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 from today’s Florida and westward. Head of the mission was conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez. After stops in Santo Domingo and Cuba, in February Narvaez left Cuba with five ships and 400 men to land in the Tampa Bay area.
Indeed, the expedition landed in the area that today is Clearwater, Florida, on April 14, 1528, according to Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca’s official report of the adventure, which has been translated by history professor emeritus Cyclone Covey.
Among the men who landed in Florida there was a Greek man who appeared later in the history of Cabeza de Vaca’s expedition. Theodoros Griego, or Don Teodoro Griego as he was later called, had an important role in later developments.
The Spanish conquistadors killed the mother of the local Indian chief and cut off the nose of the chief. Then they moved to northern Florida searching for the gold that the natives had spoken about. The Greek man was in the mission that moved northward in search of the gold.
Once further north, the Spaniards were trapped in the mountains and were attacked by natives. The hardships, the hunger and attacks of the natives brought the invaders to their knees. Most of them were killed and the survivors were forced to flee.
The solution was given by the ingenious Greek. 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 boats the Spanish conquistadors managed to escape using the tributaries of Mississippi.
A month later they came out into the sea, but they did not know where they were. That’s where they met some natives who were willing to offer them water and food. Theodoros along with a sailor came out of the boat and followed them.
The natives returned with the food and water, but without Theodoros. The Spaniards tried to find him, but they did not. After almost 10 years of wandering in the new land, they returned to Spain in 1537.
A number of legends were heard about the cunning Greek. The Spaniards considered that his disappearance was simply an act of disobedience. Others thought that he befriended the natives so that he would get all the gold for himself.
In 1540, Spanish historian Gonzalo Valdez went to the area where the Greek had disappeared and searched for him. The natives told him that two Christians were living with them but at some point they killed them.
According to Covey, soldiers with Hernando de Soto encountered natives who said they remembered the Greek and produced a dagger that had belonged to him. In his account, the natives claimed to have killed Griegos also. Covey has speculated that Theodoros might have gone ashore willingly because he thought that was his best chance to survive.
If the story the natives said was true. Theodoros Griego was not only the first Greek to set foot in America, but he was also the first Greek who had lived with the natives.
Today, in Clearwater Beach, Florida there is a statue of Theodoros Griego. “The history of Greeks (Hellenes) in America starts from here” is written on the plaque.