Home » Essays » Washingtonia – Kourelis & Pettegrew

Washingtonia: An American Refugee Camp in Revolutionary Greece

Dr. Kostis Kourelis & Dr. David K. Pettegrew

Samuel Gridley Howe was a 28-year old physician when, in 1829, he established the first American refugee colony on the Isthmus of Greece to house internally displaced victims of the Greek War of Independence. Named after the recently founded American capital city, Washingtonia exemplifies the fervor of philhellenism and marks the seminal moment in the future trajectory of American humanitarianism in Greece. In the establishment of the excavations at Ancient Corinth sixty years later, the region would continue to play an important role as America’s premier nexus of cultural interchange with the country. It was in New Corinth that the Near East Relief would establish an orphanage in 1924 and the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association would carry out its first fund-raising campaign in 1928. The copious details surrounding the foundation of Washingtonia, therefore, provide a unique case study for understanding the character of regional devastation after the war of independence and the critical moment when American aid and ideals first colonized the center of the Greek peninsula.1

Samuel Gridley Howe’s Corinthian colony was an early expression of a life-long project of establishing and supporting the Greek nation. Howe was only 24 years old with a fresh degree from Harvard Medical School when he arrived in Greece in 1825 to serve in the Greek frigate Karteria.2 In 1827, he began working as a relief coordinator for thousands of displaced Greeks and raised funds for aiding and reconstructing Greece through speaking tours in major cities of the American Northeast. The resources raised through these efforts funneled aid for food, supplies, and reconstruction to refugees on Aegina and the Isthmus in 1828-1830. After the war, he continued his philanthropic work, consulting Prime Minister Kapodistrias in the establishment of an agricultural school in Tiryns and an orphanage in Aegina, and serving as a conduit for the Episcopal church’s missionary activity in the creation of the Hill School in Athens. While Howe devoted most of his later career to special education and the establishment of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, he continued to assist Greece through the placement of young men into institutions of higher learning (e.g. John Zachos, Evangelinos Sophocles).3 Howe travelled to Greece a final time in 1867 to aid the Cretan Revolution and later enlisted Michael Anagnos to fundraise for the Cretan cause.4 His contributions to the establishment of the Greek nation-state were extensive and he has been celebrated through works and monuments including a memorial flagpole dedicated by the AHEPA in 1939 at his alma mater, Brown University.

Howe’s decision to found a refugee colony on the Isthmus can be understood in light of the efforts of national and international agents to address the devastations of the War of Independence and the countrywide refugee crisis it created. Scholars have documented a dozen refugee settlements across Greece and the Aegean islands in this period, each with their own unique history and character, in regions that include Nauplion, Tinos, Amorgos, Syros, Argolid, Naupaktia, Phokis, and Piraeus.5 Howe himself was personally involved in the organization of Kapodistrias’ orphanage in Aegina,6 and Kapodistrias’ school of agriculture on the archaeological site of Tiryns which was created with Howe’s advice.7 Unlike the Aegina orphanage or the Tiryns agricultural school, which remain to this day, we have no identified extant remains of Washingtonia.

The absence of physical remains for Washingontia, however, are balanced by an abundant literary record. We know much more about this refugee colony because Howe described it prolifically in his diary of 1829 and extensive correspondence with American and Greek friends and agents.8 Howe arrived in Corinthia in March fresh from settlement work in Aegina. Upon arriving at the Isthmus, he tells us, he discovered the suitability of the district and corresponded in haste with Kapodistrias for permission to establish a colony in the vicinity of “Upper Examilia” (Apano Hexamili ), in a district that today lies just below the village of Xilokeriza. Kapodistrias granted him initially 5,000 stremmata (2,000 acres) and eventually 10,000 stremmata (4,000 acres) stretching as far as Kenchreai harbor in a swath flanked by the Ayios Dimitrios Ridge and the foot of Mt. Oneion. The proximity to Kenchreai was important because it consolidated a connection with Aegina, a site of Howe’s other major project, and a source of flour and supplies. Howe later summed up the foundation:9

I . . . obtained a large tract of land upon the Isthmus of Corinth, where I founded a colony of exiles. We put up cottages, procured seed, cattle, and tools, and the foundations of a flourishing village were laid. Capo d’Istria had encouraged me in the plan of the colony, and made some promises of help. The Government granted ten thousand stremmata of land to be free from taxes for five years: but they could not give much practical help. I was obliged to do everything, and had only the supplies sent out by the American committees to aid me. The colonists, however, cooperated, and everything went finely. We got cattle and tools, ploughed and prepared the earth, got up a school-house and a church.”

From the start, Howe clearly had tremendous hopes for the colony given its profitable location in the middle of the Isthmus, on good communication routes in the center of Greece, in command of a harbor at Kenchreai. In surviving diary entries from 1829, he opined that it would someday occupy the site of a canal through the Isthmus or at least become Greece’s major commercial center. He restated that hope as the colony grew: a canal, he wrote in June, would “very probably pass through the village.” Given the colony’s rapid growth and success by mid-June of that year, Howe selected the propitious name “Washingtonia” (or variously “Columbia”10) in the hopes of a future capital city.

In reality, Howe’s letters and diary show that the building of the colony demanded incessant burdensome toil beginning in late March and stretching through 1829. At first Howe paid two dozen colonists seven cents a day to carry out the grueling manual labor of building houses and common buildings and cultivating the land. The work did not start from scratch, however. Colonists from Athens, Chios, and Aivali were to resettle homes and lands on the Isthmus in the village of Apano Examilia that had been abandoned during the war. Indeed, as soon as the group undertook their reconstruction, some 15 families of the former village came out from caves in the district where they had hidden for years from pillaging soldiers; after some consideration, Howe allowed these locals to join his colony. The colonists and Corinthian inhabitants worked rapidly to reclaim abandoned houses by late April and cultivate cotton in a plot of ground near Kenchreai. By June, they were repairing the former country residence of the Ottoman Bey into the master house of the colony, cultivating cotton and kalamboki (American corn), refurbishing the harbor at Kenchreai, and planning a hospital that would have as many as fifty beds. They were also constructing a small school that could serve 25 students delivering an education modeled on progressive educational principles such as the Lancasterian system of older children supervising younger ones, a back-to-the earth farming pedagogy, and the arts-and-crafts as a tool for self-sufficiency.11

Howe’s diary and correspondence, which outline the rapid and bold growth of the colony in the first three months, reveal a condition of tremendous unsettlement, fear, and despair in the region in the wake of the collapse of Ottoman authority and a ravaging revolutionary war. Residents from neighboring villages like Sophiko petitioned Howe as the region’s new strong man to cultivate lands on the Isthmus. Poor Corinthian women and their children came by droves to participate in farming for pay. By June, the colony was serving some three dozen displaced families (about 200 people) and simultaneously employing 200 other poor people from Corinth and the surrounding hamlets to construct homes and cultivate land. The local recognition of an outpouring of resources garnered attention and new applications from local peasants. The physician predicted the colony would reach 1,000 people within a decade. The most important issue, in Howe’s mind, was weaning the colonists from supplied rations provided by American funds and developing real self-sufficiency from the land. In the remainder of 1829, the colonists dealt with many hardships of construction, illness and death, disputes with one another and Howe, and the pervasive scarcity of funds.

Howe left Greece in June 1830 having successfully founded a colony, but a break in the diary after January makes it difficult to determine the history of the settlement in this year. In a letter to William Sampson dated to late January, Howe claims to have built a village serving 50 people, which at least points to continued growth. Laura Richards, Howe’s daughter and editor, later noted that her father’s hopes for a grand commercial capital center were never realized. Certainly the path of the later canal fell well to the east of the colony. Yet the settlement existed still when Howe visited again in 1844 and the villagers gave him a rousing welcome like a hero returning home. What comes next is unclear. It may be that it was not resettled after the great earthquake of 1858 which leveled Ancient Corinth and led to a new settlement in New Corinth. The memory of the site quickly receded so deeply into the realms of forgetting that its very location was already lost by the late 19th century.

Our picture of Washingtonia is currently an incomplete one that will become clearer as we carry out further archaeological study and process the hundreds of documents we have collected,12 and as we learn more about other refugee settlements of the Greek war of independence and understand the longer history and archaeology of migration in Greece. A short factual reminder illustrates the centrality of temporary refugee camps like Washingtonia as a permanent feature of the national landscape in the last two centuries: 2,089 refugee settlements built in 1922-1927, 1,200,000 people displaced in 1940-1944, and 60,000 refugees housed in 50 refugee camps in 2016-2018. Few of these have received archaeological attention, suggesting that Greece—in contrast to other nations—has chosen to deploy archaeology singularly towards a national mythology of a classical antiquity and reconcile its recent past through silence.13 The curious experiment at Washingtonia, with its extensive documentary record, offers an opportunity to recalibrate the narrative and counterbalance the stability of ancient marbles with the fragility of modern trauma.


1 Washingtonia is treated cursorily in all the major biographies of Samuel Gridley Howe, but archaeologists in Greece know of the colony chiefly through a brief discussion in James Wiseman’s Land of the Ancient Corinthians (69), which identifies the site (inaccurately) with the modern village of Hexamilia. The Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS) made some limited progress toward locating the missing colony in its diachronic survey of the region between 1997 and 2003 as part of a fulsome study of the modern landscape (cf. Diacopoulos 2004). Our own research of Washingtonia began in 2016 as a collaborative project between faculty and undergraduate teams from Franklin & Marshall College, Messiah University, and Harrisburg University of Science & Technology. Our work aims to collect and study all the textual testimonia of the site; to identify the location and structure of the colony through textual evidence, historical maps, and a low-altitude photographic drone survey; and to assess evidence of material remains. For additional discussions of Washingtonia in Corinthian studies, cf. Kaplan 2001; Gregory 2007; and Sanders 2013.

2 For the life of Howe, see most recently Trent 2012, esp. 29-50, 245-251.

3 Canoutas 1918, 64-97.

4 Eventually Anagnos became director of the Perkins School of the Blind, married Howe’s daughter Julia, and played a critical role in establishing a Greek Orthodox community in Boston; he carried out his own humanitarian work by founding a school in his native Konitsa.

5 Karamouzi 1997, 15-57, Kardamitsi-Adami 1994.

6 Petrakos 2015, v. 1, 77-78. The site later became a prison and site of political executions before it was restored to its original plan as an orphanage.

7 This site also had a complicated later history in its use as a prison.

8 Howe and Richards 1906.

9 Sanborn 1891, 79-80.

10 Columbia was a shorthand for “America” as well as the new district of the capital city of the United States.

11 Howe encouraged the same model of education adopted by Kapodistrias’ orphanage in Aegina that was organized according to Howe’s instructions as well as the agriculture school in Tiryns.

12 Between 2017 and 2019, the research team narrowed down the probable area of Washingtonia. We planned a systematic aerial survey of the district in June 2020 which was delayed due to the global pandemic. A full publication of the physical and textual evidence for Washingtonia will be included as part of a final forthcoming publication of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey.


Canoutas, Seraphim G. Hellenism in America or the History of the Greeks in America from the Early Days to the Present Time, 64-97. New York: Kosmos, 1918.

Diacopoulos, Lita. “The Archaeology of Modern Greece.” In Mediterranean Archaeological Landscapes: Current Issues/, edited by Effie-Fotini Athanassopoulos and LuAnn Wandsnider, 183–98. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2004.

Gregory, Timothy E. “Contrasting Impressions of Land Use in Early Modern Greece: The Eastern Corinthia and Kythera.” In Between Venice and Istanbul: Colonial Landscapes in Early Modern Greece, edited by Syriol Davies and Jack Davis, 173-198. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Howe, Samuel Gridley. Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe: The Greek Revolution, edited by Laura E. Richards. Boston: Dunn, Estes, and Co., 1906.

Kaplan, Leslie. G. “A Good Considerable Country Town: Visions of a Greek Village in European Travel Narratives.” Ph.D. Diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2001.

Karamouzi, Anthoula. “Καταγραφή και χαρτογράφηση των προσφυγικών οικισμών στον ελληνικό χώρο από το 1821 ως σήμερα.” In Ο ξεριζωμός και η άλλη πατρίδα: Οι προσφυγουπόλεις στην Ελλάδα: Επιστημονικό συμπόσιο, 11 και 12 Απριλίου 1997, edited by Maria Stephanopoulou, 15-57. Athens: Hetaireia Spoudon Neoellenikou Politismou kai Genikes Paideias, 1997.

Kardamitsi-Adami, Maro. “Πρόνοια, ο πρώτος προσφυγικός συνοικισμός της ελεύθερης Ελλάδος.” Archaiologia 51 (1994): 35-46

Petrakos, Vasileios Ch. Ημερολόγιο αρχαιολογικό. Τα χρόνια του Καποδίστρια 1828-1832, v. 1, 77-78. Athens: Vivliotheke tes en Athenais Archaiologikes Etaireias, 2015.

Sanborn, Franklin. Dr. S. G. Howe: The Philanthropist. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1891.

Sanders, G. D. R. “Landlords and Tenants: Sharecroppers and Subsistence Farming in Corinthian Historical Context.” In Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality, edited by Steven J. Friesen, Sarah A. James, and Daniel N. Schowalter, 103-125. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Stefatos, Katerina and Iosif Kovras. “Buried Silences of the Greek Civil War.” In Necropolitics: Mass Graves and Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights, edited by Francisco Ferrándiz and Antonius C. G. M. Robben, 161-184. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Trent Jr., James W. The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth-Century American Reform. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Wiseman, James. Land of the Ancient Corinthians. Göteborg: Aströms, 1978.