In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Most Americans know that, of course, and they celebrate the event every Columbus Day. But what exactly was Christopher Columbus hoping to accomplish, what did he actually achieve, and how did Columbus Day come about?
In Columbus’s time, the kingdoms of Europe were locked in an unofficial, but grueling, contest. Nearly all of them were racing to establish trade routes to Asia, that mysterious land of wealth described so vividly by Marco Polo. Spices, gold, silver, and precious stones were the goal, and each of the nations of Europe wanted the lion’s share of the prize.
But there was one major problem that baffled all of the contestants: how would they get to Asia? The land route was long and perilous, plagued by hostile armies and other potential disasters. This meant that merchants would have to travel by sea. But what route would they take?
Enter Christopher Columbus. He was an avid reader, and had worked out a new route based on conclusions he had drawn from the many sources he had read.
What set Columbus’s plan apart was not that it presumed that the world was round. Aristotle had known that the world was round, and most moderately educated Europeans in the 1400s took the fact for granted.
Columbus, however, had recalculated the circumference of the globe. True, Eratosthenes had estimated the circumference all the way back in the third century B.C. But confusion had arisen over the ancient units of measurement, so there was some dispute over the exact circumference. Columbus believed that the world was much smaller than even the most conservative estimates of his peers suggested.
This belief in turn influenced Columbus’s belief that the Indies could not be far off from Europe and that one had only to strike out westward across the ocean, taking advantage of the trade winds both coming and going, to arrive in Asia in reasonably short order. He estimated the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan at about 3,000 Italian miles, or 3,700 kilometers (the distance is actually 19,600 kilometers).
Columbus’s First Voyage
Most knowledgeable people in prominent positions in those days suspected that Columbus’s estimate was a little too low. Columbus sought in vain for patronage from various governments for seven years, first presenting his idea to Portugal, then Spain, Genoa, Venice, and England. On every occasion his suggestions were turned down, until 1492. Then Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain impulsively overrode the objections of their counselors and granted Columbus’s request, just as he was leaving town in utter despair.
It was a grand opportunity for the two monarchs. They were flushed from their recent victories against the Moors, culminating in the capture of Granada earlier that year. No longer at risk from the foreigners in their midst, the time had come for the Spaniards to extend their commerce and religion across the seas. Columbus had been in the right place at the right time.
Accordingly, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María set sail on August 3, 1492. For weeks the three ships bravely plowed through the unknown waters, but the sailors soon grew uneasy. Columbus tried to ease their fears by showing them a false log with shortened distances, but this only temporarily appeased them. Matters soon came to a head, and Columbus and his sailors agreed that they would turn back if they did not see land within three days.
Fortunately, a lookout on the Pinta, Juan Rodríguez Bermeo caught sight of land early in the morning on October 12. He gave a shout that alerted the rest of the crew, and the ship’s captain came forward to verify his discovery. Finding that there was indeed land ahead, the captain signaled the news to Columbus. (Columbus later said that he had already been watching a light on the shore for several hours, thereby claiming the prize money offered by Ferdinand and Isabella for the first person to see land.)
Near dawn that same morning, the ships anchored in the Bahamas. Columbus stepped out onto the shore, christened the island “San Salvador,” and claimed it in the name of Spain.
The Significance of Columbus’s Voyage
Columbus was not the first person to discover America, since native tribes were already living here. He was not even the first white person to discover America, since Leif Ericson had come and gone in the 11th century.
Nevertheless, Columbus’s voyage was significant because of the impact it had on North America. When he returned to Spain the following March, he left behind a small settlement on Hispaniola, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He also made plans to return. In other words, unlike Leif Ericson’s expedition, the Spanish voyage began a pattern of colonization.
The History of Columbus Day
It was because of this new settlement pattern that Columbus became revered in the United States. His “discovery” was celebrated as early as 1792, the 300th anniversary of the event.
Although the celebration took a while to catch on, the idea of Columbus Day became popular on the 400th anniversary, when President Benjamin Harrison recommended that the American people observe the event. The World’s Columbian Exposition (or Chicago World’s Fair) was designed to commemorate the discovery and to prove to the world how far America had advanced in those 400 years. Unfortunately, the scale of the fair led to delays, and the event did not open until a year later in 1893.
Nevertheless, the World’s Columbian Exposition did bring attention to Columbus Day. A lobbying effort arose that gave the event permanent recognition, and state legislatures began to declare Columbus Day a legal holiday, starting with Colorado in 1907.
In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt made Columbus Day a national holiday to be celebrated annually on October 12. This date was changed in 1971, when Columbus Day achieved the status of federal holiday. As a result, we now celebrate Columbus Day on the second Monday of October each year.
Favorite Columbus Books & Resources
Six books not listed below along with two favorite Columbus downloads.
- Create a Columbus timeline showing the main events in Columbus’s life including his three voyages. Add one or two other important events that were going on in the world at the same time.
- Create a travel brochure describing the land Columbus found.
- Create a diamond poem summing up what you know about Columbus.
- Create a Columbus notebook. Here are a few things you might decide to include (you’ll find printables and notebooking resources below):
- Copywork from Columbus’s journal.
- A diagram or illustration of the Santa Maria.
- Narration from one of the books you read or a summary of what you learn.
- A map showing his voyages.
Christopher Columbus: Explorer
Basic information on Columbus and his four voyages at EnchantedLearning.com.
More extensive biography from the BBC.
ThinkQuest that includes portions of his journal written in easy-to-understand language.
What he did, where he sailed, and what he found at the BBC.
Christopher Columbus Discovers America, 1492
EyewitnessToHistory.com account that relies on primary sources.
Great timeline at ColumbusLandfall.com.
Interactive site from the BBC that has information, timeline, fun facts, quiz, and a well-done Christopher Columbus game (actually a series of games) that helps students learn about Columbus and his voyage.
The Columbus Navigation Homepage
Interactive site to learn more about the history, navigation, and landfall of Columbus.
Christopher Columbus Activity Book
Free download from Nest Learning that includes a coloring book, a map, discussion questions, and games and activities.
Columbus’s Voyage: Maps and Ships
Craft at EnchantedLearning.com where students make a map and three small ships to trace Columbus’s route.
You Are There: Columbus Discovers America
Audio file from the old radio show narrated by John Daly (CBS).
View the Columbus Doors that stand at the entrance to the Capitol Building and depict the life of Columbus.
Milk Carton Spanish Galleon
Foldable at Papertoys.com.
Find Your Longitude
Where in the world are you? Find out in this PBS interactive.
Simple interactive quiz for wrapping up.
Favorite Columbus Books & Resources
Six books not listed below.
“Story of Christopher Columbus for Little Children”
Chapter for younger children from In Story-Land by Elizabeth Harrison.
I, Columbus: My Journal, 1492–1493 by Peter and Connie Roop
Excellent book based Columbus’s journal entries.
“Four Centuries Ago”
The first two chapters of Swinton’s Primary United States cover Christopher Columbus.
Where Do You Think You’re Going, Christopher Columbus? by Jean Fritz
Some like, and some really dislike, these historical books by Jean Fritz published by Scholastic. As always, the choice is yours!
The Life of Columbus by Edward Everett Hale
Biography based on his own letters and other documents from his time written by a former chaplain of the United States and the author of The Man Without a Country.
A section from the Beacon Lights of History series by John Lord for older students.
Columbus’s Letter to the King and Queen of Spain
Primary source document hosted at Fordham University describing his find.
Personal Narrative of the First Voyage of Columbus to America
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
Chart Columbus’s Voyages
Lesson plan at TeacherVision.com.
Columbus Day Copywork and Worksheets
Nice 33-page set at CyncesPlace.com featuring copywork, dictation, coloring pages, poetry, and more!
Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue
Cute five-day Core Knowledge unit for kindergarteners. Some nice printables included.
Christopher Columbus: The Man, the Myth, and the Legend
Seven-day Core Knowledge lesson plan aimed at kindergartners (but easily adaptable upward) that covers continents, oceans, and the compass rose, and includes lots of hands-on activities culminating in a dramatic interpretation.
My First Biography: Columbus
8-page teacher guide for the book published by Scholastic that can also be used independently.
Navigating the Atlantic in 1492
Lesson plan from Scholastic with four hands-on activities.
Wrong-Way Corrigan: A Compass Unit Study
A fun aside for those who wish to use this opportunity to learn about the compass and directions.
Maps: A Unit Study
Another fun aside for those who want to explore maps.
Chicago World’s Fair: A Unit Study
Another fun rabbit trail for those interested in the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago mentioned above.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
Christopher Columbus Map
1490 map for notebook.
Route of Columbus — First Voyage
Map for notebook.
The Four Voyages of Columbus
Map for notebook.
Explorer Data Chart
Notebooking page from Scholastic.
Parts of a Ship
Diagram at EnchantedLearning.com.
Coloring page for notebook from DLTK’s.
Another option from DLTK’s.
Columbus Day Notebooking Pages
15-page download from NotebookingFairy.com.
Columbus Day Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.