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The Greek Orphans of 1821 Revolution and How They Ended Up in the US

Greek Orphans 1821
The Greek Orphans of 1821. Image: The Orphans by Nikolaos Gyzis . Public Domain

The fate of Greek orphans of the 1821 Revolution in the US is but a footnote in the history of the glorious uprising against the Turks. Nonetheless, it is definitely a fascinating one.

What happened to some children who lost their parents during the bloody Greek War of Independence is one of the least known chapters in the big book of Greece’s palingenesis. The unexpected David versus Goliath triumph of the outnumbered Greeks against the Ottoman Empire army has always been the main focus.

However, there is a sub-chapter in the history of the Greek War of Independence regarding the fate of those orphans who were saved by Americans and transferred to the US. Once there, several of them prospered and others became important persons in the New World, creating a long-lasting bond between the two nations.

The story of those children, with some of them escaping death by a hair, others seeing their parents slaughtered by the Turks, others taken slaves and bought back, and then ending up to flourish in America is a story that needs to be told and should not be forgotten.

Iakovos Michailidis is a history professor who undertook the task to research and finally tell the captivating story of those Greek orphans in the book The Greek Orphaned Children of 1821. A Story for Palingenesis and American Philhellenism.

The philhellenism movement

The news that the Greeks revolted against the Ottoman yoke shook the Western world.  Philhellenism in Europe started in the 18th century if not earlier, says historian Thanos Veremis. This was because of the Greek language that was dominant in philosophy and sciences and the ancient Greece legacy inherent in the Parthenon, Homer’s epics, and Phidias’ sculptures among other things. Its cultural influence in enlightened Europe was immense.

By the early 19th century, when British Romantic poet Lord Byron traveled to Greece, he developed a longing for the rich ancient Greek world of great philosophers and brilliant sculptors and poets. At the same time, there was the contradiction of that great legacy being in danger of disappearing under the barbaric Ottoman foot. Byron wrote:

Fair Greece! Sad relic of departed worth!

Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great!

Who now shall lead thy scatter’d children forth,

And long accustom’d bondage uncreate?

When Byron left Greece in 1810, he started a campaign for the liberation of the country in a romantic effort to revive that noble ancient past. Prior to him, German artist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, French author François-René de Chateaubriand, French scholar Jean-Jacques Barthélemy, and others praised the importance of Greece for the West and the need for the country’s liberation from Islamic chains.

German romanticism, French revolutionary radicalism, English intellectual liberalism and the American puritan idealism were the sparks that ignited the fire of Philhellenism across the Western World. Soon, countless people in Europe and the US were willing and ready to help the Greek Cause.

When the first shots of the Greek revolution cracked in Morea in March 1821, influential philhellenes across Europe made a call to arms to young people in their respective countries to help Greece in the war against the Ottomans.

At the same time, philhellenes from the North American continent arrived to help with the struggle. George Jarvis, Jonathan Peckam Miller, and Samuel Gridley Howe emerged as the three most important American philhellenes who actually went to Greece to fight alongside the Greek revolutionaries.

The Greek cause appeal to US philhellenes

As soon as the Greek revolutionaries took over certain key cities in Morea (modern day Peloponnese) in late May 1821, the Messenian Senate of Kalamata, the first “formal Greek government,” appealed to the Americans for support of the Greek cause. It was a petition to the American government and people as a kindred nation that had won its independence fighting and was an exemplar of civil and religious liberty.

The words “Greek cause” spread among the New England elite and soon expanded among the members of the middle and lower classes in the New England states. Soon, politicians, university professors, and congressmen became advocates of the support to the rebelling Greeks who were determined “to live free or die.” Furthermore, the petition was publicized and copies circulated among US elite and eventually among all Americans of the northeastern states.

The Greeks’ fight for freedom spoke to the Americans’ spirit of liberalism. The US government, however, was reluctant to openly support and fund the Greek freedom fighters as a trade agreement with the Ottoman Empire was scheduled to be signed in 1823. That fact led to the US government’s delaying help. It was common Americans who became philhellenes, though, as they were enthused by the Greeks’ great stand against further oppression, their fight for their religious beliefs, and their great heritage.

The first fundraising campaign was meant to fund the military needs of the revolutionaries, along with forty thousand pounds in donations. It was significant help for the Greek fighters during the war. The fundraising campaign, after 1826, was mostly relief aid, accomplished in the name of humanitarianism and was the work of pure charity, non-political and neutral. During 1827 and 1828, eight shiploads of relief supplies, valued at nearly $140,000, were sent to Greece consisting entirely of food and clothing.

Along with philhellenism, it was protestant missionaries who aspired to spreading Protestantism in the Near East, Greece, and the Balkans. In the context of religious expansionism, people of all Protestant denominations cooperated with philhellene laymen, many of whom were protestants as well. They also cooperated with the network of European protestants who were willing to help the enslaved Greeks and proselytize them along the way. Protestant missionaries arrived in Smyrna in 1820. They were interested in pressing books of their faith in the Greek language.

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), a semi-religious, semi-political organization, was one of the most influential in the United States at the time. In 1823, the organization launched an enterprise of educating young boys from other parts of the world. Levi Parsons and Joel Fisk were two of the first missionaries to promote this acculturation plan by taking several Greek orphans to the United States. Researchers do not agree on the exact number of children who were finally taken or sent to the United States from 1823 to 1828 under the auspices of this program. However, there is evidence that 36 reached the United States and were educated there.

A humanitarian crisis amidst a bloody war

In 1822, the Ottomans committed two major massacres, one on Chios and the other in Naousa in Northern Greece. In early 1824 were the catastrophes of the islands of Kasos and Psara. Surviving children of those catastrophes were lucky to be taken care of by American philhellenes and the American Navy patrolling the Mediterranean. From there, they were transported to the US.

Another wave of orphaned Greek children that was saved by the Americans was seen between 1826 and 1828 after the Missolonghi exodus.

Thousands of orphaned children ended up wandering around Greece during the Greek War of Independence. Many of them were ill, starving, freezing from the cold, destitute, and begging for something to eat. They roamed in groups like packs of feral children in Morea and Roumeli (modern day Central Greece).

There is no record, of course, of what happened to those kids. Some of them survived, hiding in mountains and forests, while others found refuge in villages the Turks could not locate or did not bother destroying.

The lucky ones were saved and taken to the United States, either by protestant missionaries and philhellenes or by the American Navy patrolling the Aegean Sea.

Transferring the Greek orphans to the US

In an earlier interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (AMNA), the author of the book on the 1821 revolution orphans, Iakovos Michailidis, said there were about 40 such orphans but that the number could not be confirmed. He stressed, however, that the number of them is of little importance. What is important, Michailidis said, was the motivation for their being saved and the outcome of the transfer of the Greek orphans to US soil.

Michailidis pointed out that in all revolutions, including the one of Greece, historians are not only interested in the big issues, such as those related to military operations, political and diplomatic developments, casualties, and so on. Lesser issues, mainly social in nature, which perhaps affect people much more than the larger issues, are also of interest.

One such example was that of the Greek orphans of 1821. In that respect, the author said, their transfer to the US was perhaps the most sensitive moment in the history of American philhellenism.

Several of these orphans, helpless and unprotected, would probably have lost their lives if they had not come across the American philanthropists, such as Boston doctor Samuel Gridley Howe, who traveled to Greece to aid the rebels.

Michailidis refuted the argument that the protestant missionaries saved the orphans in order to convert them to Protestantism. Even though their actions were partly due to the overall conversion program to spread their own religious doctrine and facilitate the religious/political agenda of the ABCFM, it was secondary to the magnitude of the atrocities committed by the Turks and the danger to the orphans.

The transfer of Greek orphans to the US during the Greek War of Independence took place in two waves. The first was mainly during the first two years of the uprising (1821-1822), when the Chios massacre and the Naousa holocaust took place, while the second was in 1824, which was when the Psara massacre occurred.

On Chios in 1822, 42,000 people were massacred, and 52,000 were sold as slaves. In the northern city of Naousa, 5,000 women and children were killed in addition to an equal number of men. In Psara, 18,000 islanders were killed or sold to the slave markets. These barbaric catastrophes left behind many Greek orphans, some of them lucky to survive and later be transported to America.

Prior to the Chios massacre, a network of American missionaries who were mostly in Smyrna visited the island, often trying to promote Protestantism. They got to know many locals and ran a school on Chios. Hence, after the massacre, many of these children who either escaped to Smyrna or were sold in the slave market of Smyrna, were recovered by American missionaries and traders who were in the area and were transferred to the United States.

The second way the Greek orphans escaped death or slavery was through the US fleet. During the Greek uprising, American ships sailed in the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean, mainly fighting piracy. These ships were found outside Psara shortly after the destruction of the island in 1824 and literally collected quite a few children from the water. Their parents had thrown them into the sea to save them from the Turks. The parents who stayed on land were slaughtered.

The third route was through official philanthropy channels in Greece after 1826, when the country was literally in ruins. US philhellenes sent aid to Greece, and other Americans who were already there distributed the aid throughout Greece. On their way, they met many orphaned children and sent them to the United States.

Liberation and Kapodistrias

When Ioannis Kapodistrias was appointed the first governor of Greece, he arrived in Nafplion on January 7, 1828. The Greek War of Independence was not yet over, and Turkish forces were still scattered throughout the country while cities and towns were in shambles.

Kapodistrias, however, managed to introduce many reforms in order to make Greece a modern state. Regarding the issue of the orphans, he showed great concern. He wanted them to remain under the wings of the new Greek state that was “under construction.” To that effect, he tried to raise money to build an orphanage on the island of Aegina to shelter those children.

King Charles 10th of France, a philhellene and admirer of Kapodistrias’ abilities, sent people in the slave markets in Beirut, Lebanon, where the Ottomans were selling their slaves, and bought a large number of enslaved Greek children to offer them as a gift to Greece’s new governor for the Aegina orphanage.

The orphanage building in Aegina was ready in June 1829, and five hundred orphans were accommodated immediately. The institute incorporated an elementary school, a school for advanced studies, and classes offering technical lessons such as carpentry, ironworks, and printing press among others. The only problem was that the orphanage was for boys, but there was no providence for housing girls.

Greek orphans flourish in the US

The Greek orphans who were taken to the New World received great care. Due to the widespread philhellenic wave throughout the country, these refugee children were given access to the highest levels of American society, the finest schools, and became instant celebrities. Additionally, all who remained in the US were always proud of their prestigious Greek identity and passed this on to their children.

The personal stories of Greek orphans who initially escaped from fields of battles and torched villages and subsequently traveled to the US were fascinating, as most of them had a good and productive life. Their stories have great sociological significance.

Grigorios Perdikaris, from Naousa, who escaped the massacre, came into contact with the American missionaries, studied at the best universities, joined the circle of the great American writer Edgar Allan Poe and was then appointed as the first American consul in Athens during the reign of King Otto. His son, Ionas, who continued the family tradition, was at some point in Tangier, at the beginning of the 19th century. At this time, he was kidnapped by local bandits and almost caused a diplomatic incident, since the 6th Fleet had to be sent there to free him. His story, in fact, was made into a Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery.

Little Garyfalia Michalbei, who was enslaved during the Psara massacre and recovered by American missionaries and later adopted by a Boston family, became symbolic of anti-slavery. Her life was a source of inspiration for many artists, and the great American sculptor Hiram Powers created the sculpture “The Greek Slave.” In just a few years, the short life of an orphaned Greek girl and her struggle for freedom became synonymous with the struggle of African American slaves in the United States.

Ioannis Celivergos Zachos, whose father was killed in the Greek War of Independence and was given to Samuel Gridley Howe by his mother, was taken to the US, where he became a literary scholar, elocutionist, author, lecturer, inventor, and educational pioneer. He was also an early proponent of equal education rights for African Americans and women.

Evangelinos Apostolides Sophocles, brought to America in 1828, distinguished himself as professor at Harvard University for 41 years and went on to make the greatest contributions to modern Greek studies at Harvard University and in the United States. When he died in 1883, he left his personal library and his entire estate to Harvard University. Under his aegis, Harvard became a world center for the study of Modern Greek. Professor Sophocles wrote the first Modern Greek grammar book and first Modern Greek lexicon but also a Byzantine dictionary.

Georgios Sarigiannis (or George Sirian for Americans) was put in a US Navy boat by his mother at age six during the Psara massacre. For fifty years, he served the US Navy and became a decorated Gunner. In memory of George Sirian, a special ceremony is held every year in Boston by the US Navy, and an award has been established in his name. The recognition is given every year to the best gunner of the US fleet. His oldest son, Constantine Ambrose Sirian, became a US Navy chief.

George Colvocoresses had been enslaved after the Chios massacre, during which most of his family was killed. He was purchased and freed by his father who sent him to America. Once there, he was supported by Allen Partridge, the head of a military school in Norwich, Vermont, and upon graduation, he joined the navy where he served with distinction. One of his most noteworthy voyages was on the scientific expedition of the USS Porpoise which toured the world and explored and first named Antarctica. His book about the expedition was extremely popular.

Lucas Miltiades Miller, born in Livadia, was the first elected Greek-American in the House of Representatives (Wisconsin’s 6th District). He became an orphan at the age of four, at which time, he was adopted by abolitionist Jonathan Peckham Miller, an American who served as a colonel in the Greek Army during the Greek War of Independence. He was given the name Lucas Miltiades Miller by his adopted father, his birth name being lost in the war.

All of these individuals were orphaned Greek children of the 1821 revolution. Through their personal stories, they highlight one of the most moving social aspects of the Greek uprising: the story of a group of Greek children—the majority of them orphans—who, in a way that sounds almost like a fairytale, escaped from great danger and found a New World where they excelled in life.

A great legacy for Greek-American relations

The Greek orphans of the 1821 revolution in the United States evolved into connecting links between two nations—Greece and the US. The orphans forged the Greek-American relations from the 19th century to the present day. American philhellenism is continuous in the two centuries of the modern Greek state.

A century after the Greek War of Independence, American philhellenism was active once again during the Asia Minor Catastrophe. The great humanitarian drama in Greek history re-mobilized the philanthropic feelings of American individuals and organizations. The American Near East Foundation (Near East Relief) was one of the first international organizations that rushed to Anatolia to help the Greek and Armenian refugees. Through its actions, thousands of refugees found relief and care.

Again, thousands of orphaned Greek children who had lost one or both of their parents during the Turkish purges found shelter under the wings of the Near East Relief. Some were settled in orphanages in Greece, while others were transferred to the United States as a repetition—on a larger scale—of the 1821 revolution orphan transplant.

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