Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo) was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451 to parents Susanna Fontanarossa and Domenico Colombo, a wool merchant. Christopher was the oldest of Domenico’s five children.
Columbus is best known for his overseas voyages to the West. He is often credited and celebrated as the first explorer to discover the Americas. In total, the Italian explorer made four voyages across the Atlantic, in 1492; 1493; 1498; and 1502.
In 15th-century Europe, trade with Asia had been difficult for merchants to establish, as the long sea voyage there entailed crossing hostile waters filled with pirates and militants. Columbus believed a route to the East could be established through the West in a shorter amount of time than many had believed, in what was called the Northwest Passage. In his quest to find a sponsor to fund his idea, Columbus traveled around Europe looking for an investor to fund his trip.
Soon word of his endeavors had caught the attention of Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, who agreed to meet with the traveler on May 1, 1486. Columbus explained his plans, however, the king and queen stalled after their advisers had warned that such a trip would not be feasible and that Columbus’s claims were overblown.
On August 1, 1492, the monarchs reconsidered their position and agreed to sponsor Columbus’s voyage in exchange for setting up Spanish colonies, to which Columbus agreed. A contract was drawn and signed, generously offering Columbus ten percent of his findings as well as viscountship over discovered lands.
On August 3, 1492, Columbus sailed from Castile, Spain, with supplies and three ships—the Pinta, the Niña, and flagship Santa Maria.
Columbus would embark on three more voyages to establish settlements under the Spanish crown, exploring territories in Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, as well as many other islands and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 1492, he would establish his first successful colony, La Isabela, in Hispaniola (now Dominican Republic) along with 1,500 settlers.
In 1493, Columbus’s health began to decline. He began to suffer bouts of influenza, periods of blindness, gout and arthritis, which would continue to plague him for the rest of his life. Columbus died on May 20, 1506, in Valladolid, Spain, at age 54. His remains are interred at the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo Este, Dominican Republic.
Columbus’s October 1492 landing is celebrated in the Americas, where the U.S., as well as large swaths of Latin America, hold a national holiday. In the United States, “Columbus Day,” was made an official federal holiday in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
According to the Library of Congress, “the first recorded celebration of Columbus Day in the United States took place on October 12, 1792. Organized by the Society of St. Tammany, also known as the Columbian Order, it commemorated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s landing.”
Most states in the U.S. officially recognize the second Monday of October as Columbus Day, with the exception of several states who have chosen to celebrate the holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
‘Columbus Day’ versus ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’ Controversy
Throughout his travels in the West, Columbus and his crew encountered several native tribes, many of which they enslaved, beat and tortured as the Spaniards sought to establish colonies under the Spanish crown.
In 130 years following first contact with Christopher Columbus and other explorers, it is estimated that indigenous peoples lost 95 percent of their population. It is argued that to celebrate Columbus Day is to dismiss, even celebrate, these genocidal losses experienced by Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere.
In recent years, some have spoken out against celebrating Columbus Day as a national holiday, arguing that it ignores the suffering and brutal violence native peoples endured under the colonization efforts of the Italian explorer and the Spanish crown.
As a result, there have been recent efforts to rebrand the day as a better reflection of events. These efforts largely began in 1990, when the United Nations held an indigenous peoples’ conference in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss replacing Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the US. In light of these events, some states have taken to renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day in an effort to commemorate and highlight Native Americans’ history and presence in the American territories that Columbus claimed.
States that officially celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day
4. New Mexico
6. South Dakota
States and D.C. that observe Indigenous Peoples Day via proclamations
5. North Carolina
8. Washington, D.C.
States that celebrate both holidays