Today is Columbus Day in the United States. Celebrating Columbus began in 1792 in New York City and became an annual tradition. As a result of 11 Italian immigrants being murdered by a mob in New Orleans in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison declared Columbus Day as a one-time national celebration. This was also part of a wider effort to ease tensions and to placate Italian Americans and Italy, which had expressed official dismay at the murders.
Italian Americans began using Columbus Day to not only celebrate Columbus but their heritage as well. Serious lobbying was undertaken to enshrine the holiday in states and ultimately the federal government. Colorado proclaimed it a holiday in 1905 and made it an official holiday in 1907. In 1934 after lobbying from the Knights of Columbus and New York City Italian leader Generoso Pope, Congress passed a statute requiring the president to proclaim October 12 as Columbus Day each year and asked Americans to observe it with “appropriated ceremonies” in schools, churches, and other places.
However it was a not yet a federal holiday. The effort to make it a federal holiday began in 1966 when the National Columbus Day Committee lobbied to make it a federal holiday. This was achieved in 1968 and has been a federal holiday since then. Like most federal holidays, it is often celebrated on a Monday of the week the date it falls on. The exception being if falls on a Saturday, it would be celebrated on Friday.
Columbus is recognized for his discovery of the New World. He, like many, were eager to discover the riches of Cathay, India and Japan. Since the Ottoman Empire closed off using Egypt and the Red Sea to Europeans (land routes were closed as well), European explorers were eager to find a sea route. Columbus (and he was not the only one) held the belief that by sailing west they would be able to get to the Indies. While many educated Europeans (like Columbus) believed the Earth was round, they had no concept of how it big it really was. Thus they thought East Asia was closer than it actually was.
After securing financing from the Spanish monarchy, Columbus set sail on 3 August 1492 with three ships–Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Nina–from Palos, Spain. On 12 October 1492 land was sighted. They would find Cuba later and Columbus thought it was Japan. They landed on Hispaniola in December and left a small colony behind. Returning to Spain in 1493, he was received with high honors by the Spanish court.
Columbus would lead four expeditions to the New World exploring the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and South and Central American mainlands. His original goal of finding a western ocean route to Asia was never accomplished. And he likely never truly understood the full scope of what he had accomplished. The New World–North America, the Caribbean, Central and South America–would open up new opportunities for exploration and wealth. Spain would become one of the wealthiest and powerful nations on Earth as a result.