This is Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, in the United States. It is a federal holiday. That means most federal offices are closed.
The holiday honors the first visit to America by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. Columbus thought he could reach the Far East by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe.
He was right.
But he was also wrong. He thought the world was much smaller than it is. He did not imagine that another continent — and another huge ocean — lay between Europe and East Asia.
Columbus and his crew arrived in October 1492 on an island they called San Salvador, in today’s Bahamas. They explored that island and nearby islands now known as Cuba and Hispaniola.
Columbus believed these were the coastal islands of East Asia, then called the Indies. That is why he called the people who lived on the islands “Indians.”
He refused to accept he was wrong about the geography, even though local plants where he explored were unknown in Europe or Asia, and native people did not understand any languages spoken in the East.
Columbus made several other trips to what was called the New World. He saw the coast of South America and the island of Jamaica.
During his trips, Columbus explored islands and waterways, searching for a passage to the Indies. He never found it. Nor did he find spices or great amounts of gold as he had hoped. Yet, he always believed he had found the Indies.
So Why Columbus Day?
Many people have pointed out that Christopher Columbus never recognized where he really landed. Other European explorers did land in what is now the United States. But not Columbus.
More importantly, some say, Columbus did not “discover” a new world: many native people already lived here.
Critics of Columbus Day also strongly object to the holiday because Columbus treated native people cruelly. He enslaved some of the West Indians, forcing them to serve the Europeans or search for gold. He controlled parts of the population with violence and oppression.
In addition, Columbus and his fellow European voyagers forced native people to accept Christianity.
And, they brought new diseases that sickened and killed many of the native people. Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean was devastating to the people there.
So why do we honor Columbus with a U.S. holiday? Well, some states — including Alaska, Hawaii and South Dakota — do not. Other Americans use the day to celebrate native people instead of Columbus.
Some people ignore the day all together. They use the time off work and school to tour the countryside in New England and see the changing colors of maple trees. Others go shopping and take advantage of Columbus Day discounts and sales.
Even though Columbus Day is one of the most disputed holidays in the U.S. calendar, scholars say the origins of Columbus Day aimed to bring Americans together. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison called on the country to observe Columbus Day. He invited Americans to take a day of rest from work, and to reflect on how much they had achieved in the 400 years since Columbus landed in San Salvador.
Historian William Connell writes in the magazine The American Scholar that President Harrison also wanted to honor Italian Americans and Native Americans with the holiday. At that time, both groups had recently suffered violent attacks. And they suffered from ongoing discrimination in the U.S.
Historian William Connell argues that President Harrison believed that Columbus Day could unite all Americans in shared, patriotic pride.
I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published in 2015.
Words in This Story
spices – n. substances (such as pepper or nutmeg) used in cooking to add flavor to food
devastated – v. destroyed much or most of something
reflect – v. think carefully about something