As more historical facts are uncovered about Christopher Columbus and his forces, he and his holiday have become increasingly controversial. People are rightly outraged at how Columbus and other European explorers and fortune seekers treated the people who already lived here in North America.
I’m one of those people who are ignoring Christopher Columbus today. Instead, I’m honoring the earlier European explorer, Leif Erikson. I do this partly because I think it is odd that a relative late-arriver to the Americas is lauded. It’s especially peculiar that we commemorate someone who never even set foot on the North American Continent. Columbus’s voyages brought him and his crew to the Caribbean and part of South America.
Meantime, Leif Erikson landed on North American soil and helped establish temporary settlements here. Plus, his party did so some 500 years before Columbus was even born.
As the accepted story goes, over 1,000 years ago the Scandinavian embarked on the voyage that brought his ships to North America. This led to the founding of Vinland on the eastern coast of modern day Canada. Even though the settlement was ultimately a failure, Erikson and his cohorts did realize they had found a new land mass and discovered people that Europeans had never before met.
So, why don’t we celebrate Leif Erikson instead of Christopher Columbus?
It’s interesting to note that Leif Erikson Day could have been the official federal holiday instead of Columbus Day. Basically, it boiled down to who had the more effective public relations people.
In the 1890s, the United States was going through one of its infamous anti-immigrant periods. In those days, it was ugliness against Italian immigrants. This was also a time of strong sentiment against Roman Catholics.
1892 happened to be the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Caribbean. This fact was a source of great pride for many Americans of Italian ancestry because Columbus was also from Italy. The Roman Catholics liked the idea, because Columbus was also a Catholic.
On the other hand, recent Scandinavian immigrants and people who traced their families’ roots back to other northern European areas wanted to celebrate Leif Erikson. In that the story of Viking exploration of North America was appealing and yet neglected spurred advocates of Leif Erikson Day forward.
Unfortunately, the anti-immigrant and anti-Italian folks latched onto the idea, too. They were eager to discount the role that southern Europeans played in the history of the Americas. Some of the anti-Catholic Americans went so far as to claim that wanting a Columbus Day was a Catholic conspiracy to suppress the recognition of the Norse explorers who actually arrived on the continent.
The feverish excitement over Christopher Columbus cooled down after the 1890s and so did the worries of people of northern European descent. However, a renewed push to officially celebrate Columbus Day culminated in April of 1934. Intense lobbying by New York Italian leader Generoso Pope, along with the Knights of Columbus Catholic organization carried the day. This led to the Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt proclaiming Columbus Day as a federal holiday.
Erikson took second fiddle with a joint congressional resolution approved in 1964 that authorizes the President to proclaim October 9th of each year as “Leif Erikson Day”.
Now, Alaska and Hawaii do not officially celebrate Columbus Day and South Dakota officially celebrates Native American Day. Privately, many Americans do the same thing. In addition, many of us also celebrate Leif Erikson Day.
Happy Leif Erikson Day.