Many Americans celebrate the discovery of the United States. However, out of all the American holidays, Columbus Day has a long and complicated history.
Christopher Columbus mistakenly landed on what would become the United States on October 12, 1492, while on course to India. His “discovery” set the tone for worldwide exploration. Three hundred years after the “discovery,” the political organization Tammany Hall commemorated the moment with the first Columbus Day in October of 1792. The day was observed intermittently throughout the next century. President Benjamin Harrison made it a one-time observance in 1892. Years of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus led to the day becoming an official observance by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937. This period also was a time fraught with discrimination against Italian Americans.
It was another two decades before Columbus Day became a federal holiday. This recognition came after President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed the day official in 1968 after lobbying from the National Columbus Day Committee. It didn’t officially take effect until 1971.
Even before the observance became an official holiday, there was some pushback against honoring Columbus’ memory. The first wave came from anti-Italian sentiment in the early 20th century due to fears of Catholic influence. After the anti-Italian rhetoric subsided, the second wave came in the 1990s as academics and Indigenous People began to re-examine the treatment of the minority group by European settlers, including Columbus himself.
The re-examination led to cities celebrating Indigenous People’s heritage over Christopher Columbus’s “discovery.” Berkeley became the first city to officially celebrate Indigenous People’s Day as an alternative to Columbus Day. In 1990, South Dakota reportedly became the first state to acknowledge the day as an official holiday. Alaska, Oregon, and Vermont followed suit in the coming years. It didn’t become an official holiday until October 11, 2021, after President Joe Biden made an official decree.