No history of Greek immigrants to our locale can be complete without first discussing the reasons for their being here, a fascinating story in itself.
The tiny, poverty-riddled country of Greece was once part of the proud Byzantine Empire—the new Rome in the East—a wealthy and highly advanced civilization almost unknown in the dark ages of the western world, and which thrived from its founding by the Roman Emperor, St. Constantine the Great, in the fourth century A.D. until its weakening by Crusaders in the twelfth century. Their sacking of Constantinople and other areas of Byzantium made the Christian Empire no longer able to resist the forces of the Moslem Ottoman Turks, who conquered Constantinople in 1453 and placed the Greeks into a slavery of 400 years duration.
Massacres of the population were commonplace, and Philhellene Americans adopted a number of orphans during the 1700s and 1800s as American officials learned of their plight. The atrocities of the Turks decimated the population for centuries and desecrated their churches and religious shrines, but never destroyed Greek Orthodox Christianity. The Greek Orthodox Church “stood like a true mother near her children, to safeguard them in the struggle for freedom.” It was this kind of service that helped develop in today’s Greek nation a feeling of gratitude towards the Orthodox Church and explains the identification of patriotism with Orthodoxy.1 In fact, it was a priest, Metropolitan Germanos, who raised the banner for revolution in 1821 and began a struggle for freedom which lasted one hundred years and culminated in the freeing of most of Greece around the time of World War I.
It should be noted that “after the successful American Revolution, the founding fathers turned to classical Greece, its sense of democracy and culture, upon which to erect the foundations of the new Nation.” This classical revival affected education, painting, sculpture, theater, even women’s fashions. A little known fact is that in 1776 the Continental Congress seriously considered adopting Greek as the official language of our fledgling nation. The resolution failed by only one vote, that of Benjamin Franklin, evidence of the strong attachment of America to classical Greece.
The bond grew between the two nations with the active participation of Americans in the Greek struggle for liberty which began about 1806 when Nicholas Biddle, a young archeologist out of Princeton, discovered the misery of the enslaved Greeks while exploring the ancient ruins. He published the truth about Turkish rule, and indignation and sympathy swept the country. The Greek Revolution became a subject of debate in Congress and Daniel Webster and Henry Clay pushed for official recognition and support of the Greek struggle. Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams included strong expressions of support in their annual messages to Congress. Material assistance and active participation of a number of well-known Americans (among them Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, Col. Jonathan P. Miller and Lt. Gen. George Jarvis) in the Greek Revolution resulted in a special bond between Greece and America and influenced the decision of many Greeks to make America their permanent home. Americans understood that struggle and admired the Greeks for their historic contributions to the world as well as their spirit in confronting a powerful and cruel ruler.
One can imagine the hardships which drove many enterprising Greeks from their beloved homeland to seek a better life. Oppression by the Turks and lack of economic opportunities forced the Greeks to seek their fortunes in foreign lands.
Dr. George Papaiouannou,* author of THE ODYSSEY OF HELLENIZATION IN AMERICA, saw the Greek immigration to America in four phases: (1) the adoption of orphaned Greek children by Philhellenes, (2) the establishment of operations here by Greek merchants, (3) the decision of many Greek sailors to settle in the United States, and finally, (4) the mass migration of hundreds of thousands of mainly young, poor, rural Greeks, determined to pursue the relatively unlimited opportunities in the young country they adopted.
Probably the first group of Greek immigrants arrived in 1768. A large number of Greeks and others under the leadership of Dr. Andrew Turnbull attempted to establish a colony at New Smyrna, Florida, and after its failure, most of the survivors moved to St. Augustine. Much later, toward the end of the nineteenth century, a flood of hundreds of thousands made the still difficult and dangerous journey across the seas to America.
While most of the early immigrants from Europe fled their native lands because of religious persecution, this was not the case with the Greeks. After Greece’s liberation from the Turkish yoke, the hundreds of thousands who emigrated from their motherland left because of economic reasons.