In 1860, U.S. Census takers recorded 328 Greek immigrants living in America. Among them were 40 young men and boys who arrived after the Greek War of Independence, which had left them orphaned.
They were given college educations in the United States. Most succeeded in their adopted country, while a few others returned to their homeland.
The orphans were followed decades later by waves of desperately poor Greek immigrants looking for work. The later arrivals didn’t always succeed. Ever since those 40 orphans were brought here, though, the tiny Greek community has had a disproportionate impact on New England.
Greek-Americans have given us politicians, athletes, actors, scholars and architects. Red Sox first baseman and college football star Harry Agannis, the Golden Greek, was born in Lynn, Mass. Former governor Michael Dukakis and his cousin actress Olympia Dukakis were born in Brookline. Throughout New England there are more than a hundred Greek Orthodox churches, which sponsor Greek festivals throughout the year. Greek-Americans gave Manchester, N.H., the Puritan Back Room and the best onion rings in town as well as the Greek amphitheater at the University of Connecticut.
Most of all, they gave us the Greek diner, along with spanikopita, baklava, gyros, Greek pizza and the ubiquitous Greek salad.
The 1st Greek Immigrants
The first Greek to land in America is believed to be a sailor named Don Teodoro, who came with Spanish explorer Panfilio de Narvaez in 1528. He was killed by Indians in Florida.
The Greek War of Independence brought autonomy to the country in 1832, but tens of thousands of civilians were massacred. A Congregationalist missionary society, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, brought the orphaned sons of distinguished families to the U.S. to be educated and converted. The Board had been founded in 1806 by five Williams College students.
Some of the orphans were brought by supporters of the Greek revolutionaries, such as Samuel Gridley Howe. Educated in the United States, they went on to enter the ministry, medicine, law, and education professions, or succeeded in business.
John Zachos became an educational pioneer, teaching freed slaves. Lucas Miltiades Miller was elected the first U.S. congressman from Wisconsin. Evangelismos Aspostolides Sophocles became a Harvard professor of Greek. George Pericardis taught at Amherst College before amassing a fortune in New Jersey.
A trickle of Greek sailors and merchants came to the United States in the mid-19th century. The merchants set up import-export businesses in American cities; the sailors worked on steamboats in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River.
The Great Wave
In 1890 came the first great wave of Greek immigrants. They were 90 percent male, extremely poor and looking for work. Most found it in the mills and factories of the Massachusetts cities of Lowell, Haverhill, Lynn, Boston, and Peabody, Chicopee, Springfield and New Bedford. They settled in Nashua and Manchester, N.H., and in the Connecticut cities of Bridgeport, New Britain and Norwich, Conn.
Between 1890 and 1924, more than 400,000 Greeks arrived to the United States. Many intended to return to Greece with their American earnings.
From 1924 to the end of World War II, the United States closed the door to immigrants. Only about a thousand Greeks arrived each year. Pressure increased on immigrants to assimilate.
World War II and the Greek Civil War devastated the Greek countryside, and once again the United States welcomed Greek immigrants. From 1947-1967, 5,000 Greek immigrants arrived a year. Then in 1968, immigration laws were relaxed and an average of 11,000 Greeks came to America each year until 1979.
The postwar era was the golden age of Greek diners in America. Diners originated in Providence and classic diners were first manufactured in Worcester. Six hundred diners sprang up in the New York metropolitan area, many in Fairfield County, Conn.
In Connecticut, Italians dominated the pizza business, but were retiring after World War II. Greek families bought up the pizzerias, and by the late 1970s, 76 percent of Greek families worked in Connecticut pizza shops.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the New York-Newark-Bridgeport area has the most people of Greek ancestry in the country, with 202,304. Boston-Worcester-Manchester ranks second, with 96,871.
Lowell is especially important to the Greek-American community. It had the first and most extensive Greektown, and the first Greek church in America was built there in 1906. By 1913 there were 30 Greek groceries in Lowell. One of them, DeMoulas Market Basket, was founded in 1917 and now has 77 stores throughout New England. Paul Tsongas represented Lowell as a U.S. senator and later became a candidate for president of the United States.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who also ran for president, was the son of a Greek immigrant who settled in Lowell. Nick Mavroulas grew up in nearby Peabody and became a congressman from Boston’s North Shore. Ted Gatsas is mayor of Manchester, N.H., and political commentator George Stephanopoulos grew up in Fall River, Mass.
The New England community with the densest Greek-American population today is Nahant, Mass., with 5.3 percent, making it the ninth most Greek-American community in America. Next comes 16th-ranked Peabody, Mass., with 4.3 percent, followed by Dracut, Mass., with 3.9 percent, ranked 19th.
New England also attracts recent Greek immigrants to Massachusetts towns such as Raynham Center, West Falmouth, Watertown, North Lakeville, Arlington and Peabody. New Greek immigrants have also
Photos: Miss Worcester Diner By Improbcat - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7813073