By: Brogan Frey
“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” This quote is one that many people hear often, most commonly on a day known as Columbus Day. However, in past years, this name has been subject to controversy. Here’s why.
Columbus Day is celebrated annually on the second Monday of October. In the past few decades, a day named “Indigenous Peoples Day” has started to take over and replace Columbus Day.
Last year, Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to formally recognize Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day. The first thought of Indigenous Peoples Day was in 1977, at the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas. The convention, which was sponsored by the United Nations and held in Geneva, Switzerland, was when countries began to discuss replacing Columbus Day in the Americas with a celebration to be known as Indigenous Peoples Day.
In 1992, in the city of Berkley, California, “[S]ymbolically renamed Columbus Day as ‘Indigenous Peoples Day’ to protest the historical conquest of North America by Europeans, and to call attention to the losses suffered by the Native American peoples and their cultures through diseases, warfare, massacres, and forced assimilation”.
Before we get too far into Indigenous Peoples Day, let’s talk about Columbus Day. This day is, as many may already know, named after the famous European explorer Christopher Columbus, who many know as the first person to “discover” the Americas. Although this is something that, until recently, was taught often in classrooms around the country, there are actually a few things that are incorrect about this statement.
The first thing incorrect in this statement is when it is said that he was the first person to discover the Americas. This is far from correct. This is the ignoring of an entire group of people who had lived on these 2 continents for a long time before Christopher Columbus had even seen them. Indigenous peoples had already been living in the Americas for thousands of years when Columbus “discovered” them. Columbus didn’t discover the Americas, he was simply one of the first non-natives to find them.
Now that we know that he was not the first person to discover the Americas, let’s go into the other thing incorrect about this statement. Columbus wasn’t even the first non-native person to find the Americas. The first confirmed non-natives to find the Americas were Vikings in around 1,000 A.D. from Greenland.
There is clear evidence that this group of Vikings stayed for about 10 years before returning to Greenland, supposedly because relations with native North Americans were hostile at best. This group consisted of a man named Leif Erikson and his extended family.
Even before the Vikings, there is legend of an Irish monk, named Saint Brendan, sailing to North America on a wooden boat covered in animal fur. His alleged journey is detailed in the ancient annals (historical records) of Ireland. There is, however, no evidence that he ever made landfall in North America.
Essentially, Columbus was never the first non-native to find the Americas. His story is simply told so often because of the dramatics of it all. He begged the King and Queen of Spain to give him ships so he could sail to China, India, and the fabled gold and spice islands of Asia.
At the time of his voyage, Europeans knew the earth was round, but they didn’t know that the Pacific Ocean or the Americas existed. Because of this, Columbus thought that if he sailed East, he would eventually get to India because he thought that it was just the Atlantic in between Spain and India.
A few months after setting sail in August of 1492, Columbus spotted the island of Cuba, on October 12th, 1492, believing it to be mainland China. In December, the expedition found Hispaniola, which they believed to be Japan. They didn’t know they were in a place previously unknown to Europeans.
Soon after landing in Cuba, he and his crew found out that they were not in fact in China, but a completely new place. On his first day in what was called “the New World,” he ordered six of the natives to be seized. Columbus kept a journal, and on this, he wrote that he believed that the natives that were seized would be good servants.
This is where this story turns dark. This is the part of the journey and “discovery” that is not spoken about nearly enough. Throughout his years in Cuba, Columbus enacted many policies of forced labor in which natives were put to work for the sake of profits.
Later, according to History.com, he sent thousands of Taino people (the natives) from the island of Hispaniola to Spain to be sold. Many died on the trip. Those that were left behind were forced to search for gold in mines and work on plantations. Within 60 years of Columbus arriving, only a few hundred Taino Indians were left of what was most likely a group of over 250,000 before Columbus.
Violence wasn’t the only thing that killed many native populations in the Americas. The Europeans brought many diseases that had never shown up there before. These diseases killed about 90% of the population that hadn’t already been killed by Columbus or his crew.
Overall, Columbus was far from being the first person to find the Americas. There was at least one confirmed group before him, and many that have not been confirmed but who may have visited long before him. He was also cruel and racist towards the natives, and his policies ended up killing several hundred thousand people.
We need to stop celebrating a man who ruined and ended many lives. Next year, instead of Columbus Day, let’s celebrate the first, original people who called these lands home by celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day.
For more information on Indigenous Peoples Day, please visit
For more information on Columbus Day, please visit