The mystique of Christopher Columbus looms large. Generations of books have heralded him as the man who discovered the Americas (much to the presumed surprise of the people who already lived here) after arduous journeys. Other scholars have debunked these stories.
Whether you loudly proclaim your Columbus love or have doubts about his deeds, don’t let this holiday go by without learning these five facts about Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day.
1. He was born into poverty and became the greatest explorer of his time. No wait, Columbus was born into a wealthy, influential family and used his connections to work his way to the top. Like much about Columbus, his life story has been exaggerated in many accounts. Here’s what we know for sure: Columbus lived 1451-1506. He was born in Genoa, Italy, as the oldest of five children and died in Valladolid, Spain. He had two sons from two different women.
2. Discovering the “New World” and giving Americans off the second Monday in October of each year wasn’t Columbus’ goal when he set sail from Spain. He was searching for a shorter route to China and guaranteed trade riches that would come from such a discovery. The explorer didn’t realize an entire continent lay between Europe and Asia, and that China wasn’t just a short westward journey away. Columbus believed he landed on Asian soil, and he died believing that. He even made crews on the second voyage swear they were in Asia — and threatened he would cut off the tongues of those who didn’t fall in line.
3. At least those sailors were just threatened. Columbus’ treatment of native populations was much worse. He and his underlings enslaved people of Hispaniola, forcing everyone older than 14 to mine for gold. Settlers cut off noses and ears of native people who rebelled. Settlers who rebelled against the harsh living conditions, lack of promised gold and perceived mismanagement of the colony were hanged—an action that led to Columbus’ eventual arrest and return to Spain in shackles.
4. Columbus Day became an official federal holiday in 1937, although some states informally celebrated it much earlier. The first known Columbus Day celebration was in New York for the 300th anniversary of the 1492 voyage, according to the History Channel. Originally, Columbus Day was always on Oct. 12, but was changed to become the second Monday in October.
5. Christopher Columbus is one of only two people to get a holiday named after him; the other is Martin Luther King Jr. George Washington comes close, but his holiday is known as Washington’s Birthday, not George Washington Day. And he barely has that anymore. Although the federal government still calls it Washington’s Birthday, entities from used car lots to school districts normally ditch that in favor of Presidents Day to recognize both Washington and Abraham Lincoln.