Today is Columbus Day, a federal holiday that honors the Italian Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas on October 12, 1492. Many countries throughout the Americas have a Columbus Day, including Belize, Uruguay, and Argentina.
In the United States, it first became a state holiday in Colorado in 1905 thanks to the lobbying of Angelo Noce, a first generation Italian living in Denver. Similar lobbying by Italians made it a federal holiday in 1937. Many Italians observe the day as a celebration of Italian heritage, while other Americans view it as the “discovery” of America.
In recent decades, the holiday has become increasingly controversial with the rise of the alternative Indigenous People’s Day. Not to be outdone, the date is also that of Leif Erikson Day, which celebrates the Viking Erikson’s arrival in the Americas 500 years before Columbus.
Learn about the history and origins of Columbus Day here:
1. Columbus Was Turned Down by Multiple Monarchs
Columbus proposed to reach the East Indies by sailing west. The previous route East has been closed due to the fall of Constanipole to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, giving rise to the modern state of Turkey.
He pitched his plans to a multitude of European monarchs. In 1485, Columbus presented his plans to King John II of Portugal. He was turned down then, and again in 1488. During this, he also sent his brother Bartholomew to the court of Henry VII of England to ask whether the English crown might finance his expedition. Like his brother, Bartholomew was also turned away by the crown.
In 1486, Columbus got his first attempt at an audience with the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. They turned him down but kept Columbus on a payroll so that he wouldn’t take his ideas elsewhere.
In January 1492, at the recently reclaimed Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula, Columbus got his “yes” from the Spanish monarchs.
He sailed west that October.
2. Columbus Landed in Modern Day Haiti & the Dominican Republic
On the evening of August 3, 1492, Columbus departed from Palos de la Frontera, in the southwestern Spanish province of Huelva He had three ships, the most famous of which is the Santa Maria. On October 12, 1492, he made landfall in the “New World.”
According to the Washington Post, “crew members may have included free black Africans who arrived in the New World about a decade before the slave trade began.”
Columbus’ landing in Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) wiped out the native Taino people with disease and slavery. Native population immune systems were not equipped to fight off common European diseases, like smallpox. When native populations were all but extinct from disease, the trans-Atlantic African slave trade was ramped up to fill this slavery void.
Columbus would make three more trips to the new lands, which he discovered was rich with gold.
On his second trip, Columbus led an expedition of more colonists to the Caribbean.
3. Columbus Day Is Viewed as Celebration of Italian Identity
Italian-Americans view Columbus Day as a celebration of Italian-American heritage.
Until the late 20th century, Italian-Americans faced racism in the United States and Columbus Day’s inception in Denver in 1905 was hoped to be an acceptance of Italian culture in the New World. However, in the 1911 Dillingham report, created by the United States Immigration Commission, Italians were described as “inherently criminal” by the government.
According to the New York Times, “The Immigration Act of 1924 barred most Italians from coming into the country — causing immigration from Italy to fall 90 percent.”
Despite this, much of Italian culture is celebrated today as American.
4. Europeans Were in the U.S. 500 Years Before Columbus
Leif Erikson was the son of Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild, who established European Greenlandic colonies. He was also a distant relative of Naddodd, who discovered the previously uninhabited Iceland.
It is unknown where Erikson was born, but most historians consider it likely that he was born in Iceland. In Iceland, he is considered a national hero for his sailing from the neighboring island Greenland to the North American coast.
He named this place “Vinland.”
However, this might not be true. According to a literal interpretation of the two sagas in the book Voyages to Vinland by American-Norwegian Einar Haugen, Erikson had heard of another land from a merchant who sighted it earlier, named Bjarni Herjolfsson. When Erikson finally got to Vinland by accident, he rescued two men who had been shipwrecked there.
These two unknown men are, according to Haugen, the “discoverers” of Vinland. It was called this because the land was described as being full of vines and grapes.
The Norse described “skraelings” in their texts about Vinland, which has been taken to be their term for Native Americans.
Evidence of contact between the Vikings and indigenous peoples has been far away from Vinland. In August 1957, a pre-Columbian Norse artefact was found at the Goddard archaeological site on the central Maine coast. According to the History Channel, “The Goddard site contained extensive remains of an old Native American settlement at Naskeag Point, Brooklin, Maine on Penobscot Bay. On 18 August 1957, some weeks into his dig, a mere 12 centimetres below the surface at the center of the site, Mellgren found a small silver coin… in 1978, experts from London examined the coin and proclaimed it Norse. Experts from the University of Oslo determined the coin had probably been minted between 1065 and 1080 and circulated in the 12th and 13th centuries.”
However, some researchers believe the penny is a hoax.
5. It Is Also Indigenous People’s Day
The idea of a replacement holiday for Columbus Day with a counter-celebration of Native American culture was first conceived of in 1977 at the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, hosted by the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
It took over twenty years for natives throughout all the Americas to agree on the enactment of the holiday. In 1990, at the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance in Quito, Ecuador, native groups agreed that in 1992, exactly 500-years after Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the Americas, they would celebrate native culture in counter-protest to the government-sponsored Columbus Day.
The Declaration of Quito begins:
The Indians of America have never abandoned our constant struggle against the conditions of oppression, discrimination, and exploitation, which were imposed upon us as a result of the European invasion of our ancestral territories.
Our struggle is not a mere conjunctural reflection of the memory of 500 years of oppression, which the invaders, in complicity with the “democratic” governments of our countries, want to turn into events of jubilation and celebration. Our Indian People, Nations and Nationalities are basing our struggle on our identity, which shall lead us to true liberation. We are responding aggressively, and commit ourselves to reject this “celebration.”
Today, many cities and states now recognize Indigenous People’s Day over or with Columbus Day. In fact, last week, the Salt Lake City Council voted to have Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Columbus Day. They join 25 other cities nationwide in recognizing Indigenous People’s Day.
However, not everyone in Utah is happy about it. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, “The Italian American Civic League of Utah sent the City Council a letter Sept. 26, understanding the proposed resolution as the rejection of Columbus Day — “an uncalled-for affront to our culture” and “degrading and demeaning to all Italian-Americans.”