Did Christopher Columbus Actually Discover America?

Christopher Columbus's first landing in the Americas in 1492

 John Vanderlyn/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

If you're studying the history of American civil liberties, odds are good that your textbook will start at 1776 and move forward from there. This is unfortunate because much of what happened during the 284-year colonial period (1492–1776) has had a profound impact on the U.S. approach to civil rights.

Take, for example, the standard elementary school lesson about how Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. What are we really teaching our children?

Did Christopher Columbus Discover the Americas, Period?

No. Humans have lived in the Americas for at least 15,000 years. By the time Columbus arrived, the Americas were populated by hundreds of small nations and several full-out empires such as the Inca in Peru and the Aztecs in Mexico. Further, the population influx from the west continued pretty much consistently, with late migrations into the Arctic region and the Peruvian coast by Easter Islands within a century of Columbus's landfall.

Was Christopher Columbus the First European to Locate the Americas by Sea?

No. Viking explorers clearly visited the eastern coast of North America and Greenland by the early 10th century. There is also a largely discredited theory suggesting that European migration to the Americas may have been accomplished by the late Upper Paleolithic period, ca. 12,000 years ago.

Was Columbus the First European to Create a Settlement in the Americas?

No. The Viking explorer Eric the Red (950–1003 CE) established a colony in Greenland about 982 and his son Leif Erikson (970–1012) established one in Newfoundland about 1000. The Greenland settlement lasted 300 years; but the Newfoundland one called L'anse aux Meadows, failed after a decade.

Why Didn't the Norse Create Permanent Settlements?

They did set up permanent settlements in Iceland and Greenland, but they ran into difficulties because they were unfamiliar with the local crops, and the lands were already settled by people the Vikings called "skraelings" who didn't welcome the newcomers.

What Did Christopher Columbus Do, Exactly?

He became the first European in recorded history to successfully conquer a small part of the Americas, then establish a trade route for the transportation of slaves and goods. In other words, Christopher Columbus didn't discover America; he monetized it. As he boasted to the Spanish royal finance minister, upon completion of his first voyage:

[T]heir highnesses can see that I will give them as much gold as they may need, if their highness will render me very slight assistance; moreover, I will give them spices and cotton, as much as their highnesses shall command; and mastic, as much as they shall order to be shipped and which, up to now, has been found only in Greece, in the island of Chios, and the Seignory sells it for what it pleases; and aloe, as much as they shall order to be shipped; and slaves, as many as they shall order to be shipped and who will be from the idolaters. I believe also that I have found rhubarb and cinnamon, and I shall find a thousand other things of value...

The voyage of 1492 was still a dangerous passage into uncharted territories, but Christopher Columbus was neither the first European to visit the Americas nor the first to establish a settlement there. His motives were anything but honorable, and his behavior was purely self-serving. He was, in effect, an ambitious pirate with a Spanish royal charter.

Why Does This Matter?

From a civil liberties point of view, the claim that Christopher Columbus discovered America contains several problematic implications. The most serious is the idea that the Americas were in any sense undiscovered when they were, in fact, already occupied. This belief—which would later be more explicitly incorporated into the idea of Manifest Destiny—obscures the horrifying moral implications of what Columbus, and those who followed him, did.

There are also troubling, albeit more abstract, First Amendment implications to our government's decision to enforce a national mythology by having our educational system tell children a lie in the name of patriotism, then require them to regurgitate this "correct" answer on tests in order to pass.

Our government expends considerable funds to defend this lie every year on Columbus Day, which is understandably upsetting for many survivors of the American Indian genocide and their allies. As Suzanne Benally, the former executive director of Cultural Survival, puts it:

We ask that on this Columbus Day, a reflection of historical facts be observed. By the time European colonizers arrived, Indigenous people had already been on this continent for more than 20,000 years. We were farmers, scientists, astronomers, artists, mathematicians, singers, architects, physicians, teachers, mother, fathers, and Elders living in sophisticated societies …
 We object to a false and hurtful holiday that perpetuates a vision of a land open to conquest of its Native inhabitants, their highly evolved societies, and natural resources. We stand in solidarity with the call to transform Columbus Day by not recognizing and honoring the day as Columbus Day.

Christopher Columbus did not discover America, and there is no good reason to keep pretending that he did.