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The first known Greek to arrive in America after Columbus is honored with a statue at Clearwater Beach.

18 Δεκεμβρίου 2009

The first known Greek to arrive in America after Columbus is honored with a statue at Clearwater Beach.

Stories about the Greeks and Pinellas County often begin with the arrival of Greek sponge divers in Tarpon Springs around 1905.

But Michael Servos thinks the history of the Greeks in Pinellas should start much earlier – nearly 500 years ago.

Servos, 57, of Belleair Beach is president of the Panhellenic Federation of Florida. This Saturday at Clearwater Beach, the federation will dedicate a statue of Theodoros or Theodore, a Greek crewman in an ill-fated Spanish expedition that arrived in Florida in the spring of 1528.

The federation, a nonprofit umbrella group for more than a dozen Greek organizations, donated the 900-pound bronze statue to Clearwater. Clearwater city commissioners voted to accept it in September 2003.

“We’re delighted to have it,” said Art Kader, Clearwater’s assistant parks and recreation director.

The statue stands at Pier 60 Park. The federation chose Clearwater as a home for the monument after learning that a Spanish expedition that included Theodore came through the area on its way to North Florida.

“We were doing a lot of research for the first Greek who came to America,” Servos said. “After a long search that we did (learn) that the first Greek came to the Clearwater area. … We were very surprised, very pleased and very blessed, too.”

The statue, made in Italy, cost the federation $75,000, Servos said. The base, shaped like the prow of a ship and sheathed in sparkling black granite, cost another $25,000.

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To create the statue, the federation consulted the Benaki Museum in Athens to learn how a Greek sailor of the 16th century would have dressed, Servos said.

“We did not know exactly how his face looked, because we did not have a picture of him,” he said. “We gave him a good Greek face.”

While little is known of Theodore’s appearance, more is known about his life.

Theodore’s story was told in 1542 by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer who left for Florida as an officer in an expedition of 300 men, including Theodore.

Only four returned.

Theodore wasn’t among them.

The expedition landed on the west coast of Florida in the spring of 1528, according to Cabeza de Vaca’s official report of the adventure, which has been translated by Wake Forest University history professor emeritus Cyclone Covey.

Just how close the expedition came to Clearwater is open to debate. Some historians place the landing in the Tampa Bay area. Some accounts even have the Europeans landing in Boca Ciega Bay and making their way east across the Pinellas peninsula to what is now Safety Harbor. Others put the landing as far south as Port Charlotte.

Servos said his study of the historical accounts convinces him that Clearwater is the best place to honor Theodore with a statue.

“He came to Tampa Bay, most likely Clearwater, so I think Clearwater is the best place to put it,” Servos said.

In Cabeza de Vaca’s history of the expedition, Theodore doesn’t make an appearance early on. That’s probably a good thing, considering what historians say happened once the Europeans arrived. Upon landing, the commander of the conquistadors, the ruthless Panfilo de Narvaez, claimed the whole area for Spain. A fight broke out, and the Europeans cut off the nose of a local Indian chief, hacked the chief’s mother to death and fed parts of her body to Narvaez’s pet greyhounds.

Later on and hundreds of miles away, Theodore emerges in the story as a bold and ingenious character.

After disembarking from their ships, the explorers set out over land for northern Florida, where Indians had told them there “was much gold and plenty of everything we wanted,” according to Cabeza de Vaca’s report to the king of Spain.

By August, the group decided to take to the sea again. Theodore played a key role.

“A Greek, Don Teodoro, made pitch from certain pine resins,” Cabeza de Vaca wrote. “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.”

In late October, however, Theodore disappeared near Mobile Bay after accompanying two Indians in a search for fresh water.

“That Greek, Doroteo Teodoro, whom I spoke of before, said he would go,” Cabeza de Vaca wrote. “The Governor and others failed to dissuade him. He took along a Negro, and the Indians left two of their number as hostages.

“lt was night when the Indians returned, without water in the containers and without the Christians.

“When these returning lndians spoke to our two hostages, the latter started to dive into the water; but some of our soldiers held them back in the barge. The canoe sped away, leaving us very confused and dejected over the loss of our comrades.”

Twelve years later, according to Covey, soldiers with Hernando de Soto encountered Indians who remembered the Greek and produced a dagger that had belonged to him. Some accounts say the Indians claimed they killed both men. Covey has speculated that Theodore might have gone ashore willingly because he thought, in the long run, it was his best chance to survive.

In describing Theodore’s claim to fame, the Panhellenic federation is careful to describe him as the first known Greek to arrive in America after Columbus.

That’s an important qualification, said Covey, whose specialties are ancient and colonial history. There are archaeological indications of Greek and Greek-speaking people reaching the interior of North America more than a dozen centuries before Columbus, he said.

Some researchers are skeptical of at least one of the discoveries Covey mentioned, but the possibility that pre-modern Greeks reached America doesn’t surprise Servos.

“We believe that Ulysses came to America,” he said, “because 20 years to get lost in the Mediterranean, that’s a lot of years.”

Regardless of who came before, Servos said, Theodore should be remembered and honored as a pioneer.

“The history of the Greeks in America,” he said, “starts from here.”