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.
Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy, and spent the years leading up to 1492 at sea, participating in trading voyages and expeditions to Africa.
Because Muslim domination of land trade routes made travel to India and China difficult, Columbus came up with a plan to sail west in order to reach the East, according to biography.com.
Columbus and his contemporaries did not believe the world was flat; rather Columbus believed its circumference was much smaller than it actually is, which helped him develop his west-to-East plan.
Columbus estimated that Asia lay between 2,300 and 2,400 miles west, although the true distance is actually 10,000 nautical miles, according to Yahoo, or 12,200 statue miles, according to biography.com.
"(The king and queen) directed that I should not proceed by land to the East, as is customary, but by a westerly route, in which direction we have hitherto no certain evidence that anyone has gone," Christopher Columbus wrote in 1492.
Columbus originally approached King John II of Portugal to obtain funding for his proposed voyage, but the king rejected the request. According to biography.com, Columbus was also rejected in Genoa and Venice. Years after the original request was made, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain agreed to sponsor the voyage.
Reasons for undertaking the journey into the unknown varied for all interested parties, the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Columbus states.
For Columbus, the voyage was about improving his status in life and gaining the ability to "style myself 'Don' and be high admiral of the Ocean Sea and viceroy and perpetual governor of the islands and continent which I should discover."
For the king and queen, the voyage was built on the hopes of improving their status and gaining power.
Religion also played a role for the king and queen, Columbus and Franciscan brethren looking to fuel religious fervor to finance a crusade to the Holy Land, the encyclopedia entry said.
The three ships Columbus used on his voyage were named the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.
According to Columbus's own writings, "I left the city of Granada on Saturday, the 12th day of May, 1492, and proceeded to Palos, a seaport, where I armed three vessels, very fit for such an enterprise, and having provided myself with abundance of stores and seamen, I set sail from the port on Friday, the 3rd of August, half an hour before sunrise and steered for the Canary Islands."
The Pinta ran into trouble on the way to the Canary Islands when the rudder became loose.
"It was believed that this happened by the contrivance of Gomez Rascon and Christopher Quintero, who were on board the caravel, because they disliked the voyage," an extract from the Columbus journal suggests. "The admiral says he found them in an unfavorable disposition before setting out."
After staying for nearly a month at the Canary Islands, where the Pinta underwent repairs and changes to her rigging, the three ships left on September 6, 1492.
As the leader of the venture, Columbus was not entirely honest with his crew, as extracts from his logbook show.
"Sunday, 9 September. Sailed this day nineteen leagues, and determined to count less than the true number, that the crew might not be dismayed if the voyage should prove long," an extract, posted at fordham.edu, says.
This pattern of underreporting progress held true throughout the journey, with notes in the logbook stating things like:
— "Steered west and sailed, day and night, above fifty leagues; wrote down only forty-seven"
— "Continued this course west and sailed day and night in calms, fourteen leagues; reckoned eleven."
— "Continued their course west and sailed twelve miles an hour, for two hours, then eight miles an hour. Sailed till an hour after sunrise, twenty-three leagues; reckoned to the crew eighteen."
On September 25, a Tuesday, Martin Alonzo called out that he saw land. Martin Alonzo Pinon was the captain of the Pinta and was hailed in Columbus's logbook as a man "of courage and capacity."
The logbook extract on Fordham.edu continues: "The admiral says, when he heard him declare (that he saw land), he fell to his knees and returned thanks to God, and Martin Alonzo with his crew repeated Gloria in excelsis Deo, as did the crew of the admiral. Those on board the Nina ascended the rigging, and all declared they saw land. The admiral also thought it was land, and about 25 leagues distant."
By October 10, the men sailing with Columbus had not landed anywhere, and had "lost all patience and complained about the length of the voyage," the logbook says. However, Columbus was able to calm the men with promises of profit and reminders that they had come too far to turn back.
On October 12, Columbus, Martin Alonzo Pinzon of the Pinta and Yincent Yanez Pinzon, captain of the Nina, stepped onto the shores of the new world.
"The admiral bore the royal standard, and the two captains each a banner of the Green Cross, which all the ships carried; this contained the initials of the names of the king and queen each side of the cross, and a crown over each letter," the journal extracts say. "They saw trees very green, many streams of water and diverse sorts of fruit. The admiral called upon the two captains and the rest of the crew who landed, as also to Rodrigo de Escovedo notary of the fleet, and Rodrigo Sanchez, of Segovia, to bear witness that he before all others took possession (as in fact he did) of that island for the king and queen his sovereigns."
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the place of the first Caribbean landfall "is hotly disputed," but San Salvador Island, or Watlings Island, is "generally preferred."
Columbus and his crew pressed on, landing in Cuba on Oct. 28 and then turning southward—away from Florida and the land of the future United States—and arriving in Hispaniola (Haiti) on December 6. He posted 39 men in a stockade they built, using parts of the Santa Maria as materials after the ship ran aground. Then, with the small stockade built, Columbus and his two remaining ships headed back for Spain in January 1493.
A second voyage was planned after gold, parrots, spices and people from the new lands were presented in Barcelona, the Encyclopedia Britannica says. On this second voyage, Columbus led at least 17 ships out on September 25, 1493.
The men on this second voyage found the Hispaniola stockade destroyed and those they had left behind dead, and proceeded to exact revenge by capturing slaves. They also rebuilt, with fortifications and a city springing up on the island. Other exploring parties headed to the Cuban coastline and Jamaica, but decided to focus their efforts on Hispaniola.
"The following year (Columbus) began a determined conquest of Hispaniola, spreading devastation among the Taino," the encyclopedia entry states. "There is evidence, specially in the objections of a friar, Bernardo Buil, that Columbus's methods remained harsh."
In 1496, Columbus headed back to Spain and began to press King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for a third voyage as soon as he arrived.
The third voyage to the New World left in May 1498 and consisted of six ships. On this third voyage, Columbus focused on finding a strait from Cuba to India, and stopped in Trinidad and Venezuela.
"By August 15, he knew by the great torrents of fresh water flowing into the Gulf of Paria that he had discovered another continent—'another world,'" the Encyclopedia Britannica entry states.
When Columbus returned to Hispaniola, where his two brothers had been ruling, all three of the Columbus brothers were sent back to Spain in chains. Complaints against the harsh methods they had employed during their leadership helped lead to their arrests.
The charges against Columbus were dropped, biography.com reports, but he lost his governorship of Hispaniola and much of the riches he had made during his time exploring the New World.
While Columbus was a prisoner returning from the Indies, he sent a letter to the nurse of Prince Don John of Castille, discussing new discoveries and his role in the exploration, and saying that, "I take my oath that I cannot understand why I am made prisoner."
"They judge me over there as they would a governor who had gone to Sicily, or to a city or town placed under regular government and where the laws can be observed in their entirety without fear of ruining everything; and I am greatly injured thereby," Columbus wrote. "I ought to be judged as a captain who went from Spain to the Indies to conquer a numerous and warlike people, whose customs and religion are very contrary to ours; who live in rocks and mountains, without fixed settlements, and not like ourselves; and where, by the divine will, I have placed under the dominion of the king and queen, our sovereigns, another world, through which Spain, which was reckoned a poor country, has become the richest."
Columbus began his fourth and final journey to the New World on May 9, 1502, and because he was forbidden from returning to Hispaniola, he was tasked with exploring the "other world" he had found earlier and finding a path to India.
After being turned away from Hispaniola (attempting to visit despite being told not to go there), Columbus explored Jamaica, Cuba, Honduras and Nicaragua. He also sailed southward along Costa Rica, the Encyclopedia Britannica reports, and sailed around the Chiriqui Lagoon in Panama. The return voyage to Hispaniola ended badly, with the crew and Columbus becoming stranded in Jamaica in 1503. They were not rescued until the next year, in June of 1504.
Columbus died in Spain in 1506.
In the Encyclopedia Britannica article written by Valerie I.J. Flint, G.F. Grant Professor of History at the University of Hull in England, Flint argues that while Columbus's entry into the New World ushered in an era of exploration, disease, death and suppression, the pendulum of blame that rests on his back may "have swung too far."
"Columbus has been blamed for events far beyond his own reach or knowledge, and too little attention has been paid to the historical circumstances that conditioned him," Flint wrote. "His obsessions with lineage and imperialism, his zealous religious beliefs, his enslaving of indigenous peoples, and his execution of colonial subjects come from a world remote from that of modern democratic ideas, but it was the world to which he belonged. The forces of European expansion, with their slaving and search for gold, had been unleashed before him and were quite beyond his control; he simply decided to be their vanguard."
According to history.com, the first Columbus Day celebration was held in 1792, which was the 300th anniversary of the explorer's arrival in the New World. Tammany Hall, or the Columbian Order — a New York political organization — held the event.
In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed that Friday, Oct. 21, would be set aside for the celebration of the 400th anniversary "of the discovery of America by Columbus."
"On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life," the proclamation said.
According to opensecrets.org, the Knights of Columbus group, which "selected its name partially because it was seen as a symbol of Italian and Catholic immigrants," lobbied Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make Columbus Day a federal holiday in 1937.
Although Roosevelt created the first federal observance, Richard Nixon established the holiday as we know it with a presidential proclamation, stating "Now, therefore, I, Richard Nixon, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate Monday, October 9, 1972, as Columbus Day; and I invite the people of this nation to observe that day in schools, churches and other suitable places with appropriate ceremonies in honor of the great explorer."
Parades around the nation will mark Columbus Day in what is seen by many as a celebration of Italian heritage in the United States.
Parades are held in places like New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Colorado and San Francisco.
Some states and cities do not officially celebrate Columbus Day, choosing instead to establish holidays or days of observance that focus on other, more localized, things, or honor the natives who lived in the Americas when Columbus landed.
For example, Hawaii celebrates Discoverers' Day "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands," and South Dakota celebrates Native American Day, which is "dedicated to the remembrance of the great Native American leaders who contributed so much to the history of our state."
The California city of Berkeley replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992, after the Berkeley Resistance 500 Task Force reported that "Columbus's expedition was not a scientific 'voyage of discovery,' but a scouting mission for a scheme of imperialism and conquest," the ipdpowwow.org website states.
Columbus Day is celebrated in the United States, but many nations home to, visited and/or explored by Christopher Columbus also celebrate the holiday in their own ways.
October 12 is known as the Dia de la Raza, or National Day of Spain, as well as the Dia de la Hispanidad — Hispanic Day — in Spain and Latin America. Argentina marks October 12 as the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity and the Bahamas celebrate Discovery Day, "which commemorates the first landfall of the great navigator Christopher Columbus," Bahamas.com states.
Virgin Islands-Puerto Rico Friendship Day is also celebrated on Columbus Day, and was created "to recognize the unique relationship between Virgin Islanders and Puerto Ricans," a virginislandsdailynews.com article said.
Columbus tends to be credited with discovering America, but that assertion is not historically true, Christopher Wanjek wrote for CBS News Thursday.
"Yes, let's ignore the fact that millions of humans already inhabited this land later to be called the Americas, having discovered it millennia before," Wanjek wrote. "And let's ignore that whole Leif Ericson voyage to Greenland and modern-day Canada around 1000 C.M.E. If Columbus discovered America, he himself didn't know. Until his death he claimed to have landed in Asia, even though most navigators knew he didn't."
So why does the U.S. celebrate Columbus? Wanjek argues that because the U.S. was fighting with England in the early years of the nation's existence, colonists chose to discount John Cabot's discovery of Newfoundland around 1497 and go with Christopher Columbus as their heroic explorer instead.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Leif Ericson (or Eriksson) is "widely held to have been the first European to reach the shores of North America."
Ever heard the phrase "the Columbian exchange?" Like him or hate him, Christopher Columbus bears responsibility for that phrase, which was developed to explain the period of exchange and trade between the New and Old Worlds after Columbus's 1492 landing.
"In 1491, the world was in many of its aspects and characteristics a minimum of two worlds — the New World, of the Americas, and the Old World, consisting of Eurasia and Africa," historian Alfred W. Crosby said in an interview with smithsonianmag.com. "Columbus brought them together, and almost immediately and continually ever since, we have had an exchange of native plants, animals and diseases moving back and forth across the oceans between the two worlds. A great deal of the economic, social and political history of the world is involved in the exchange of living organisms between the two worlds."
In a post at gilderlehrman.org, Crosby writes that the exchange included things like wheat, barley, rice, turnips, maize, sweet potatoes, horses, cattle, sheep, and germs carrying diseases like smallpox, measles, influenza, malaria and yellow fever.
According to history.com and Smithsonian.com, Washington, D.C., or the District of Columbia, was named after both George Washington and Christopher Columbus.
The city was founded in 1791 as the permanent capital of the United States of America, and is unique because it is not a state or part of any state. History.com explains that the city was named for Washington — who picked the location — while Columbus's name was chosen to be included as the District of Columbia portion of the designation.