Columbus Day is celebrated in the United States to commemorate Italian-born Christopher Columbus landing in the New World on October 12, 1492, the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings settled Greenland and Newfoundland in the 10th century.
With support from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella from Spain, Columbus originally set out to map a western route to China, India and the other islands in Asia. Along the way, he landed in the Bahamas, then Cuba – which he thought was mainland China – and then Hispaniola (the island that makes up the Dominican Republic and Haiti). Columbus would travel back and forth across the Atlantic a number of times, and didn’t realize that he had discovered a new continent – and not Asia – until his third journey.
Columbus Day was unofficially celebrated in cities and states across the country as early as the late 18th century, but wasn’t made an official holiday until 1937 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed it a national holiday. We now celebrate Columbus Day every second Monday in October.
While celebrated as a national holiday, Columbus Day does come with considerable controversy. Native Americans and other groups have protested the celebration of an event that led to the colonization of the Americas and death to millions of native peoples. Many Latin American nations celebrate Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas in a different way. Venezuela, for instance, renamed the holiday “Día de la Resistencia Indígena” (Day of Indigenous Resistance) to honor the native people and their experience. Even in the U.S., several cities and states replace Columbus Day with alternative days of remembrance. For example, South Dakota has a Native American Day.
Most schools across North Carolina are in session on Columbus Day, which gives teachers an opportunity to incorporate Columbus’ journey to the New World (and the controversy surrounding it) in their lesson plans. Here are some resources to help:
1492: An Ongoing Voyage – This on-line exhibit from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. focuses on the people who lived in the New World prior to Columbus’ arrival and then the Europeans and Africans who arrived in the 16th Century.
Other Worlds: The Voyage of Columbus – This lesson-plan, designed for high-school students, helps students gain an understanding of European society during Columbus’ time as well as the cultures of the indigenous people he encountered during his voyage.
The Indians’ Discovery of Columbus – For elementary school students, this lesson departs from the traditional euro-centric view and considers Columbus’ explorations from the point of view of Native Americans.
Discovering Columbus: Re-reading the Past – This activity offers an analysis of how the story of Columbus’ discovery has historically been taught and re-examines the facts.
image: Dióscoro Puebla [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons