Exactly 495 years ago the first Greek arrived in America, a country that is now home to many Greeks of the diaspora. His name was Theodoros Griego, and he arrived on April 14, 1528.
It was June 17, 1527 when a fleet of five ships with 600 men left the Spanish port of Sanlucar de Barrameda on a journey to conquer the land making up today’s Florida and westward of Florida. The head of the mission was conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez. After stops in Santo Domingo and Cuba, Narvaez left Cuba in February with five ships and 400 men to land in what is now the Tampa Bay area.
Among the men who landed in Florida was a Greek man who appeared later in the description of the expedition written by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. Theodoros Griego was not only part of the group but also played an important role in later developments.
“Theodoros Griego” means “Theodore Greek” in Spanish; his actual name was Doroteo Teodoro, but he was variously identified as “Don Teodoro” or as just a “Greek Christian” in the book “Relacion,” written by Cabeza de Vaca. The book describing the group’s exploits was published in 1542 and again, after a revision, in 1555.
Theodoros Griego was part of a mission in search of gold
At one point, the Spanish conquistadors brutally killed the mother of the local Native American chief and cut off the nose of the chief. They then moved to northern Florida searching for the gold of which the indigenous people had spoken.
The Greek man was a part of the mission which moved northward in search of the gold.
Once further north, the Spaniards were trapped in the mountains and attacked by Native Americans.
The hardships, hunger and attacks of native peoples brought invaders to their knees. Most of them were killed and survivors were forced to flee.
However, a solution was proffered by the ingenious Greek.
Theodoros Griego built five boats of leather, wood, and resin. “A Greek, Don Teodoro, made pitch from certain pine resins. Even though we had only one carpenter, work proceeded so rapidly from Aug. 4, when it began, that by Sept. 20 five barges, each 22 elbow-lengths (30 to 32 feet long), caulked with palmetto oakum and tarred with pine-pitch, were finished,” Cabeza de Vaca wrote.
Using the makeshift boats, the Spanish conquistadors managed to escape using the tributaries of the great Mississippi River.
A month later they came out onto a shoreline, most likely on the Gulf of Mexico, but they had no idea where they were. Amazingly, the bedraggled group then met native people who were willing to offer them sustenance. Theodoros, along with another sailor, abandoned one of the boats and followed them.
The first Greek in America disappeared mysteriously
The Native Americans returned with food and water but without Theodoros. The Spaniards attempted to locate him were unsuccessful. After almost ten years spent adventuring and exploring the vast new lands, they returned to Spain in 1537.
A number of legends arose about the cunning Greek. The Spaniards considered that his disappearance was simply an act of disobedience. Others believed that he befriended the native people so that he would acquire all the gold for himself.
In 1540, Spanish historian Gonzalo Valdez went to the area where the Greek man had disappeared and undertook a detailed search for him. The indigenous people told him that two Christians had been living with them, but at some point, they had been killed.
According to historian Cyclone Covey, soldiers exploring the land with Hernando de Soto encountered a group of indigenous people who claimed to remember the Greek, even producing a dagger that had belonged to him.
In Covey’s account, the native people claimed to have killed Griego. Covey has speculated that Theodoros might have gone ashore willingly because he thought that was his best chance of survival.
If the story of the Native Americans is in fact true, Theodoros Griego was not only the first Greek to set foot in America but also the first Greek to have lived with the native people of the New World.
Today, in Clearwater Beach, Florida stands a bronze statue of the brave Theodoros Griego. The words on the plaque below read: “The history of Greeks (Hellenes) in America starts from here.”