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Today is Columbus Day. What Columbus wrote or didn’t write, did or didn’t do is strongly contested at all times. Because of the lack of absolutely proven sources, we’re going to examine this day from a historical perspective instead of an archival one. I’ll try to get back to the archives stuff on the next post.

When I was growing up, if you were lucky you had the day off from school. You may also spend school time learning about the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria and how Christopher Columbus discovered America. It seemed harmless enough. Columbus was the vision of the brave explorer who created contact with the New World.

Possible portrait of Columbus

Enter revisionist history. The focus of much of recent history is that of social history. How did historical events impact the lives of the people involved? In this case, it would be to examine the toll Columbus’ voyages had on the lives of the native peoples. Apparently, Columbus wasn’t the marvelous hero school children were told about. He was a real person, voyaging for the sake of wealth, discovery, and adventure. Imagine that.

I will refrain from my more cynical viewpoints about Columbus the man to pose this question: What is the importance of days like Columbus Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents Day?

I think when we, as Americans, celebrate these people, we’re not celebrating the men (or women) themselves, but the ideals which we have come to associate with them. It becomes irrelevant whether Columbus and his men caused havoc on the islands on which they landed, kidnapped native peoples, spread disease, and did not land in the area that is now the United States (which is certainly the impression I was given as a child, but that is probably some sub-conscious U.S.-centric thing we’re ingrained with). We don’t celebrate Presidents Day and think about how George Washington owned slaves, didn’t cross the Delaware standing up in a boat (which would be really dangerous and risky), and probably told a lot of lies in his lifetime just like the rest of us. We have these holidays to celebrate ideals which this country has some to hold dear: bravery, adventure, honor, patriotism, fighting for one’s beliefs, etc. I think sometimes my historian “what are the facts?” mind loses sight of this concept and how important heroes can be to any nation. The “truths” and “facts” about people and events should be acknowledged and children certainly shouldn’t be purposely led astray, but perhaps it is ok to simplify it down to: “Columbus sailed to the New World, he wasn’t perfect and did bad things, but he made an influential discovery and that discovery is what we celebrate.”

What do you think about these holidays?