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Columbus Day celebrates Italian navigator Christopher Columbus, who first landed in the New World on October 12, 1492. Throughout the nineteenth century, celebrations  were held to honor Columbus, and in 1905, Colorado became the first state to observe Columbus Day. In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed October 12 to be officially celebrated as Columbus Day. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared it a federal public holiday, celebrated on the second Monday in October.



The First Expedition

On August 3, 1492, Columbus sailed from Palos, Spain, with three small ships, the Santa María, which he commanded, the Pinta under Martín Pinzón, and the Niña under Vicente Yáñez Pinzón. After stopping at the Canary Islands, he sailed due west from September 6 until October 7, when he changed course to the southwest. On October 10,  a small mutiny was quelled, and on October 12 he landed on a small island   in the Bahama group. He took possession for Spain and, with natives aboard, discovered other islands in the neighborhood. On October 27 he sighted Cuba and on December 5 reached Hispaniola.

On Christmas Eve the Santa María wrecked on the coast of Hispaniola, and Columbus, leaving men there to found a colony, went back to Spain on the Niña. According to his contract with the Spanish monarchs, he was made “admiral of the ocean sea” and governor-general of all new lands he had discovered or should discover.



Second Expedition

With a fleet of 17 ships and 1,500 colonists aboard, Columbus sailed from Cádiz in October 1493. He made landfall in the Lesser Antilles, and his new discoveries included the Leeward Islands and Puerto Rico. The admiral arrived at Hispaniola to find the first colony destroyed by Native Americans. He founded a new colony nearby, then sailed off in the summer of 1494 to explore the coast of Cuba. After discovering Jamaica he returned to Hispaniola and found the colonists, interested only in finding gold, completely disorderly; his attempts to enforce discipline led some to seize vessels and return to Spain to complain of his administration. Leaving his brother Bartholomew in charge at Hispaniola, Columbus also returned to Spain in 1496.



Third Expedition

On his third expedition, in 1498, Columbus had to transport convicts as colonists, because of the bad reports on conditions in Hispaniola. He sailed farther south and made landfall on Trinidad. He sailed across the mouth of the Orinoco River (in present Venezuela) and realized that he saw a continent, but without further exploration he turned back to Hispaniola to administer his colony. In 1500 an independent governor arrived, sent by Isabella and Ferdinand as the result of reports on the conditions in the colony, and he sent Columbus back to Spain in chains. The admiral was released, but his favor was in decline. Other navigators, including Amerigo Vespucci, had been in the New World and established much of the coast line of northeast South America.



Fourth Expedition

It was 1502 before Columbus was able to gather together four ships for another expedition, with which he hoped to clear his reputation. He hoped if he could sail far enough west he might find lands answering to the description of Asia or Japan. He struck the coast of Honduras in Central America and coasted southward, suffering terrible hardships, until he reached the Gulf of Darién. Trying to return to Hispaniola, he was marooned on Jamaica. After his rescue, he was forced to abandon his hopes and return to Spain.

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Columbus maintained that he had reached Asia despite evidence to the contrary.  Amerigo Vespucci's 150l voyage along the coast of South America convinced most explorers and their patrons that a large unexplored continent existed across the Atlantic — what Vespucci called Mundus Novus, the New World. Columbus died in 1506 still insisting that he had found a new route to Asia.


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Updated: May 28, 2005

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