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The History of Columbus Day

by Karen Flores, Hotline Attorney

Halloween decorations have been on display in stores since early September, but many state and federal employees may be more excited about another October holiday, Columbus Day, since their offices may be closed that day. It is common knowledge that Columbus Day commemorates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America, however it may not be known that he was not the first explorer to discover America. Leif Erikson and other Viking explorers voyaged to North America in the 11th century and founded settlements in the Newfoundland area, although Christopher Columbus established the first continuing contact with the Americas.

Columbus Day is a national holiday in the United States and in many other countries in Latin America, as well as Spain and Italy. Columbus Day became an official state holiday in Colorado in 1906 due to the lobbying efforts of an Italian immigrant, Angelo Noce. In April, 1934, Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt declared October 12 as a federal holiday. Since 1970, the holiday has been scheduled on the second Monday in October under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

To commemorate Columbus Day, following is a brief summary of Christopher Columbus’ famous voyage. Columbus’ exploration was driven by the Europeans’ desire to find an easier route to Asia, the source of spices and silk. An astronomer from Florence, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, believed that sailing west would be a quicker way to reach the Orient than sailing around Africa. Columbus, an Italian explorer, convinced King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Spain, who ruled together after their marriage, to fund three ships and allow Columbus a year to sail the Atlantic to find a western route to the Orient. Columbus departed on 8-3-1492 with the three well-known ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Santa Clara, nicknamed the Nina. On the morning of October 12, they landed on an island Columbus called San Salvador, now part of the Bahamas. He called the native people indios, Spanish for Indians as he mistakenly believed he had reached India. While in the area, Columbus also explored Cuba and Hispaniola, where the Santa Maria ran aground on 12-25-1492 and had to be abandoned. In January 1493, he set sail to return to Spain.

It appears that Columbus always maintained that the lands and islands he explored were part of the Asian continent despite evidence to the contrary. This erroneous belief may be the reason why the American continent was named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci rather than Columbus.

Editor’s Note: In recent years, Columbus Day has become a controversial holiday for many across the United States. More information about the controversy can be found here and here

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