BY MR. CARAVASOS AND AURELIA**
Christos Tsakonas arrived in the United States on March 8, 1873, on the S.S. Anglia and soon became an independent merchant. Two years later he returned to his village and took five young men back with him. Theodore Saloutos, author of The Greeks in the United States, called these five “the nucleus for the succeeding waves of immigrants from Sparta.” In 1877, the number of immigrants grew to fifteen, and in 1882, it took three boats to bring seventy men from Tsintzina to America. Saloutos claims that between 1880 and 1890 more than 1,000 young Spartans, all from the same village and neighboring villages, found a new life in America.
Peter W. Dickson, a modern-day historian and Tsintzinian who is an authority on Christos Tsakonas and the Tsintzinians, calls Christos Tsakonas’ historical and sociological contributions “profound.”
Dixon points out that by the mid 1880’s, almost one third of all Greeks in the United States were from Tsintzina and they came because of Tsakonas.
As a young boy, Christos lived a laconic life similar to that of his ancestors, the Spartans. The exact village in Laconia where he was born is Zoupena at the foot of the Parnon Mountains east-southeast of Sparta. In Christos’ time and still today, in the hot summer months, those living in Zoupena and the neighboring village of Goritsa go to Tsintzina to escape the heat. It is now the setting for a very beautiful and peaceful mountain retreat. The residents from these two villages who share this special sanctuary are known as Tsintzinians because Zoupena and Goritsa were settled centuries later than Tsintzina.
Christos grew up not knowing his father, who died shortly before his son was born. A strong mother instilled in Christos qualities of discipline, resolve, and selflessness and had no alternative but to raise the boy and his brother and two sisters in extreme poverty. While in his late teens and determined to seek a better life, Christos began his odyssey. He went first to Piraeus in Greece, next to Alexandria, Egypt, and finally to the United States. On his journey to the States, he traveled with Nikolaos Anagnostou, from the Arcadian village of Achouria near Tripoli.
Tsakonas’ contributions and those of his followers are profound, Peter Dixon, the historian, claims. He says these early pioneers founded the first Greek societies in both Chicago and San Francisco and the society in Chicago then established the city’s first Greek Orthodox Church in 1891. With Christos Tsakonas as their leader, they became fruit merchants and supplied produce initially for a chain of about ten candy and fruit stores. Perhaps the most famous of the Chicago merchants was Peter Giannoukos, famous for selling produce and vegetables, and imported Greek products such as olives, olive oil, cheeses and a Greek brandy called coniac.
Dixon calls Christos “a prophet” who preached about the economic opportunities that America offered. He says Christos’ message was “a strong one” and explains that the period of 1875 to 1890 was a time of mass migration to America for the Tsintzinians even though the area where they lived in the Peloponnese prospered during this period.
He moved his followers from the country (Tsintzina) to the city (Athens), where they had their first sophisticated “make-over.” According to Dickson, the men were smartly dressed and groomed by Ioannis D. Zachariou, a prominent businessman and the only Tsintzinian living in Athens in the 1870’s. Zachariou operated an impressive catering service for the Royal Palace and foreign embassies in the capital.
In a selfless way that matched the generosity of Christos, Zachariou used his many contacts to help the men secure passage. Then, he called upon his experience and innate good taste to groom the men for their fantastic journey. Dressing them all in fine European clothes, complete with suits, ties, and bowler hats, Dixon says they must have been the smartest looking group of immigrants to ever step off the boat at Ellis Island. From then on, all Tsintzinians who planned to migrate to America were told, as a rite of passage, to “go see Zachariou,” and they did.
Spiridon Kontakis, another historian who wrote an engrossing historical account of Greek immigration to America, claims that the turning point in the numbers of Greeks who came here occurred in 1882 when nearly one hundred people from Tsintzina and nearby villages sailed to these shores. Kontakis says that this captured public attention because such an exodus to the New World was unprecedented, given the traditional inclination of Greeks to go elsewhere in search of a better life. Prior to this, no more than twenty Greeks a year arrived in the United States.
Through the years, Christos Tsakonas noted that the Greek diaspora tended to settle in small towns in the Midwest, in large metropolis such as Chicago and New York City, and in the thriving industrial areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio. He built his chain of fruit and candy stores in these locations, hired young Tsintzinians and Spartans, and turned the management of these stores over to those who had business skills, encouraging his compatriots to become entrepreneurs.
When Christos retired in 1907 to return to Greece, the young villagers he helped honored him on his birthday with a huge party in Jamestown, New York. Since 1913, there has been an annual reunion of the Tsintzinian Society, making it perhaps the only gathering of descendants from one village to meet each year over four or five generations. Peter Dixon says this is “unique in American cultural history.”
The journey to America begun by Christos Tsakonas was indeed unique. It was also heroic. Those who followed him proudly call themselves “The Tsintzinians.”
*Mr. Caravasos was born in Zoupena, is the great, grand nephew of Christos Tsakonas and is the author of two books. One is a poignant memoir, Recollections of Survival, a story of how he and his family survived during World War II and the Greek Civil War. The second is a sequel entitled A New Life in America.
**Aurelia writes about the people and places of Greece and is the author of two novels, A Lone Red Apple, set on the Cycladic island of Mykonos, and her latest novel, Labyrinthine Ways, which unfolds on the island of Crete.