After restocking his supplies in the Canary Islands, Christopher Columbus would begin his 5 week long journey into the unknown. A wine-dark sea with untold horrors and wonders possibly awaiting he and his crew.
Then on October 12, two hours past midnight, the lookout Rodrigo de Triana of the Pinta sighted land. He informed his superior—Captain Martín Alonso Pinzón—who then fired a cannon to alert Columbus who commanded the Santa Maria. They made landfall and made history.
Whether you consider Columbus a great man for his discoveries or a genocidal tyrant for his treatment of the Carib natives, the day he landed in the New World would forever change Western history. Today, however, the only specific respect he’s paid is the second Monday of every October.
A Day to Celebrate
When did this become official? Surely his discovery must have been commemorated in some way. His contemporaries understood the magnitude of his discovery as much as we do today. Columbus’ crew naturally celebrated the day, having finally reached dry land. But when did Columbus Day really become Columbus Day?
In the United States, the day had been celebrated for some time unofficially. New York City, Philadelphia, and a number of other US cities held festivities to mark the 300th anniversary in 1792. Being the first fully independent nation in the New World, this day must have been truly meaningful for our young country.
Benjamin Harrison, in 1892, encouraged celebrations. Teachers, poets, intellectuals, and politicians all used the 400th anniversary to preach the good word of patriotism and the uniqueness of America. Still these activities were unofficial. Oddly enough, it would be Colorado—a landlocked, late-comer of a state—to first officially honor the day.
The Day Becomes a True Holiday
Columbus sailed for Spain, but was Italian. Since at least 1866, Italian-Americans saw October 12 as a celebration of their heritage. It would be a first generation Italian, Angelo Noce, who’d lobby for the creation of a holiday. And he happened to be a Denver native.
So in 1905, Governor Jesse F. MacDonald proclaimed the day as a state wide holiday. He followed this up in 1907 by making it a statutory holiday. It would not be until 1934 when, appropriately, the Knights of Columbus would persuade Congress and Franklin D. Roosevelt to turn Columbus Day into a federal holiday.
Though the date of his landing was October 12, Columbus’ holiday would be fixed on the second Monday of October. This came in 1970 and since most parts of the federal government are closed. Many school districts, banks, and some markets follow suit.
Yet, despite being a federal holiday, three states do not celebrate it: Hawaii, Alaska, and South Dakota. The latter instead celebrates Native American Day, which is far more relevant for a state far from the coast with a rich Native American history.
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