Columbus Day: Celebrated & scorned

By John Gardner of MSN News | Getty Images: Hulton Archive
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The story behind Columbus Day

Columbus Day, as it is known in the U.S., commemorates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas. From the basic facts to the controversies, we profile the annual holiday. See gallery

 

Portrait of Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus (Italian name: Cristoforo Colombo; Spanish: Cristóbal Colón; Portuguese: Cristóvão Colombo) was born sometime between Aug. 26 and Oct. 31, 1451, in the Republic of Genoa. The son of a respected weaver and local politician, Columbus worked in his father's business, but chose to go to sea at age 14. After being shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal, Columbus allegedly settled in Lisbon in the late 1470s. He married in 1479, but his wife died in 1485. Columbus moved to Spain with his son Diego, eventually receiving support from the Spanish monarchs for a westward voyage to China. Columbus believed that Japan and other inhabited lands lay far to the east coast of China. As history tells, he was very wrong. Instead of reaching Japan, Columbus landed in the Bahamas archipelago, which he named San Salvador, on Oct. 12, 1492. He embarked on three more voyages, initiating the Spanish colonization of the New World. Columbus died in 1506.

Modern doctors suspect he died from this ailment

Location of his remains long a mystery

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History of Columbus Day holiday

A few notable dates corresponding with Columbus Day:

1792: The Society of St. Tammany, or Columbian Order, in New York organized a celebration celebrating the 300th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' "discovery."

1866: The Italian population of New York organized a celebration of the discovery of America.

1892: President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed a celebration in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage.

1937: President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Oct. 12 as the official Columbus Day holiday.

1971: Congress moved the U.S. holiday from Oct. 12 to the second Monday in October to afford workers a long holiday weekend.

1992: Mobilizing against the quincentennial celebration of Columbus Day, Indian groups from all over the hemisphere declared Oct. 12, 1992, "International Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People."

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Controversy surrounding Columbus Day

Columbus Day is not without controversy. In fact, there's a lot of it. Is the intrepid explorer Italian, Spanish or Portuguese? Is he a hero? A traitor? A terrorist, even? When Columbus and his fellow voyagers set off from Spain in 1492, the singular focus was to find riches and conquer new lands. Historians have uncovered damning evidence of the damage Columbus inflicted on the various indigenous people he encountered throughout his journeys. Three factors have led to an outcry over celebrating Columbus every second Monday of October: The use of violence and slavery, forced conversion to Christianity and the introduction of a host of new diseases.

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Timeline of Columbus' voyage to America

Key dates of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the Americas:

Aug. 3, 1492: The Niña, Pinta and the Santa María set sail from Palos, Spain.

Aug. 12: The ships reach the Canary Islands and remain until Sept 6.

Sept. 9: Sailing westward, the ships lose sight of land at nightfall.

Sept. 30: The ships complete three weeks of travel with no sight of land, the longest journey with no discovery.

Oct. 7: A mistaken shout of "Land Ho" brings great disappointment.

Oct. 10: Sailors begin to get restless and are on the point of mutiny but agree to sail on for two or three more days.

Oct. 12: Columbus discovers America when land is sighted. He goes ashore on San Salvador (Watlings Island) in the Bahamas.

Dec. 24: Columbus' flagship, the Santa María, is wrecked off Cap Haïtien.

Jan. 16, 1493: The Niña and Pinta begin their homeward voyage, with Columbus aboard the Niña.

Feb. 8: The Niña and Pinta are hit by strong headwinds.

Feb. 12: A storm threatens the Niña.

Feb. 13-14: The storm causes the two ships to get separated.

Feb. 15: The Niña arrives at Santa María island in the Azores and waits 10 days before leaving without the Pinta.

March 3: The Niña arrives in Lisbon and stays there 10 days.

March 15: The Niña returns to its home port of Palos. The Pinta pulls in a few hours later.

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The Niña, Pinta and Santa María

Christopher Columbus set out on his first journey to the New World on Aug. 3, 1492, on a fleet of three ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. The ships carried about 120 men total and traveled approximately 100 miles per day on the journey to the Americas.

The Santa María

The Santa Maria, nicknamed "La Gallega," was the flagship, carrying the flag of Columbus as admiral. The carrack-, or nao-type vessel also was the slowest ship, weighing in at 100 tons and measuring 80 feet in length. The ship's owner, Juan de la Cosa, was also the captain on this voyage. On Columbus' return voyage, the Santa Maria ran aground off the coast of what is now Haiti on Dec. 25, 1492, and was lost.

The Niña

The Niña, Spanish for "The Girl," captained by Vicente Anes Pinzon and described as a caravel, was the smallest of the three ships at 60 tons and about 50 feet in length. The name Niña is believed to be a pun on the name of her owner, Juan Niño of Moguer. After the Santa Maria ran aground, Columbus was aboard the Niña for the remainder of the journey home to Spain.

The Pinta

The Pinta, Spanish for "The Pint" or "The Painted," was also a caravel, captained by Martín Alonso Pinzon, brother of Niña captain Vicente. By tradition, Spanish vessels were named after saints and typically given nicknames. Thus, the Pinta and Niña were not the ships' actual names; their real names are unknown.

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Columbus Day celebrations around the world

The anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas is celebrated on the second Monday of October. The day is commemorated as Columbus Day in the United States; Día de las Culturas (Day of the Cultures) in Costa Rica; Día de la Hispanidad (Spanish Day); Día de la Raza (Day of the Race) in many countries in Latin America; National Day in Spain; Día de las Americas (Day of the Americas) in Uruguay; Discovery Day in the Bahamas; and Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance) in Venezuela. Columbus Day in the U.S. features parades and a day off from work for many employees and from school for many students.

FDR proclaimed Columbus Day a holiday in what year?

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Non-observance of Columbus Day

Hawaii, Alaska and South Dakota don't recognize Columbus Day at all. However, Hawaii and South Dakota mark the day with an alternative holiday or observance. Hawaii celebrates Discoverers' Day, which commemorates the Polynesian people who discovered Hawaii, on the second Monday of October. South Dakota celebrates the day as an official state holiday known as "Native American Day," something that California has been mulling over as a replacement for Columbus Day. Iowa and Nevada don't celebrate Columbus Day as an official holiday, but the governors are "authorized and requested" by statute to proclaim the day each year.

Other counter-celebrations across the US

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Leif Ericson overlooked for discovery of North America

While Christopher Columbus gets all the credit for discovering America, and his name is stamped on a federal holiday in the United States, Leif Ericson is regarded as the first European to land in North America — nearly 500 years before Columbus. According to the Sagas of Icelanders, Ericson established a Norse settlement in Vinland in 1000, on the northern tip of Newfoundland in modern-day Canada.

His father also discovered land

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