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)








The Times of Our Ancestors’ Lives: Part One

Who we are is a product of multiple factors:  genetics, environment, and opportunities (or lack thereof). So it was with our ancestors. Where they lived and how they lived framed their mortal existence; but it was their personalities which molded their lives.From the villages of Sparta and the southern Peloponnese came a great exodus of young men in the 1880’s to mid-1900’s. Seeking relief from poverty and focusing on a new world, the majority were from Laconia, perhaps as many as 3/4 of its adult males (ages 18-35) eventually left. They embarked as pioneers and emerged as prototypes, paving the way for the thousands who followed.

Knowing their environment is critical to understanding the choices our ancestors made. I am finding that Thomas W. Gallant’s Modern Greece is an excellent resource, and its chapter, “Society and Economy” describes the everyday world of a rural Greek village and home. In this post, I have extracted information from Gallant’s book to help us understand the times of our ancestors’ lives.

Although over 50% of the Greek population today resides in the Athens metropolitan area, this was not the case 100 years ago and before. The 1861 census revealed that 74% of adult men were farmers or sharecroppers; by 1920, this barely dropped to 70%. [i] Thus, the majority of families’ financial securities were tied to crops, a variable commodity. The demise of the current crop caused a revenue crisis in the 1890’s which, in turn, was a major factor in the earliest wave of emigration.

The typical village had a population of 200-300, or 600-700 people. In 1920, almost 52% of the population of Greece lived in villages of less than 1,000 people, and about 35% of people lived in villages of less than 500 people.[ii]

Theologos, Oinountos, Laconia, 2017. This village is 6 km straight up a mountain, and is the home of my great-grandmother, Stathoula Zaharakis

Villages around Sparta are nestled in majestic mountains, and until the mid-1900’s many were accessible only by foot or donkey. Building in the foothills and even atop mountains was a necessity, as flat, arable land was scarce and designated for farming. Space in the center of the village was reserved for the church and the town square or platea, the hub of social life.

The arid climate and hot, dry summers required a source of water, and villages were settled near rivers or streams. Even today after hundreds of years, pure mountain water gushes freely from rocks and every village has fountains which are in constant use.

left: water gushes from the mountain in Pikoulianika; right: a fountain in the platea of Xirokambi.

In the summer, shepherds took their flocks of goats and lambs to graze high in the verdant hillsides, several kilometers from their home. There, they lived in small huts known as kalyva. A settlement of several huts occupied by shepherds of the same village could get its own name. For example, a group of huts occupied by shepherds from the village of Soha would be given the name Kalyvia Soha. During winter, the shepherds would leave the mountains to reside in their primary home in the village.

Most farms were single-family peasant households. The father was the primary laborer, with his sons assisting as they grew old enough to work in the fields. Women also helped by weeding (considered to be “woman’s work”) and on a seasonal basis during harvests. The primary focus was to provide enough food for the family; therefore, a variety of small crops would be planted:  wheat, barley, maize, legumes with some olive and fruit trees, and vines. Tools were wooden and rudimentary. Livestock would include a donkey; sheep and goats for milk, cheese, hides and wool; and chickens for eggs and meat.[iv]

Despite its self-sufficiency, every Spartan family needed cash. Goods such as salt, tea, coffee, gunpowder, and metal had to be purchased. Dowries had to be provided. Funerals and weddings necessitated money, as did medical and other family expenses. Thus, a means of generating cash income was required. Many families grew a “cash crop” which could be sold locally, such as tobacco, grapes, or cotton. Some produced extra olive oil or wheat. In other cases, groups of male kinsmen (brothers, fathers and cousins) or entire families would work as seasonal wage laborers harvesting grain or picking grapes. Or, men might acquire skills such as smiths, knife sharpeners, carpenters and masons. They would travel the countryside, offering their skills in small villages that could not support a full-time artisan on their own.[v]

Our Spartan ancestors would have encountered a “myriad of movement across the countryside” of ξένοι (foreigners) whose livelihoods necessitated being on the move:  transhumant  shepherds of certain ethnic groups who specialized in large-scale animal husbandry, or itinerant merchants who transported goods over land on donkeys.[vi] “The image of the nineteenth-century Greek villagers as ensconsed in their little villages, isolated from and ignorant of the wider world, is grossly inaccurate. No village was an island unto itself. The Greek countryside was a fairly dynamic place characterized by a relatively constant movement of people across it and periodically punctuated by the larger-scale arrival and departure of work gangs, itinerant merchants and artisans, donkey caravans, shepherds with their families and flocks, and of course, the dreaded bandit gangs which continued to be a menace to society until late in the century.”[vii]

Thus, despite the relative isolation of many villages, people were exposed to news, ideas, and customs which expanded the microcosm of their world.

[Part Two will cover the social world of men and women, and the home.]

[i] Gallant, Thomas. Modern Greece, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. p.127.
[ii] ibid., pg. 128.
[iii] ibid., pg. 129.
[iv] ibid., pg. 135.
[v] ibid., pg. 140.
[vi] ibid., pg. 140.
[vii] ibid., pg. 141.



Lakonia Studies

Last summer when I was in Greece, my friend Giannis Michalakakos gave me a copy of Book of Lakonia Studies which contain excerpts of letters and documents from the Venetian conquest of the Peloponnese in the late 1600’s. Specifically, there are transcripts of letters of Francesco Morosini, Doge of Venice 1688-1694, pertaining to Mystras and its surrounding region. The book is in Greek, of course, and my language skills are elementary at best. But, with the help of my teacher, Theodore Papaloizos, Google Translation tools and a Greek-English dictionary, I have begun to read this fascinating history.

I will write posts as I go through this book so others can learn and join me on this journey into the past. Please understand that my translations may not be accurate.

Lakonia Studies

Because this is a transcript of original documents, I am immersed in the first-hand accounts of Morosini, admiral of the Venetian fleet, as he writes to his superiors regarding the state of affairs in the Peloponnese.

The goal of the Venetians and the Turks is to conquer Mani. Both want control of Mystras. The Turks are losing control, and the Venetians don’t want Muslims in Mystras. An agreement is made between the Turks and the Venetians to subdue the Maniates.

12 July 1687. Fleet Admiral Morosini is on board a ship in the sea of Patras. He writes to the Doge of Venice about a new attack made against Mystras. The Venetians and Turks were fighting for Mystras, and the Venetians needed help from the Maniates. Mystras was being guarded by 600 men from Mani and the town of Koroni, in addition to 100 soldiers of the guard. When the Greeks heard the name of the Turk, they threw their axes, swords and their stolen spoils on the ground and fled from the mountain in desperate escape. They were shamed into retreat by 70-80 Turks. Morosini closes his letter by writing that this is a sad report.

20 August 1687.  Morosini writes to the Doge from the Gulf of Lepanto.

Gulf of Lepanto map

The Maniotes, Captain Bollani and others went to Mystras with a raised white flag and a plan for the mutual exchange of hostages. The Maniates were greedy about the spoils they obtained by looting and stealing, and negotiations had to be done with utmost care. Morosini cautions against not exercising the utmost possibly leniency to the Mystriotes until the Venetians occupied the entire province. He recommends that robust men could be useful as slaves as rowers on boats, and the women, children and the elderly over 50 years could go back to their villages.

Morosini writes a letter to Pasha stating his terms which are dictated by his desire for the common good and to emphasize the decision taken by the Council: Turks are to pay a ransom; a deposit of 200,000 rialia in gold and silver. This money will increase the treasury and operations of the armies. If they do not accept the terms, they will receive notice of a general slaughter.

With other successes, the war will end gloriously. However, the Venetians must not abandon any attempt to ensure the fall of Monemvasia. Efforts will be made in this region as in others, so as not to leave even one Muslim in Mystra.

(Link about the Venetian conquest: