As the schoolhouse rhyme goes, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but the holiday celebrating the Spanish-funded Italian navigator’s discovery of the New World (or “Asia,” as he called it) is much more recent. It wasn’t until 1792 that several U.S. cities planned Columbus celebrations timed to the 300th anniversary of the explorer’s arrival. That year, the Columbian Order, a fraternal society that would grow over the next century into the all-powerful Tammany Hall political machine, headed New York’s observance. For the Order, the dual figures of Columbus and Tammany (an idealized Native American) were symbols of American separateness from European power and fashion.
During the 19th century, Columbus Day celebrations grew to become celebrations of Italian-American culture (and thus tended to be denounced by anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic activists). Nonetheless, in 1893 Chicago hosted the World Columbian Exposition, an immensely popular world’s fair marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing. The first state holiday celebrating Columbus was established in 1905 by Colorado. In 1937 president Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Columbus Day a federal holiday.
Columbus Day was not widely observed in the rest of the Americas—or in Christopher Columbus’s European homelands—until the 20th century. Starting in 1917, Latin American countries increasingly marked October 12 as “Dia de la Raza” (Day of the Race), a commemoration of the mixing of indigenous American, European and African ethnicities that began with Columbus’ first encounter with people whose ancestors had, of course, discovered the Americas several thousand years earlier.