On Monday, October 11, we will celebrate Columbus Day, which is a holiday to honor the man who “discovered” America. But, did he? More on that later.

Federal offices and most banks will be closed, so there will be no mail delivery (although national parks will be open). On the other hand, financial markets and most schools will be open. Many cities and towns will hold their traditional Columbus Day parade, including NYC for the 77th year.

CD has been celebrated in the US since 1792. Originally, it was celebrated on October 12, the date on which Columbus made landfall. FDR proclaimed CD a national holiday in 1937. In 1971 pursuant to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act the date was changed to the second Monday in October where it has remained ever since.

In recent years Columbus and CD have become controversial. Many Native American and other activist groups have denoted his brutality toward the indigenous peoples he encountered, particularly in the West Indies. Some states, such as Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, and South Dakota, have authorized alternate holidays, such as Fraternal Day and Indigenous Peoples Day in protest.

For hundreds of years the conventional wisdom was that Columbus discovered America in 1492. Most of us know the basics of the story. Columbus was born in Genoa, which is now part of Italy, in 1451. According to Wikipedia the precise date is not known. He went to sea at around the age of ten and travelled extensively from the British Isles to the West African coast.

By the late 1400s the spice trade between Asia and Europe had become extremely lucrative. The problem was it took too long to travel between the two locations. Either ships had to sail around the “horn” of Africa or caravans had to travel overland through central Asia. Both routes were arduous and dangerous. Columbus became convinced he could find a quicker route. Time meant money, even in the 15th century. He was seeking a “Northwest Passage” to Asia, which would enhance the spice trade between Europe and Asia. His idea that he could find it by traveling west was considered radical and unrealistic.

At the time, most people believed the world was flat, and that if one sailed too far west the ship would simply fall off the edge of the earth. It was not until the 16th century, thanks primarily to the research of Copernicus and Galileo that the scientific community generally accepted the notion that the earth was spherical, not flat, and that it revolved around the sun, not the other way around. He “pitched” his idea all over Europe seeking a sponsor. He was subjected to laughter and ridicule until King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain decided to take a chance on him. He set sail in August of 1492 with three ships – the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

On October 12 he made landfall in the current-day Bahama Islands. He named the indigenous people “Indians,” as he thought he was in India. Of course, he was wrong, but the term Indians to identify Native Americans has “stuck.” As colonial Governor of the area he became known for his extreme brutality toward the indigenous people. It was so bad that eventually he was removed from his post.

Eventually, Columbus would make three subsequent voyages to Central and South America. He never set foot in any part of North America. And he never did find the elusive Northwest Passage.

Based on new evidence, it is now generally accepted that Columbus did not “discover” America as we were taught in school. He did not “discover” anything. He was not the first person to set foot in America. Not even close as you will see below. What he did accomplish was to make Europeans aware of the existence of a “New World” which was chock full of unimaginable riches. His successful voyages ushered in a new era of exploration, conquest, colonization and war that would last for centuries. He was not the first, but one can argue that he was the most significant.


So, who did “discover” America?

  1. According to historian Michael Bawaya, editor of the magazine, American Archaeology, the original settlers of the NW arrived about 15,000 years ago. At that time the Bering Sea, which separates modern-day Siberia from North America, was more shallow than it is now. In some areas, it was an actual land-bridge. According to the US National Parks Service the land-bridge “played a vital role” in the spread of flora and fauna between the two continents. Animals such as mastodons, wooly mammoths, Arctic camels horses and various species of fish and birds moved freely over the land-bridge establishing migration patterns that persist to this day. Of course, humans followed as they went where the food was.
  2. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of settlements in and around Clovis, NM that are some 11,000 years old. DNA evidence suggests that these inhabitants were the direct ancestors of some 80% of ALL indigenous peoples in the Americas.
  3. According to voanews there is ample evidence that the Vikings inhabited Newfoundland and other parts of eastern Canada as early as circa 1100. Two leaders of these intrepid Viking explorers were Leif Erickson and his son, Eric “the Red.” They did not establish any permanent colonies, but there is ample evidence that they used the area as a winter settlement to make repairs to their boats and “ride out” bad weather.
  4. There is evidence that Chinese and/or Polynesian explorers made their way to parts of South America well before Columbus.

In summary, I believe Columbus deserves credit (and blame) for introducing the New World to Europeans and all that followed, but it cannot be said that he “discovered” it. As indicated by his harsh treatment of the natives he was not perfect; none of us is. But, I believe he deserves to be recognized with a holiday in his memory.


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