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Columbus Day History & Information

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus was thought to be born in Genoa and raised in a Christian household. Some believe that he may have been a Jew who later converted to Christianity, and may have been born in Spain or Portugal. He began work at sea early on, making his first major voyage at age 24 to the Aegean island of Chios. With little formal education, Columbus was self-taught in a variety of subjects. He learned how to read Latin and write Castilian, and he read a considerable amount of geographical and theological literature. He was probably influenced by his brother Bartholomew, who was thought to accompany Bartholomew Diaz on his expedition around the Cape of Good Hope, and also by Martin Alonso Pinzón, who sailed the Pinta on its first voyage.

Columbus’ seaman career began when he became a Portuguese merchant marine. He survived a shipwreck off of Cape St. Vincent in Portugal in 1476. In Lisbon, he and his brother worked as chart makers for a short time. In 1479, he married Felipa Perestrello e Moniz and had a son, Diego, the next year. After Felipa’s death in 1485, Columbus took Beatriz Enríquez de Harana as his mistress, and had a second son named Ferdinand. Although he and Beatriz never married, Columbus provided for her and legitimatized Ferdinand in his will.

Columbus’ Voyages

Columbus was focused on discovering a westward route to Asia. Contrary to popular belief, most educated Europeans believed the world was round since the early 7th century, and many people of his time believed that there was a westward route to Asia.

First Columbus asked King John II of Portugal to fund his voyage, but he refused. He next asked King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who also refused. After much persistence and at least one more refusal, the Spanish monarchs finally agreed to aid Columbus’ journey and meet his list of lavish demands if the voyage was successful. Columbus wanted to be knighted, appointed as Admiral of the Ocean Sea, made viceroy of any new lands, and awarded 10% of any new wealth.

Columbus set sail from Palos, Spain on Aug. 3, 1492. A small fleet of three ships, the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria, carried 90 men on the journey. The fleet headed southward toward the Canary Islands, and spent a month there before continuing. Next arriving at the Bahamian island of Guanaharí, the fleet stopped for a short time and continued. The ships landed on Oct. 28 in Cuba, which Columbus first believed to be Japan, then East Asia.


Columbus' Coat of Arms. Part of The LIBRARY of CONGRESS exhibition 1492: An Ongoing Voyage.

Strong winds carried the fleet to Haiti, which Columbus named "La Isla Española" or "Hispaniola." He thought the island could be Japan, an island related to the Biblical kingdom of Sheba (Saba'), or a legendary isle where King Solomon’s fleet gathered gems, gold and spices to bring back to Jerusalem. During the landing the Santa Maria was accidentally run aground, so only two ships began the journey back to Spain. Contrary to popular belief, Columbus did not set foot on the American mainland until his 3rd voyage in 1498. It is on that voyage that he planted the Spanish flag on the Paria Peninsula in Venezuela.

Upon return Columbus was secured the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and awarded the right to bear arms by Ferdinand and Isabella. Soon after, he added a continent and five golden anchors to his Coat of Arms. Wide publication of his first voyage made him famous throughout Europe. However by 1502 Columbus had been charged with maladministration in the Indies.

Secured to the belief he’d reached Asia, Columbus led three more expeditions to the Caribbean. By the end of his last voyage, he was suffering from arthritis and the aftereffects of malaria. He was disappointed, feeling that the Spanish monarchs didn’t fulfill their end of the bargain in providing him with New World property and gold. After Isabella, who was Columbus’ biggest supporter, died, he followed the court of Ferdinand for redress but was continuously rejected.

Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain in 1506, and was laid in the Franciscan friary. His remains were then moved to the family mausoleum at the Carthusian monastry of Las Cuevas in Seville. In 1542, Columbus’ son Diego requested his bones be moved to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic. After France gained control of Hispaniola, Columbus’ remains were sent back to Seville in 1898. In 1877, cathedral workers in Santo Domingo claimed to have discovered a second set of bones marked as Christopher Columbus. Those remains were interred in the Columbus Lighthouse in 1992.

Columbus Day Celebrations

  • Oct. 12, 1792 was the 300 year anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World. This was the first recorded celebration of Columbus’ discovery. The event was planned by the Society of St. Tammany, a.k.a. the Columbian Order.
  • Columbus’ landing and encounter is celebrated as "Discovery Day" in the Bahamas, "Hispanic Day" in Spain, and "Día de la Raza" throughout Latin America.
  • Because Columbus was believed to be a native of Genoa, Italian immigrants were the first to celebrate Columbus Day annually. Columbus Day is often considered a celebration of Italian or Italian-American heritage.
  • On the 400th anniversary of Columbus Day in 1892, the Pledge of Allegiance was recited publicly for the first time. The event was held in New York City.
  • President Roosevelt officially proclaimed Oct. 12 as “Columbus Day” in 1937. In 1971 President Nixon declared Columbus Day a federal holiday and changed the date to the second Monday in October.
  • On Columbus Day each year, the president of the United States directs U.S. flags to be flown on all public buildings. Many celebrate with parades and other patriotic events.
  • Due to the controversy surrounding the holiday and Christopher Columbus in general, South Dakota now celebrates Native American Day instead of Columbus Day. Many petitions are circulating on the internet for other states to do the same.

Much controversy exists today about Columbus and his voyages. Columbus was not the first mariner to sail to the New World. Long before the Vikings had set up colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland. The word "encounter" is now preferred to “discovery” in describing Columbus’ missions. Native Americans and revisionist historians criticize Columbus because of the Spanish explorers' mistreatment and colonization of indigenous peoples. However it must be understood that Columbus was a product of his time, holding a belief system which drastically differs from that of democratic society. From any perspective, one point cannot be argued; Columbus was historically significant.


References "Christopher Columbus: Man and Myth" & "Today in History: October 12" The Library of Congress. "Christopher Columbus" Encyclopedia Britannica Online. "History of Columbus Day" History.com.