In what must be one of the most ambitious genealogical investigations anywhere in the world, a dedicated team of researchers in Pennsylvania recently unearthed the direct and indirect lineage of many Greek Americans whose ancestors fought in the Greek Revolution.
Through six months of research, going back in time to those who first came to this country after the Revolution, the descendants of these brave men and women who fought against the Ottoman Empire were discovered by the intrepid group of genealogists from the American Hellenic Foundation of Western Pennsylvania (AHFWP).
This almost amounts to a one-man Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution organization, which honors the patriots who fought the American War of Independence — the main difference being that the Western Pennsylvania group has assembled all this same basic genealogical proof in barely one year.
Monumental task of identifying Greek Revolution patriot descendants
Dr. Nick Giannoukakis, an Associate Professor of Immunology and Biological Sciences at
Carnegie Mellon University and an Associate Professor of Pathology and Immunology at the
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, is the head of the organization, which has taken on the gigantic task of discovering the descendants of some of Greece’s most illustrious warriors.
The incredible advances of both DNA technology and digitally-based genealogy helped reveal these fascinating connections to the researchers, who were given this monumental task by the AHFWP.
A film showing how these connections to Greece’s glorious past was made as part of the Foundation’s extraordinarily ambitious project, called “Bridges of White and Blue.”
“Bridges of White and Blue” links descendants to Greece’s glorious past
The webcast, made as part of the celebrations of the Greek bicentennial on March 25, retells the story of how, one year ago, the organization came up with the concept of finding out exactly who the ancestors of the Greek-Americans who had settled in western Pennsylvania were.
Very few of these people were aware of the history of their illustrious ancestors, and had been able to carry that family lore down the centuries, with the vast majority descended from people who emigrated abroad, their service having been forgotten by their country — or who were simply impoverished and seeking a better life elsewhere.
As the years passed by, as those somewhat lesser-known revolutionaries died off, their own families allowed the memory of their sacrifices to lapse, Giannoukakis says.
In pondering the plight of these figures, he and his colleagues at the AHFWP were prompted to find out, by whatever means necessary, how many of these people had descendants who immigrated to the five continents who may not know about the great sacrifices of their ancestors.
Appropriately, the brave warriors were recognized during the Greek Bicentennial Day on March 25, 2021, with their western Pennsylvanian descendants receiving an Honorary Distinction and a unique commemorative coin issued by the Greek Government specifically for the celebration of the Bicentennial.
The work already done, however, the organization says, “is but a prologue to a vast treasure trove of information waiting to be discovered.
“We hope that this initiative, which we named ‘Bridges of White and Blue,’ will be carried forward by the children of the honorees as well as by others to unearth more of the unknown and lesser known history of the people whose descendants grace Western Pennsylvania today,” Giannakakou states.
How did they accomplish this monumental task?
“We began to search for these links as a pilot project to discover links between people of Greek descent in Western Pennsylvania back to the lesser-known heroes and participants in the Greek revolution as well as later campaigns on the island inspired by the Revolution on the mainland,” the medical professor states.
“Our objective was, and is, to hopefully inspire the descendants of these people that, when they travel to the place of birth of their ancestors, and armed with the knowledge that they are connected to those who gave up everything, to learn more about them, to be proud of them, to become the messengers across a blue and white bridge that connects Greece with Western Pennsylvania.”
Giannoukakis adds that his organization hopes to impart “what it means to be a Hellene with such a profound past here in America, (and) to educate and inspire their friends in the Greek-American community — but more importantly, in all their non-Greek sister communities.”
Among the approaches he says they used to identify, verify and establish these familial links to the Greek Revolution were regional voter rolls going back to the 1840s, farmer rolls, the birth records of males and the birth and death records of Allegheny County, going back to the early 1900s, with a focus on those between 1906-1950.
“Joy, awe, and even tears”
The earlier records, Giannoukakis states, “were prioritized as they represented the first immigrants to our area. We created a database of surnames, first names, paternal first and last names, places of birth in Greece. From there, we compiled a list of towns or cities that served as the index.
“From those towns or cities, we looked at any publicly-available documentation about participants in the revolution. Otherwise, we asked the living descendants of the people identified in the death records about any stories they remember from their parents/grandparents about any possible participant in the revolution.
“A few provided such information and some even provided documentation that they had inherited,” Giannoukakis states with pride.
“For those that did not,” he added, “we then cross-checked the surnames, first names, and paternal names inside the birth records of males, voter registries, and farm registries in the National General Archives of Greece. We had help with this from our partners in Greece.
“Once the cross-checking was verified, we established the tentative lineages,” he stated.
Fortunately, about a decade ago, this very issue began to be researched by Europeans who tracked the emigration of peoples out to other continents.
Colleagues from the European Arts Center in Greece, Giannakakou related, consulted the General National Archives of Greece, specifically the archives of the awards and distinctions made to those who participated in the Greek revolution by the Greek state from 1840 and onward.
Entire families executed during War of Independence for hiding fighters
In some cases, they followed leads from testimony shared by families in Western Pennsylvania. The process of discovery resulted in much emotion, Giannoukakis admits — “joy awe, and even tears,” he says.
At other times, he says, naturally, the process was met with much frustration — as is inevitable in much genealogical research — “when we could not formally establish familial connections beyond any reasonable doubt.”
But when such a discovery is in fact confirmed back to a Revolutionary ancestor, Giannakakou says, it “confers a certain humility to the person who realizes that their great-great-grandparents fought alongside the renowned Greek revolutionaries.”
The same is true, he says, if “their great great grandmothers were preparing the food — or the gunpowder — or even hiding the revolutionaries from the Ottoman overlords intent on wiping them out. Entire families were murdered and executed when it was discovered that they had given respite to the revolutionaries.”
The research, undertaken by the Pennsylvania group last year with an eye to the celebration of the Greek bicentennial, was helped by the “Greece 2021” initiative created by the Greek state, which recognized the incredibly ambitious project of the Western Pennsylvania Greeks as one of the more inspirational bicentennial projects of the entire diaspora.
Descendants receive commendations for ancestors’ service
And the project is not by any means complete even now.
Quite the contrary, the untiring physician states with firmness. Its scope will only expand as the years go on, as the group exports the methods they have used to identify the descendants of Revolutionary patriots to the entire diaspora.
One Revolutionary hero whose descendants emigrated to Pennsylvania was “Anagnostis,” (whose real name was Konstantis Panagoulias), who took part in some actions of the War under General Kolokotronis.
On March 25, 2021, a diploma and commemorative Greek bicentennial coin was awarded to his great-great-great-grandson, Konstantinos “Dean” Panagoulias of Pennsylvania, in commemoration of his ancestor’s sacrifice in the War.
Incredibly, Panagoulias had a second ancestor who fought in the Greek Revolution as well. His other great-great grandfather was Anastasios Andrianos, who was known as “Sèmeiophoros” in the war; he was a flag bearer in several battles of the Revolution under Captain Ioannis Apostolopoulos (also known as “Captain Giannakas”).
As Giannoukakis says, such standard bearers were known as some of the bravest of all warriors since they were in charge of the very symbol of the Revolution.
But perhaps the most amazing moment of all came for Giannoukakis when he was able to prove that one of his own direct ancestors, Elias Giannoukakis, fought in the War of Independence.
As he states, “It’s a story I knew about decades ago, it’s just that — with the availability of the voter and farm rolls of the 1840s onward, it is trackable objectively.
“In terms of specific roles,” he says, “there is nothing known beyond that ‘he participated in the revolution in campaigns in Mani and Messinia’ and ‘he was distinguished in the form of the silver award.’ This was found in publications I became aware of only over the past year and inside documents of the National General Archives of Greece.
In the end, Giannoukakis says, he would like all the recipients of these diplomas and medals given out on March 25 to “honor and never forget the great sacrifices” of their ancestors.
“Let these forgotten warriors enter into your hearts”
He would like them, he stated, to “let these forgotten warriors enter into your hearts, into your history, into your future. Make a home for these lesser-known heroes from Greece’s past, the lesser-known heroes from your family’s past, and give them the time and attention — and indeed a small sacrifice to learn about them so that they can open up a marvelous journey of discovery, especially for those who were honored.
“We hope that this event is also honored as an investment, an investment in the children and grandchildren of all the honorees, so that you can tell them about a past that can strengthen their identity.
“Let this event,” Giannoukakis stated, “begin on this side of the Atlantic so we can cross the Bridges of White and Blue and return to the birthplaces of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
“Let us also bring our children and grandchildren across these bridges so that they can explore, learn, celebrate and create a better world for themselves for humankind, a world (as Rigas Feraios said), ‘of universalizing Hellenism.'”
If you would like be part of this amazing project of bridging the generations and honoring the patriots of the Greek revolution, please visit the website of the Foundation, here.
Finally, Giannoukakis states, he hopes that new partners can be found to extend this effort across the USA. “I am confident,” he says, “that many exciting discoveries await.”