The Holiday Zone celebrates Columbus Day on October 12.

The History of Columbus Day

What is Columbus Day all about?
How did Columbus Day become a holiday?
Who was Christopher Columbus?
How important was his discovery?
What makes Columbus Day controversial?

What is Columbus Day all about?
Celebrated the second Monday of October, Columbus Day is day set aside to commemorate Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas on October 12, 1492. It is also a day to celebrate the role Italian immigrants have played in making the United States great.

Columbus Day is a legal holiday in the United States. Schools, government offices, post offices, and banks are closed. Some businesses are also closed. Others stay open. Virtually all stores are open on Columbus Day, and many hold special sales.

Countries in North and South America remember Columbus's discovery in different ways. October 12 is celebrated as "Discovery Day" in the Bahamas. It is celebrated as Día de la Raza (Day of the Race) in many parts of Latin America. It is celebrated as Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of the Indigenous Resistance) in Venezuela.

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How did Columbus Day become a holiday?
Three hundred years passed between Columbus's discovery of the America and the first known celebration of that discovery. In 1792, a group called the Colombian Order organized a ceremony in New York City to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the new world. After the Civil War, a group of Italian immigrants in New York organized the first real celebration of that discovery. In the years that followed, other groups of Italian immigrants did likewise. 

In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in the Bahamas. Harrison did not, however, make the day a national holiday. Seventeen years later, in 1905, Colorado became the first state to designate October 12th as a holiday. In later years, other states did the same. Then, in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared October 12th a federal legal holiday. It remained such until 1971, when Congress moved the official observance to the second Monday of October.

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Who was Christopher Columbus?
Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. He was born into what most would consider a middle class family. But like most children of the era, he was expected to begin preparing for a career at an early age. In his later writings, Columbus claimed he first went to sea at the age of 10.

In 1470, following a shipwreck off the cost of Portugal, Columbus took up residence in that country. From there, he continued to sail, following established routes and making voyages as far as Iceland. But Columbus wanted to do more. Columbus wanted to find a shorter route to the lands described by Marco Polo some 200 years before -- China, Japan, India, and the East Indies. What's more, Columbus believed the secret to finding a shorter route lay in sailing west.

With plans in hand, Columbus approached King John II of Portugal in 1485. He asked for three sturdy ships and enough money to fund a year's voyage of discovery. King John II referred the matter to his advisors. The advisors reviewed Columbus's plans. Columbus believed he could reach land in just five weeks, but the king's advisors thought the proposed voyage would take much longer. Ultimately, the advisors said the voyage would be a poor investment, and the king rejected Columbus's request.

Columbus appealed to the court again three years later. By that time, though, Bartholomew Diaz had successfully sailed around the tip of Africa, and Portugal had lost all interest in western exploration.

So Columbus took his plans on to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain. Again, plans were referred to committee. Again, the committee believed Columbus had grossly underestimated the length of such a journey, and funding was refused. But the king and queen of Spain did not want Columbus to take his proposal elsewhere, so they provided him with an annual salary. They also issued a decree stating that he was to be given free food and lodging throughout the country.

Still, Columbus wanted more. He found private investors to underwrite roughly the half the anticipated cost of his expedition and kept asking the crown for the rest of the money -- along with certain other provisions. If Columbus discovered new land, he was to be named "Admiral of the Ocean Sea." He was to be appointed governor of any newly-found lands. He also requested 10 percent of all revenues produced through new lands. At last, Columbus succeeded in persuading Ferdinand to underwrite the venture, and on the third of August 1492, Columbus set sail with 90 crewmen and three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. It was a dangerous voyage. No one had ever attempted to sail so far or so long without seeing land. 

After two months at sea, many of Columbus's crew wanted to turn back. They had already traveled much longer than originally planned, with no land in sight. Columbus insisted, however, that they press on. And on October 12, 1492, land was spotted -- land Columbus would call "San Salvador." Columbus believed he had reached an island off the cost of the East Indies and dubbed the native inhabitants "Indians" as a result. Columbus was wrong. He had, in fact, stumbled onto the Americas.

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How important was his "discovery"?
In years gone by, Columbus's landing was heralded as a great "discovery."  In fact, the continent Columbus reached was already inhabited, and because of this, many in recent days have questioned whether Columbus's encounter with the New World truly constituted a "discovery." It has also been pointed out that Columbus made a sum total of four western voyages to the New World over the course of his life, without ever realizing that he had found a continent previously unknown to much of the world's population. He went to his grave believing that all of his explorations had been along Asian coast. Nor was Columbus the first "outsider" to reach the New World. Viking explorers had set up colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland nearly five centuries earlier.

But Columbus's explorations were not without significance. While he himself never reached India, his accounts served as an inspiration to future explorers. His writings and exploits influenced nearly two centuries of exploration and discovery. Eventually, the Americas were recognized as "new" territory, and a western sea route to the East was discovered. His courage, determination, and persistance, romanticized in the writings of Washington Iriving, were held up to generations of children as ideals to emulate.

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What makes Columbus Day controversial?
Although Columbus Day continues to be a national holiday, it is not without controversy. Some biographers have described Columbus's initial mission as a quest "for gold, for God, and for glory." Yet somewhere along the way, something went tragically awry. As Columbus set his sights on the riches the New World had to offer, his professed concern for the souls of the natives seemingly vanished. First came the enslavery of native populations, then genocide. Within four years of the time Columbus set foot on San Salvadorian soil, his men had killed or exported a full third of the native population. Columbus's own journals include graphic accounts of torture and violence perpetrated against the men, women, and children who greeted him in peace. Four decades of such exploitation resulted in the culture's virtual extinction.

Nor did Columbus's exploits bring him the glory he sought. News of the atrocities perpetrated in the New World made their way back to Ferdinand and Isabella. These accounts were investigated and found to be true. Columbus was stripped of his governorship. He was imprisoned, and the Admiral of the Ocean Sea returned home in chains. Columbus's wealth was eventually restored, and the crown allowed him to make a fourth and final voyage. But never again would he be allowed to govern or receive a portion of the revenues produced through Spanish colonization of the West Indies.

Beyond the crimes in which Columbus intentionally played a part, his writings generated a flood of exploration and discovery ... accompanied by further enslavement and even greater atrocities. And along with the European explorers came a host of European diseases, against which the native populations had no resistance. One hundred years after that fateful landing, the native population of the Americas had been reduced by more than 90 percent -- a statistic that translated into the deaths of more than 90 million men, women, and children.

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