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 westward. 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 not only was part of the group; he played an important role in later developments.
At one point, the Spanish conquistadors killed the mother of the local Indian chief and cut off the nose of the chief. They then moved to northern Florida searching for the gold which the natives had spoken about. 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 were attacked by the 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.
However, a solution was proffered 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 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 some natives who were willing to offer them water and food. Theodoros, along with one sailor, left one of the boats and followed them.
The natives returned with the food and water, but without Theodoros. The Spaniards tried to find him, but they were unsuccessful. After almost ten years spent adventuring and exploring the vast new lands, they returned to Spain in 1537.
A number of legends grew up about the cunning Greek. The Spaniards considered that his disappearance was simply an act of disobedience. Others believed 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 man had disappeared and undertook a detailed search for him. The natives told him that two Christians had been living with them — but at some point they had killed them.
According to historian Cyclone Covey, soldiers exploring the land with Hernando de Soto encountered natives who said they remembered the Greek, and they even 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 — he was also the first Greek who had lived with the native people of that continent.
Today, in Clearwater Beach, Florida there is 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.”