Columbus Day

History of Columbus Day

Christopher Columbus landing in America, 1492, (c1920).
Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The second Monday in October is designated in the United States as Columbus Day. This day commemorates Christopher Columbus' first voyage and sighting of the Americas on October 12, 1492. However, Columbus Day as a federal holiday was not officially recognized until 1937.

Early Commemorations of Columbus

The first recorded ceremony commemorating Columbus in America occurred in 1792, 300 years after his famous first voyage in 1492.

To honor Columbus, a ceremony was held in New York, and a monument was dedicated to him in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1892, a statue of Columbus was raised at Columbus Avenue in New York City. Further, at the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago that year, replicas of Columbus' three ships were displayed.

Creating Columbus Day

Italian-Americans were key in the creation of Columbus Day. Beginning on October 12, 1866, New York City's Italian population organized a celebration of the 'discovery' of America. This yearly celebration spread to other cities and became known as Columbus Day in San Francisco in 1869.

Colorado became the first state to observe an official Columbus Day in 1905. Over time other states followed until 1937 when President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed every October 12 as Columbus Day. In 1971, the federal holiday was officially changed by Congress to be observed on the second Monday in October.

Current Celebrations

Since Columbus Day is a designated federal holiday, the post office, government offices, and many banks are closed. Many cities across America stage parades that day. For example, Baltimore claims to have the "Oldest Continuous Marching Parade in America" celebrating Columbus Day.

Denver held its 101st parade in 2008. New York City holds a Columbus Celebration that includes a parade down Fifth Avenue and a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. In addition, Columbus Day is also celebrated in other parts of the world including some cities in Italy and Spain along with parts of Canada and Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico also has a public holiday celebrating the discovery of the island by Columbus on November 19th. 

Critics of Columbus Day

Leading up to the 500th anniversary of Columbus sighting of the America's which occurred in 1992, many groups came out against celebrations celebrating the explorer. Columbus had arrived in the Caribbean islands on his first voyage to the New World. He believed that he had reached India and that the Taino, the indigenous people he found there, were in fact Indians. In a later voyage, he captured and sent over 1,200 of the Taino to Europe as slaves. Further, the Spanish who remained on the islands used the Taino people as forced labor, punishing them with torture and/or death if they resisted. Adding these terrible acts to the unwitting passing of disease from the Europeans to the Taino would mean that the entire population of Hispaniola was wiped out in forty-three years.

Many people cite this as the reason why Americans should not be celebrating Columbus' accomplishments. Individuals and groups continue to speak out against and in many cases protest Columbus Day celebrations.