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How Columbus Day became a federal holiday

Photo by Ron Dauphin on unsplash.com

Many American students grew up learning about Christopher Columbus and his accidental discovery of the New World in 1492. For many, the children’s rhyme “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and perhaps the names of his three ships (Nina, La Pinta, and Santa Maria), may be the only facts about Columbus that really stick with them. Some people may remember that he was Italian, but that he sailed for Spain. That he sailed for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Maybe even that he landed in the Bahamas accidentally while searching for a faster route to the Far East.

But who was he, actually? And why does he get his own holiday? The answer to the first is a bit more detailed, while the second seems simple enough, but has a more violent origin.

Columbus was born sometime between August 25 and October 31 in 1451 in the Republic of Genoa. His parents, Domenico Colombo and Susanna Fontanarossa, had a total of five children, including Christopher. Columbus took to sailing as a young man, and had traveled from the British Isles to Ghana by the time he became an adult.

He married Filipa Moniz Perestrelo of Portugal, living in Lisbon for several years and having one son, Diego. Later, he would take Beatriz Enriguez de Arana, a Castillian woman, as a mistress. They also had a son, Fernando.

Columbus studied astronomy, geography, and history, three subjects needed by any successful sailor at the time. Studying navigational charts and putting together what he was certain was a route to the East Indies, Columbus sought funding from several countries before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain agreed to fund the voyage. In August of 1492, Columbus and his crew set sail, hoping to earn their fortune in the spice trade.

Almost three months later, the trio of ships made landfall in the Bahamas on what is now San Salvador. Columbus would also visit the islands that would become Cuba and Hispaniola, and established a colony on Haiti. Believing he had reached India, Columbus and his crew mistakenly believed that the natives of the islands were Indios (from which we derive the term “Indian”), which became the de facto term for the indigenous tribes of the New World. Finding that they were, in fact, on a previously unconquered land, Columbus and his crew captured many of the natives, bringing them back to Castile in 1493.

After three more journeys to the New World, in which he explored the Lesser Antilles, Trinidad, and Central America in 1493, 1498, and 1502 respectively, Columbus soon became a colonial governor. However, his contemporaries accused Columbus of being too brutal to the subjects under his control, and was removed from his position. He was arrested and removed from Hispaniola in 1500. He eventually died in May of 1506, at the age of 54.

Despite his apparent flaws, however, including his mistreatment of the native Tainos people of Hispaniola, Columbus ushered in a period of exploration and colonization that would eventually bring pilgrims from Europe to North America, and eventually form the nation in which we now reside.

For all that, however, the actual holiday that bears Columbus’ name did not come along until much, much later. While the holiday is ostensibly reserved to celebrate the landing of Columbus in the New World, the holiday didn’t come to be until four centuries later.

In 1881, a young detective named David C. Hennessy of New Orleans, Louisiana, made headlines by arresting Giuseppe Esposito, a notorious Italian criminal. In 1888, Hennessy was promoted to superintendent and chief of police. Two years later, on October 15, 1890, Hennessy was walking home from work when he was shot by several gunmen. He gave chase, returned fire, and collapsed. When help arrived, Captain William O’Connor asked if he (Hennessy) knew who did the shooting, Hennessy reported whispered an ethnic slur for Italians. He died in the hospital the following day from his injuries. It was suspected that his wounds had come from lupara, sawed-off shotguns which were common in Mafiosi executions. Due to these factors, it was widely believed that Italians had killed Hennessy.

Dozens of Italians in New Orleans were rounded up in the aftermath of the execution, eventually narrowing their suspects down to 19. These were indicted and held in the Parish Prison. In March of 1891, nine of the men were tried for the murder. Hennessy had been a popular figure in New Orleans, and after several mistrials and acquittals, an angry mob of locals stormed the prison. The doors were wrenched open and 11 of the Italians held inside were lynched. It stands as one of the largest mass-lynchings in American history.

The lynching so enflamed anti-Italian sentiment across the United States that President Benjamin Harrison sought to sooth some of the tension by declaring a one-time national celebration of Columbus’ voyage in 1892, on the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World. The celebration included teachers and clergy proselytizing patriotism to pupils across the country. Harrison wanted the themes of loyalty, citizenship, and progress to be emphasized. One of the methods introduced was the Pledge of Allegiance, which was somewhat different than the one we know today:


“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Many Italian-Americans had already been celebrating their heritage in an unofficial holiday on October 12. An Italian man in Denver, Colorado, Angelo Noce, was able to lobby successfully to get the date enshrined as a legal holiday, and it was set as a state holiday in Colorado in 1905. The Knights of Columbus, a catholic fraternal order, lobbied to have October 12 set as Columbus Day. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the proclamation to designate the date in 1934, though it would not become a federal holiday until the late 1960s.

Mariano A. Lucca founded the National Columbus Day Committee in 1966, lobbying to finally make Columbus Day a federal holiday. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation to enshrine it as a federal holiday on June 28, 1968, which would go into effect in 1971, to be observed on the second Monday in October.

Since then, the celebration of Columbus Day has been derided many places in the United States. The states of Alaska, parts of California, Florida, Hawaii, New Mexico, Maine, South Dakota, and Wisconsin no longer recognize the holiday, and have replaced it with “Indigenous People’s Day” in recognition of the original inhabitants of the New World. Several cities across the U.S. have also done away with the holiday, instead celebrating “Italian-American Heritage and Culture Day” instead.

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