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History of Columbus Day

History of Columbus Day

October 01, 2023

Celebrated on the second Monday of October, Columbus Day marks the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492, and countries throughout this region celebrate this holiday. People have been celebrating Columbus Day since the 1700s, but the United States government only recognized the day as a holiday in 1937. Since at least the 1970s, some controversy has surrounded this holiday, and as a result, people in some areas have decided to celebrate Indigenous People's Days or other alternatives. 

Keep reading to learn more about the history of Columbus and this holiday.


Columbus Sails to the Bahamas

An Italian-born explorer, Christopher Columbus was backed by the Spanish royalty King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and in August 1942, he set sail toward China and India. However, instead of taking the usual route, he decided to chart a western sea route. 

On October 12, 1942, he bumped into the Bahamas, and as a result of this navigational error, he became the first European to reach the Americans since the Vikings set up colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland in the 900's. 


Columbus Continues to Explore the Americas

Columbus and his ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, continued to explore the area. In late October, they spotted Cuba which they believed to be mainland China, and in December, Columbus and 39 of his men established a colony in Hispaniola, which they believed to be Japan. 

That spring, Columbus returned to Spain with gold, spices, and indigenous people he had taken captive. At this point, Columbus still was not aware that he had reached a different area. He continued to believe the Americas were Asia until his third trek to the area. 


The Founding of Columbus Day

In 1792, 300 years after Columbus had stumbled into the area, people in New York held a celebration to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Columbus's arrival. In the following few years, Italian and Catholic communities around the country began celebrating October 12.

In 1892, President Benjamin Harris encouraged Americans to celebrate this holiday. He told them to "cease from toil" and do activities that "honor the discoverer" and "four completed centuries of American life." Finally, in 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt made the day an official American holiday. 


Controversy Over Columbus Day

The controversy over Columbus Day is nearly as old as the holiday itself. In the 1800s, anti-immigrant groups disdained the holiday because of its connection with Catholics. In the following century, people began to protest the fact that the holiday marks the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade and the wars and infectious diseases that Europeans wrought on indigenous people. 


Alternatives to Columbus Day

Over the years, many people have embraced alternatives to Columbus Day. For instance, many Latin American countries celebrate Dia de la Raza which is Spanish for Day of the Race, and these holidays celebrate the diverse roots of three countries. 

Many states such as Alaska, Hawaii Oregon, and South Dakota, and some cities have replaced the holiday with Indigenous People's Day. Other communities have gone a different direction — for example, Denver recently decided to celebrate Mother Cabrini Day. 

Regardless of what holiday you decide to celebrate, this day marks the anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas, an event that changed the course of human history, and like most significant events, it brought both great terror and joy in its wake. 


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Content Provider: WriterAccess

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