In 1492: 25 facts about Christopher Columbus and his disputed holiday

For schoolchildren, Columbus Day likely means revisiting the old rhyme, "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," and discussing the role the explorer played in the discovery of the New World.

Beyond the grade-school classroom, however, Columbus Day is a holiday despised by some, celebrated by others and a hot topic of debate for many.

Was Columbus a bad person? Was he responsible for the decimation of the natives in the lands he discovered, both through disease and warfare? Did he discover America? Is his place in history that of a man of myth or a man of legend?

Here's a look at the famed navigator, the voyage to the New World, the history of today's holiday and other interesting facts that have helped drive the conversations and controversy surrounding Christopher Columbus.
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Chandler, AZ

From the article: "Columbus did not believe the world was flat; rather he believed its circumference was much smaller than it actually is..."

The misconception you're trying to correct is that everyone else thought the world was flat, not that Columbus thought it was flat.

Mike Johnson
Stafford, VA

It also helped that Marco Polo's map, that Columbus had, had Asia extending 4000 miles further to the east than it does. The combination of believing a smaller earth and the Polo map led Columbus to believe that Asia was only 2500 miles to the west, instead of 12,500 miles.

Cedar Hills, UT

It's a good thing we have citations of reputable websites to confirm that Washington, District of Columbia, was named after George Washington and Christopher Columbus. I don't think any of us would likely have believed that connection without the backup sources.

one old man
Ogden, UT

But the Norse beat Columbus to America by a mile. The first known European child born in North America (in Newfoundland at a place now called LaAinse La Meadows) was a little boy named Snorri Thorfinnsson. He was born between 1004 and 1013 (uncertain) and died about 1090.

Here is a clip from Wikipedia:

There is speculation about the birthdate of Snorri Thorfinnsson. Birth years such as 1005, 1009, and 1012 have been postulated, but all agree that he was born between 1005 and 1013. According to the Vinland sagas, when Snorri was 3 years old, his family left Vinland because of hostilities with indigenous peoples (called Skrælings by the settlers, which is the Old Norse equivalent of the English term "barbarians"). The family returned to the Glaumbær farm in Seyluhreppur.

Snorri Thorfinnsson had two children; a daughter named Hallfrid, and a son named Thorgeir.

Salt Lake City, Utah

@ JP: Actually, very few educated people thought the world was flat by 1942 - the ancient Greeks proved the world was round 2000 years before Columbus was born.

Bountiful, UT

What? The earth is not flat? Whoda guessed?

Howard Beal
Provo, UT

The fact that Columbus' model for the size of the Earth being off was significant. It was one of the reasons the Portuguese were disinterested in his plan because they still preferred going around Africa, which was based on a more accurate model. However, Columbus' "discovery" put Spain in a much better position, but this would come later after Columbus' death when Cortez conquered the Aztec making the Spanish rich.

Lindon, UT

So what if some Scandinavians discovered America long before Columbus? What did they do to advance planetary exploration, mapping, circumnavigation, colonization, trade, etc.? Why didn't Columbus know about their discoveries?

What difference does it make if I discover a new plant, animal, or land mass, and never share my knowledge with the world? If someone finds it later and makes it known to the world, should I get credit?

American Fork, UT

Mr. Plate...I think it's worth recognising that the Vikings where here prior to columbus, whether he knew of it or not. The achievements of columbus notwithstanding, it is truly amazing to appreciate the achievement of the vikings to cross the north atlantic and settle what is now the northern peninsula of Newfoundland in the early middle ages. They did make a difference in their day, which was prior to the printing press and renaissance. It is true, however, that no one has a Viking day mattress sale, so that's one for Columbus.

Cedar Hills, UT

@Kalindra - that's exactly JP's point. The misconception is not that Columbus thought the world was flat. It makes no sense for the article's author to even suggest it. Nobody thinks Columbus believed that. The misconception that needs correcting is that everyone else in Columbus' day thought the world was flat.

phoenix, AZ

People need to quit raggin' on Columbus and give the guy some credit for what he did. He's been getting a bad rap for years now. It needs to stop.

Lafayette, IN

That the ancient Greeks knew the world was not flat makes me wonder about my Middle School (then Junior High, 1960s) education, when we were taught that for all Columbus knew he would fall off the edge of the world. Who gave the Green Light to that lie?

West Jordan, UT

Saying that the Vikings discovered America first is a complete misunderstanding of what discovery is. Discovery isn't visiting a place first, discovery is telling people about it. Since the Vikings never told the Western Europeans about America, they did not discover America for the Western Europeans. The criticism of Columbus day by people of non Western European descent is a bigoted view; essentially they are saying they wished the Western Europeans had never come here. By the way I am more a descendent of Viking blood than Western Europeans, but my ancestors came here on Western European ships, not Viking ships.

American Fork, UT

The article actually does address the presence of the Vikings in North America nearly 500 years prior to Columbus. The problem is this style of article, which consists of more than 25 web page loads. I wish the DN would give up this format and simply accrue the list into one article.

Br. Jones
East Coast, MD

I'm actually surprised to see such a balanced article appear in the DN. It lists both the successes of Columbus as well as his acts of cruelty and manipulation.

Idaho Falls, ID

For the most part, the educated understood that the world was not flat. The Greeks hundreds of years before calculated the circumference of the earth very close to what it is. Copernicus the Polish Catholic Priest in the 1500s suggested that making the earth (and the other plants) orbit the sun would simplify predicting the positions of the planets in the heavens. Before that Ptolemy's system, though earth centered still had the earth and the planets as spheres. Ptolemy's orbital mechanics had existed by that time for over 1300 years, and was used by scholars to predict the movement and position of the planets.

So in Columbus' day, many may have believed in a flat earth, but the scholars for hundreds of years understood that the earth was a sphere.

Light and Liberty
St. George/Washington, UT

Christopher Columbus, America’s discoverer, went on four voyages to the Americas, including his initial landfall in San Salvador in 1492. During that eventful voyage, ‘after weeks of sailing with no sign of land, at sea, mutiny raised its head. Finally, Columbus promised the captains of the Pinta and Nina, both of whom wanted to turn back, that if no land was sighted in forty eight hours, they would turn back. Then, he went to his cabin and, in his words, ‘prayed mightily to the Lord.’ On October 12, the very next day, they sighted land.’ According to biographer Samual Eliot Morrison, Columbus was ‘the greatest navigator of his age…The ease with which he dissipated the unknown terrors of the ocean, the skill with which he found his way out and home, again and again, led thousands of men from every western European nation into maritime adventure and exploration…The whole history of the Americas stems from the Four voyages of Columbus [and] a score of independent nations and dominions unite in homage to Christopher the stout-hearted son of Genoa, who carried Christian civilization across the sea.’ Amen!

NotInMiami, FL

@ Pete1215 "Who gave the Green Light to that lie?"

There's a book called "Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians" that addresses that. Searching online for "myth of the flat earth" yields some good info (namely on Wikipedia) if you want a summary.


@Light and Liberty I love the quote you shared. Is it from the recent book sold by Deseret Book about Colombus? I would love to share the quote with others if I have the source.

Aurelius maximus
Berryville, VA

Detractors like to detract.
Complainers like to complain.
Haters like to hate.

Thinkers like to think.
Learners like to learn.

I would put myself in one of the latter qualities. Detractors that like to discredit historical figures often like by putting focus on one aspect of a person. Instead of trying to take in all the evidence or context and stepping into their shoes.

Even then it is hard because a lot of civilization at least in 1st world countries have often become so far removed from that world that it has become almost like a distant planet that you see through a high powered telescope.

Salt Lake City, UT

#7 The idea that Columbus was not honest because he gave different figures to his crew is probably incorrect. We do not have Columbus's original log for the First Voyage, but a redaction made by Bartolome de Las Casas. Las Casas assumed from the two figures that Columbus was giving his crew data that Columbus was trying to downplay the distance they had travelled. However, recent scholars have suggested that it is much more likely that Columbus used Latin leagues for his own figures, but gave the crew the distances in Portuguese leagues, which were longer and with which the crew would have been more familiar. The difference in figures in the log is always exactly the same, and it is the difference between Latin and Portuguese leagues.

#12 Columbus actually restrained his men from retaliating against the natives for the massacre of the 39 men left at Navidad. Fray Buil was the most vocal, insisting that they must revenge the death of the crew by attacking the natives.

#16 states that Columbus "attempted to visit [Hispaniola] despite being told not to." Actually, Columbus anchored outside the harbor of Santo Domingo and asked for permission to enter the harbor as he sensed the approach of a Hurricane. The governor denied his request.

Salt Lake City, UT

@Light and Liberty: There is actually no entry in the log of the First Voyage that Columbus "prayed mightily to the Lord" on October 11th (or any other nearby day). This quote is found frequently in published works, but it does not appear in the Diario (the log). The best transcript and translation of the log is "The Diario of Christopher Columbus's First Voyage to America, 1492-1493" by Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley, Jr. (University of Oklahoma Press, 1989 and 1991).

There are ample other examples of Columbus's deep faith and spirituality, and his unwavering conviction that God was leading him to do what he did. But this particular "quote" is not one of them. He viewed his voyage as nothing less than the miraculous fulfillment of prophecy and claimed God "showed me where to go." (Letter to Dona Juana, Textos y Documentos Completos, Varela and Gil, Alianza Editorial, 1992)

BYU Track Star
Los Angeles, CA

I like your definition of "Discovery". By your definition. The Chinese Imperial Fleet probably "Discovered" America and reported the findings back to the Chinese Imperial Court in the early 1400s. Unfortunately by the time the Fleet returned from its voyages to report its findings, the powers that be at the Imperial Court concluded there wasn't really anybody, outside of India, worth trading with by sea. So the grand fleet was left at its mooring to rot. How history would have differed if the Chinese fleet had of gone all the way up the coast of West Africa to Lisbon, Portugal, instead of the Caribbean.

Craig Clark
Boulder, CO

We all know today that Columbus didn’t prove the world was round, was not the first to discover America, but was a very controversial and tyrannical figure who made enemies. The reason Columbus still looms so large as a historic figure is because his voyages brought to the nations of Europe awareness of lands ripe for European exploration and exploitation. The impact that had on both the Eastern and Western hemispheres was so enormous it changed the course of history.

Berryville, VA

@ Craig Clark

"was a very controversial and tyrannical figure who made enemies"

Really? I would love to read this so called history that dictates these things. I don't believe Columbus was a saint but I don't think he was a tyrannical figure either.

LOU Montana
Pueblo, CO

I would gladly vote to eliminate Columbus Day. One less holiday for banks and post office to be shut down.

Lehi, UT

Columbus experienced great difficulties and recently a letter from his men was discovered inside a tomato juice can which was of plastic, of course. It has been preserved. It is a look back to the past and what was encountered during their trip.

September 26, 1492

Christopher Columbus
Santa Marie Ship

Dear Captain Columbus,

You have probably heard the rumblings of mutiny. Just last night you could hear, rumble, rumble, rumble, mutiny, mutiny, mutiny from the galley. We are very serious about going back. We are sick and tired of those little fish with the funny eyes. They look back at us as we eat and it is really getting to the men. We have had enough of the sea water. You told us we would not like the salt in it and we don't. We complained and you said to let the water sit on the deck and the salt would dry out of it. We did that, but where did the water go? Even you don't have an explanation.

I know you have tried hard and we have put those bottles out with the messages inside so our wives would not worry about us. If you had only told them about the idea we would feel a lot better. We believe you should do the following. First, take your dream and realize the impossibility of it all . Second, turn these ships around before we fall off. We are getting close. Third, when you get home, tell Queen Isabella this is not the way to India. Fourth, find something else to do for a living. Captaining is not your deal.

If you have any questions, please let us know. We would be happy to discuss this with you. Even though you are risking our lives, we still love you and your funny sense of humor.

R. V. Homeyet

Lehi, UT

Today is the actual day, October 12th, that Columbus landed. As I contemplate the story of Columbus who is mentioned in many books, I decided that this year I would do additional study about his life. Since he is so important, I felt like I needed to learn more about him. There are many of these things that already are known, but I stumbled on to one rarely known fact which was amazing to me.

When Columbus landed in the new world, he was the first one off of the boat. As he stepped on to the new continent, his first words were "one small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind."

There will be many who read this who will say, no, it was Neal Armstrong who said that. Actually Neal was searching around trying to find something to say on the moon, when he came upon Columbus' comment and so rather than being accused of plagiarism, he changed it to One small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.

Criticism is fun to engage in as with those who have written in today, but big government has made this holiday for us to enjoy. Go and enjoy!

Midwest Mom
Soldiers Grove, WI

Is it so difficult to acknowledge the horrific genocide that occurred on this continent, as a result of European conquest?

Imagine someone coming to your home and taking credit for "discovering" all that you had. Then imagine them killing most of the people in your home and enslaving the rest. Then imagine this event being commemorated with a national holiday.

God moves in mysterious ways, even allowing corruption to prosper, but just because good can sometimes come from evil, that benefit does not justify the original crime.

We are none of us perfect, but I think that a man of Columbus's faith and intellect could have been able to tell whether or not stealing and enslaving indigenous people was right or wrong.

Ogden, UT

For a fascinating read on what life was like in the Americas prior to 1492, check out a book called "1491" by Charles Mann. Or pick it up at the library.

Not a condemnation of the horrible effects on the indigenous peoples, but a celebration of the magnitude and wonder of what they had achieved. Fascinating!

In 1491 there were probably more people living in the Americas than in Europe.

Certain cities; such as Tenochtitln, the Aztec capital, were far greater in population than any contemporary European city and unlike any capital in Europe at that time, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens, and immaculately clean streets.

Pre-Columbian Indians in Mexico developed corn by a breeding process so sophisticated that the journal Science recently described it as "man's first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering."

Amazonian Indians learned how to farm the rain forest without destroying it, a process scientists are studying today in the hope of regaining this lost knowledge.

Native Americans transformed their land so completely that Europeans arrived in a hemisphere already massively "landscaped" and densely populated by human beings.

Provo, ut

The shift from the acclaim of Columbus as a great explorer to the dastardly brute that brought everything evil to the world was the connection in 1942 of political correctness, self hatred of white folks, and the need of a few dozen historians to sell some books. We are a silly lot today.

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