Columbus Day
Christopher Columbus

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS discovered America in 1492. At least that is what all elementary school children were always taught: "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Of course, Columbus never did "discover" North America, and the places he did explore already had people living there. He only discovered them from the viewpoint of the Europeans. Yet his first voyage did prove one thing for sure, that the earth was not only round, but that it was bigger than he had thought.

The Holiday

One of the first known celebrations marking the discovery of the "New World" by Christopher Columbus was in 1792, when a ceremony was held in New York City honoring Christopher Columbus and the 300th anniversary of his landing in the Bahamas. Then, on October 12, 1866, the Italian population of New York organized the first celebration of the discovery of America. Three years later, in 1869, Italians in San Francisco celebrated October 12 calling it C-Day.

To mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison made a commemorative proclamation. But it was Colorado, in 1905, that became the first state to observe a Columbus Day. Since 1920 the day has been celebrated annually, and in 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed every October 12 as Columbus Day. That's where it remained until 1971 when Congress declared it a federal public holiday on the second Monday in October.

Christopher Columbus (1451 - 1505)

Columbus, the son of a wool merchant and weaver, was born in Genoa, Italy, and went to sea as a boy at the age of 14. Following a shipwreck off the coast of Portugal in 1470, he swam ashore and settled in that country.

Between 1477 and 1482 Columbus made merchant voyages as far away as Iceland and Guinea. In 1484, he presented his idea to King John of Portugal.  He said he would sail to the East Indies by sailing west instead of east. Like other rulers of that time, King John didn't believe it was possible and didn't want to waste his money.   Shortly thereafter, Columbus moved to Spain, where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella became more interested in his adventuresome ideas.

To the New World

On August 2, 1492, Columbus set sail in search of the East Indies. The voyage was financed by Ferdinand and Isabella. The Nina, Pinta, and Santa MariaColumbus and 90 crewmen boarded the three ships that were to make the first voyage to the New World, the Niņa, Pinta, and the flagship, Santa Maria. On October 12, 1492, Columbus first saw the islands of the new world, landing in the Bahamas. Later in the month, he would sail to Cuba, and to Hispaniola (now Haiti). He thought he had reached the East Indies, the islands off Southeast Asia.

Contrary to popular belief, most educated individuals in the 15th century, and especially sailors, already knew that the earth was round. What was not realized by Columbus, however, was just how big a globe it was. Columbus also didn't realize that there were two continents in the way: North and South America.

What did the Sailors Eat?

The menu for Spanish seamen consisted of water, vinegar, wine, olive oil, molasses, cheese, honey, raisins, rice, garlic, almonds, sea biscuits, dry legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, beans, salted and barreled sardines, anchovies, dry salt cod and pickled or salted meats (beef and pork), salted flour.

Food, mostly boiled, was served in a large wooden bowl. It consisted of poorly cooked meat with bones in it, the sailors picked it with their fingers as they had no forks or spoons. The larger pieces of meat were cut with the knife each sailor carried. Fish was eaten most often. On calm days, the crew would fish and then cook their catch.

Return to Spain and Additional Voyages

On Christmas Day, 1492, the Santa Maria sank off Hispaniola. Columbus departed for Spain on January 16, 1493 on the Niņa, arriving there on March 4.

The second voyage set sail in September, 1493, with 17 ships. During his expeditions, he helped to colonize Hispaniola, and discovered the South American mainland. Columbus made a total of four trips to the new world.  He did not, however, see mainland North America or the undiscovered United States during any of his voyages.

He returned to Spain for the last time on November 7, 1504. He died at Valladolid, Spain on May 20, 1506, at the age of 55.


Much controversy exists over Columbus' expeditions and whether or not one can "discover" an already-inhabited land. The natives of the Bahamas and other islands had been there before any Europeans. Also, it is known that the Vikings explored the North American coast 500 years before Columbus. Nevertheless, Columbus' expedition  resulted in the first permanent European colonies in the New World.  In other words, because of Columbus's discovery, people from Europe traveled to the New World and made North and South America their new home.

Myths about Columbus' Expeditions

MYTH: Columbus set out to prove the earth was round.

FACT: At the end of the 15th Century, most everyone knew the earth was round. What was in question, however, was the size of the earth--its circumference. Columbus underestimated the size of the earth by one-fourth.

MYTH: Queen Isabella sold the crown jewels to pay for Columbus' voyage.

FACT: The queen may have suggested this at some point, but her financial advisers assured her that there were other ways to finance the enterprise. One way was to make the city of Palos pay back a debt to the crown by providing two of the ships. Another way was to get Italian financial backing for part of the expenses. The crown had to put up very little money from the treasury.

MYTH: The crew of the three ships on the voyage of discovery was made up mainly of criminals and no-goods.

FACT: The crew was primarily comprised of seasoned sailors from the towns of Palos and Moguer, Spain, thanks to the efforts of the Pinzon brothers. Just in case Columbus might have had trouble attracting a crew, the crown did offer amnesty to criminals. However, only four criminals were on board: one a convicted murderer (he killed a man in a quarrel); the other three, accused of freeing him from prison.

MYTH: Several hundred sailors were aboard the three ships on the initial voyage in 1492. The ships were relatively large for the anticipated long journey on an unpredictable sea.

FACT: Only 90 men made the first voyage of discovery. The ships were quite tiny by modern standards - no longer than a tennis court, and less than 30 feet wide. The Santa Maria had 40 men aboard, the Pinta, 26, and the Nina, 24. Only the Nina and the Pinta returned to Spain, as the Santa Maria was shipwrecked on Christmas Day, 1492. 39 men volunteered to stay behind at the fortress called "La Navidad" on the northern coast of present-day Haiti (they all perished at the hands of the Indians prior to the return of Columbus the following year).

MYTH: Columbus died a pauper, in chains, in a Spanish prison.

FACT: Despite the fact that the Spanish crown retracted some of the privileges promised to Columbus, he was a relatively rich man at the time of his death. Although he returned to Spain in chains in 1500 after his third voyage, the King and Queen apologized for the misunderstanding and had them removed. Columbus died quietly at the age of 55 in Valladolid, Spain, on May 20, 1506, in his own apartment attended by family and friends.

MYTH: Columbus is buried in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic.

FACT: There is much controversy surrounding the whereabouts of the remains of Columbus. There are records of the transferal of his remains on different occasions, so that it is possible that parts of his remains are in several locations. The prevailing belief, however, is that his primary burial place is in the Cathedral of Seville, Spain, with some of his bones or ashes in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and some in Genoa, Italy. At one time they were in Cuba.

MYTH: Columbus set foot on North American soil at some point now a part of mainland United States.

FACT: Columbus never saw North America. He first set foot in the Bahamas, probably the current San Salvador (Watlings Island), although even this is disputed (Samana Cay, an island 65 miles south of San Salvador is a strong contender). There are other possible island landing sites. The only current U.S. territories either sighted or visited by Columbus are the U.S. Virgin Islands, which Columbus named on his second voyage, and Puerto Rico. While in anchor at St. Croix on November 14, 1493, some of Columbus' crew experienced the first hostile encounter with the Indians. Five days later he landed at San Juan Bautista, now Puerto Rico. Later he would visit the northeastern tip of South America and the eastern coast of Central America, but never mainland U.S.A. The fact is that Columbus never admitted that he had discovered a new continent.

Map of Columbus's Voyages


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Answer the following questions in complete sentence form, and use the edit-find button to search for the underlined key words in the questions below.

1.  In what year did Congress declare Columbus Day a federal public holiday?

2.  How old was the boy, Christopher Columbus, when he first went to sea?

3.  What kind of voyages did Columbus make to Iceland and Guinea?

4.  Who became interested in Columbus's ideas about the New World?

5.  Name Columbus's three ships.  Which one was his flagship?

6.  In what year did Columbus land in the Bahamas?

7.  How old was Columbus when he died?

8.  What was the total number of  trips Columbus made to the New World?