for Greeks working in the mines and on the railroads was especially difficult. They lived in tents or wooden huts and their diet was very poor. The savage exploitation of underage children, who worked as “blackboots” [the shoeshine business operated by  compatriots] prompted the intervention of American and Greek consular officers.

I don’t think there is a Lakonian that doesn’t have a relative, even a remote one, in America. At the beginning of the previous century, thousands with the hope for a better tomorrow left for the distant continent.

On the Internet, the Ellis Island archives are available, the small island in New York in which all immigrants were registered. While researching for immigrants to America, I worked with this website and found information about Ligerian residents who immigrated to America between 1892 and 1924. For those who don’t know, Ligereas (Λυγερέας) is the smallest local district of the municipality of Gythio and is my wife’s village. I found details of the Ligerian immigrants where their disembarkation was recorded at Ellis Island, a few hours before they were “sucked” into the new land. I found over 190 residents in 32 arrivals reports which contained valuable information that even today’s descendants did not know.


Photo Credits:  All photos are from Mr. McPhail’s original article.
Note:  Mr. McPhail is half Scot, half Greek and he married a Greek lady from Mani. He never went back to England he raised his family ​in Greece. His full name in Greek is written as Ντόναλντ-Γεώργιος Μακφαίηλ. (Many thanks to Marina Haramis for this information)








Crossing the Atlantic: The “Nea Hellas”

Prior to airplane travel in the 1950’s, cross-Atlantic journeys were by passenger ship. There were several which transported my ancestors from Greece to America. Some of those trips were their inaugural immigration travel; others were for return trips to visit family.

The Nea Hellas (Νέα Έλλας) was a popular vessel as it traveled directly from Piraeus to New York, unlike other ships which stopped at multiple ports. Its maiden voyage was May 19, 1939. With six decks, first, second (“tourist”) and third-class cabins and restaurants, it provided a comfortable one-week crossing for 800 passengers and 200 crew.

I was truly excited to see this article on the usa.greekreporter website which describes the history of Nea Hellas, with photos and the video below.

This ship transported some members of my Aridas family on their visits to Sparta

  • My grandmother, Harikleia Aridas Kostakos and her daughter, Afroditi, had traveled from Brooklyn, N.Y.  to Agios Ioannis, Sparta in 1939. The Nea Hellas brought them home on March 16, 1940. It was among the last ships to leave Piraeus before Hitler’s invasion of Greece and the deadly attack on that harbor on April 7, 1941.
  • My godfather, Peter George Aridas (Harikleia’s half brother) journeyed from Piraeas to Brooklyn on the Nea Hellas in June, 1953.
  • This March 15, 1950 newspaper article announcing the trip of my second cousin, Effrosyni Aridas Revelos:
    The Middletown [Ohio] Journal, News of Society
    Mrs. Nick Revelos of Harrison St. is in New York where she will leave Friday for Sparta, Greece.  She will leave on the tourist ship Nea Hellas which is arranged for by the Ahepans and Daughters of Penelope for members to tour the old country.  Mrs. Revelos will visit her family Mr. and Mrs. Michael Mihalakakos of St. John, Sparta Greece.  She will be gone for three months.  Bill Revelos will take the same trip and visit his family.

Our ancestors’ stories can be more fully told with the myriad of articles, photos and videos so easily available today. These resources enable us to almost visualize our ancestors’ experiences, enriching our lives and our understanding of theirs.

The USA Greek Reporter article can be found here:

Additional information about the Nea Hellas and peoples’ memories of this ship can be found on this website: Memories of the Nea Hellas.

Starting Anew: A New Citizen in a New Land

Becoming a citizen of a new country is an emotional and life-altering event. I saw this first hand on September 17, 2018 when I worked as a volunteer at a Naturalization Ceremony held at the National Archives in Washington. Thirty one new citizens from twenty-five countries renounced allegiance to their former homelands and pledged allegiance to the United States.

A new US citizen reviews the Oath of Allegiance she will recite

Prior to the ceremony, candidates met with officials of USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) to complete final paperwork and receive instructions on caring for their new Naturalization Certificate.

As we walked from the waiting room to the Archives Rotunda,  I sensed their anticipation as the end of a long process had finally arrived. I wondered what they were thinking–their thoughts for a new future here, their memories of their homeland and those left behind?

The Rotunda is ahead, and the end is near

The impressive Rotunda, home to our Charters of Freedom

Archivist David Ferreio and former ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, greet the new citizens

Throughout this ceremony, I kept thinking of my grandfather, John Andrew Kostakos, and many others in my family who strode the path of citizenship. Although 84 years has passed since my grandfather took the Oath of Allegiance, I imagine that his feelings and experiences were similar to these new citizens. I know my grandfather took great pride in his citizenship. He rose from being a peasant orphan to becoming a restauranteur, real estate owner, and successful businessman.

John Andrew Kostakos, Declaration of Intention, 1931

John Andrew Kostakos, Petition for Citizenship 1933

John Andrew Kostakos, Certificate of Arrival, 1930


John Andrew Kostakos, Oath of Allegiance, 1934

John Andrew Kostakos, proud citizen of the USA

We who are native citizens simply cannot comprehend the impact of this experience and all that preceded it:  saying goodbye to loved ones; leaving the village (often for the first time) and traveling to a port (by walking? donkey ride?); perhaps working for a few months at the port city to obtain funds for the journey and to have enough money to enter the U.S. (at least $50); the boat ride across the Atlantic; the Ellis Island arrival experience; connecting with friends and/or family in the U.S., finding work; deciding to become a citizen; going through the vigorous process of paperwork and exams; and finally raising the right hand to swear allegiance to a new land.

Whether then or now, the process requires grit and determination. Those who embark upon and complete this task exhibit strength and fortitude. They do this not only to  improve their own lives, but also to  ensure that their posterity will reap the blessings of their decision. Thank you, papou.

Family of John and Hariklia Aridas Kostakos, 1930. l-r standing: Frieda, Andrew, Pauline, Georgia. Seated: Hariklia, Alice, John


Two Perspectives: One Heritage


“It’s not the same here,” is a phrase that I frequently hear from Greek natives. “Genealogy research may be a priority for immigrants, but not for us.”  As a third generation American and the descendant of immigrant grandparents, I was surprised and somewhat bemused to find that people in Greece regard my research as interesting, but not necessarily relevant or important. Why?

My friend, Giannis Michalakakos, a Greek native, has patiently discussed this topic with me for hours. We recognize that there is a sharp difference between the two groups: an immigrant descendant is motivated by a quest for knowledge and identity; a native Greek is motivated by curiosity and a desire to delve more deeply into local history and culture.

Giannis placed genealogy in a broader historical context. He likened it to a pyramid where history builds upon itself—broadest at the base, to singular at the pinnacle. I scribbled a rough drawing as he spoke, and came up with this.


General historians begin at the bottom of the pyramid and move up. They study the basic foundation—global or world history—then progress into regional and local histories. The focus becomes narrower until the story of the family and its individuals are reached at the top. How does each category in the pyramid relate to the one below and above? What part did a village play in the history of the country? Or a family in the history of its village? Sometimes, individual leaders may rise in power to exert influence far beyond their locality—perhaps to lead a country to military victory or become a national leader who, in turn, influences world events.

Genealogical historians, in contrast, begin at the top of the pyramid and move down. The pattern is the same regardless of ethnicity or country of origin:  start with oneself, then gather information about parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and beyond. Learning about the village, and its relation to the larger region and country, usually comes as the researcher discovers the part his ancestor played within the community. At times, the researcher may study a local history to glean information about its families. The process is fluid and depends on the goals and interest of the researcher.

So, how does the pyramid relate to the differing views of genealogy by Greek natives and Immigrant descendants? To quote Giannis, “It all comes down to knowledge.”

A Greek native has knowledge about his family; therefore, his motivation may be one of curiosity, not identity. He has been raised with oral histories and can often recite his lineage back several generations. He or his parents/siblings may be living in a family home built by a great-great-grandparent. He may own land in his village of origin. He may interact regularly with second, third, and fourth cousins from both sides of his family. There is no need for genealogical research–he knows his identity. Rather, genealogy could be a tool to better understand local society, customs and history. Many small Greek villages are populated by just a few clans; thus, a study of  local history necessitates knowing the genealogy of the residents as well as their traditions.  Perhaps he is curious as to how his family fits into the larger historical context of the region and country. He may be motivated to learn if his ancestor received an aristea (award) for fighting in the Greek Revolution of 1821. He may be interested in studying the history of his village if it had been the headquarters of a bey (Turkish ruler) during the 1700’s. Perhaps his family started a business that provided financial security for people in his community.

Raised with strong traditions and steeped in culture, the Greek native is living his history.

In contrast, a typical third or fourth generation immigrant descendant is seeking identity. The farther removed from his immigrant ancestor, the dimmer his knowledge. He may not know the original family name as many newcomers shortened or entirely changed their names (Poulos – from Papadapoulos? Or Stathopoulos?). He may not know the exact village of origin (Arcadia? which village – there are hundreds!) He may have heard family stories whose details were lost in translation; or, perhaps, only parts of the story were passed down. His Greek language skills are waning or non-existent (despite attending Greek school as a youth).

At some point–usually in adulthood when the elders pass on–the descendant realizes that a part of him is gone. There is no parent/grandparent/great-grandparent to ground him to the ancestral land. It is now his duty to pass on family stories and traditions; but to his shock, they are unknown or unclear to him. At this point, he has been thoroughly assimilated into American, or Canadian, or Australian culture. His spouse may not be Greek, and this may have accelerated a drift away from his native religion, culture and traditions.

That’s when something new rises within–the gnawing desire to relearn who he is. The past suddenly becomes present; he feels an urgency to reconnect with his roots and to reconstruct his family lineage. If he has children, his drive to pass on the family heritage may become acute. His search for knowledge begins. Of necessity, it starts with himself–the individual at the top of the pyramid–and filters down as discussed earlier.

Although Greek natives and immigrant descendants share families, genetics and bloodlines, it is understandable why and how they differ in genealogical perspective. To the Greek native, genealogy is irrelevant to identity but essential in the study of local history and culture. To immigrant descendants with dual heritage, genealogy is essential to identity and relevant to understanding ethnic tradition and culture.

Thankfully, the roots that unite us are stronger than the perspectives that divide us.

My Grandmother on the S.S. Nea Hellas

Several members of my family traveled on the Nea Hellas when they returned to Greece to visit their family. In 1940, my paternal grandmother, Harikleia Aridas Kostakos and her daughter, Aphrodite, crossed the ocean on the Nea Hellas when they went to Sparta. Hariklia suffered from Parkinson’s disease and returned to her land of birth to access “healing waters.”

1948 Kostakos, Hariklia and granddaughter Carol Harriet Kostakos (now Petranek), Brooklyn, New York

1948 Kostakos, Hariklia and granddaughter Carol Harriet Kostakos (now Petranek), Brooklyn, New York

With World War II exploding, I can only imagine the anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic as Hitler’s forces threatened Greece. What was my grandfather feeling, knowing his invalid wife and young daughter were an ocean away? What thoughts crossed the minds of the Aridas family in Agios Ioannis, Sparta, as Hariklia and Aphrodite left the village for Piraeus? On March 16, 1940, mother and daughter departed Piraeus on the Nea Hellas  — one of the last boats to leave before the ports were closed! They arrived at Ellis Island on April 2, 1940.

This card as Nea Hellas was published by F.Cali of Genova. Source:

Their ship manifest shows they traveled second class (lines 6 & 7).

1940 Kostakos, Hariklia-Aphrodite Pass Ship Apr 2 pg1

The handwriting on page 2 indicates my grandmother’s medical condition: partial paralysis, Parkinson’s syndrome.

1940 Kostakos, Hariklia-Aphrodite Pass Ship Apr 2 pg2

My grandmother was detained at the the Ellis Island medical facility while her case was reviewed by a Special Inquiry Board. The Cause of Detention was noted as:  Med. Cert. LPC & Phys. Def. LPC means “aliens likely to become public charges.” Hariklia was married with children, so she was certainly not likely become a “public charge;” however, her physical condition and protocol required her to be examined.

The manifest columns on the far right show that Hariklia and Aphrodite were detained for 2 days: their meals were 2 breakfasts, 4 dinners, and 2 suppers; and they were released on April 4.

1940 Kostakos, Hariklia-Aphrodite PassShip Apr 2 p3


This video of the Nea Hellas, posted today on Facebook, brought me to tears. The faces of hope and anticipation reflect the strength and resolve of our ancestor immigrants in looking forward to a new life, not only for themselves, but primarily for their posterity.


This website, Memories of the Nea Hellas, has a touching collection of many personal experiences.

This website, Greek Line ships, has a brief history and photos of the following boats that brought many thousands of Greeks to America:
Arkadia – Canberra – Columbia – Lakonia – Katoomba – Nea Hellas – Neptunia –
New York – Olympia – Queen Anna Maria