An American Story


It was the summer of 1992. I had recently moved to Seattle and was on the ferry to Southworth crossing Colvos Passage, the strait between Vashon Island and the Kitsap Peninsula, for a day of birding. The name Colvos had a familiar ring to it. Greek? Italian? I was intrigued and filed it under "Things to Research Some Day."

That day came a few years later when I bought my place on Herron Island. The island, I learned, was named after Lewis Herron, the barrel maker on the four-year U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-1842) led by Lt. Charles Wilkes. Wilkes surveyed Puget Sound in the spring of 1841 and assigned names to over 250 geographical features. That piqued my curiosity.

I bought a copy of "Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound" by Murray Morgan. I hit paydirt on page 55: Colvos Passage was named after George Musalas Colvocoresses, nicknamed Colvo by the crew and described as "a Greek refugee from a Turkish massacre in 1822."

The Colvocoresses clan was a prominent merchant Greek family on the island of Chios, off the Turkish coast in the Aegean Sea, until war found them in 1822. Chios was part of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the eastern Mediterranean for centuries. In 1821, the people of what is now mainland Greece rose up and fought for independence in a bloody campaign that lasted until 1828. The Greeks of Chios, reluctant to join the cause, were forced in March 1822 to support the war.

The empire attacked Chios with unprecedented fury. George, born in 1816, was almost 6 at the time of the massacre. Members of his family were killed or fled; many women and children were enslaved, including him. George's father survived and eventually bought his son's freedom, and in 1824 put him on an American brig headed for Baltimore. Once there, George was adopted by Capt. Alden Partridge, the founder of the military academy now known as Norwich University in Norwich, Vermont. After graduating from the academy in 1831, George joined the Navy and signed on to the Wilkes expedition as a passed midshipman in 1838.

Wilkes named at least two other geographical features after George Colvocoresses: Colvos Bank, east of the entrance to Grays Harbor (a feature that has since disappeared), and Colvos Rocks, a group of offshore rocks just outside Port Ludlow in Admiralty Inlet, now a favorite diving spot.

That there are three places named after George demonstrates that "being an agreeable and somewhat popular young midshipman who tended to be obedient to duty, impressed name givers on the Wilkes Expedition into giving his name to several locations on the Northwest coast," at least according to the compilers of the Tacoma Public Library Washington Place Names database.

To my surprise, I discovered a personal connection to George. My mother's stepmother, Tolia Calvocoressi (the preferred Greek spelling), was related to him. She descended from the branch of the family who ended up on the Greek island of Syros after the 1822 massacre.

The story of migration can be a painful one, tearing families apart, severing one's sense of belonging to a place and courting trouble in a strange land. By any measure, however, George made the best of his new life in his adoptive country. He served in the Navy for the rest of his life, and his descendants have served and continue to serve in the country’s armed forces with distinction. He was also a successful author. His personal account of the Wilkes Expedition, "Four Years in a Government Exploring Expedition," published in 1852, was a best-seller.

So next time you’re on the ferry crossing Colvos Passage, pause a moment for Passed Midshipman George Colvocoresses because, unlike so many who came to these shores before and after, his name is not forgotten.

Born in Greece, Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist and avid birder. He lives on Herron Island.