The first recorded celebration of “Columbus Day” took place in New York City on October 12, 1792, three hundred years to the day after Columbus first reached the Caribbean. The ceremony was organized by the Society of St. Tammany, also known as the Columbian Order, and included the dedication of a monument, a 14-foot “portable monumental obelisk” that was illuminated and made to simulate black marble. It depicted scenes from Columbus’s life. The New York Times ran a piece about this monument on August 4, 1889, describing it in some detail, though even then its whereabouts were unknown.
One hundred years later, a statue of Columbus by the Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo was erected in Columbus Circle, which would become the point at which distances to and from New York City are officially measured.
In the same year, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation urging Americans to celebrate “Columbus Day,” and communities across the country responded with plays, pageants, and other festivities. The following year saw the opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, remembered for its famous “White City” and for Frederick Jackson Turner’s address to the American Historical Society on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” [Click here for a virtual tour from the Crossroads site at the University of Virginia and here for the University of Illinois’s digital exhibition.]
In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed that every October 12 would be a federal holiday known as “Columbus Day.” President Richard Nixon changed the official date of the holiday to the second Monday in October (which happens, incidentally, to be Canada’s Thanksgiving Day).
In 1992, the insights of multiculturalism led to both introspection and protests around the holidaty. An editorial in the New York Times noted that “today, in New York City, Spain officially commemorates the 500th anniversary by observing a ‘Day of Respect for Native American Cultures.'” The editorial concluded, however, that “it is as unfair to burden Columbus with all the depredations that followed his voyage as it is to credit him alone with the development of the Western Hemisphere. It is enough that a long and different time ago, he opened the way.”