Montana Viewpoint: The fake news that made Columbus (in)famous

Jim Elliott

Maybe the most interesting thing about Columbus’ “discovery” of America was that he thought he had landed in India, which was where he was headed when he began his trip in 1492.

The Italian explorer, sailing under a Spanish flag, missed India by thousands of miles, landing on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, now home to the nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

But for better or worse it was Columbus who was early on believed to be the first European to discover America, and today the second Monday of October is a national holiday to celebrate the fake news that made Columbus famous.

The celebration of Columbus Day as a national holiday had its origin in a lynching. Italians began emigrating to the United States from early days, but after the Civil War their economic importance increased immensely because they did the plantation work that African American slaves had done before the war. They were not terribly well respected, especially the dark-skinned Italians from the south of Italy. They were not considered “white” by the “whiter” people of America, and the fact that they often lived among black Americans and intermarried with them was a further cause of prejudice.

In 1890, the popular police chief of New Orleans, David Hennessy, was murdered. Relying on hearsay and a cursory investigation of the case, the police arrested a seemingly random assortment of 19 Italians and charged them with the murder. Those arrested were given trials, which given the tenor of the time seems amazing enough, but even more amazingly, six of the defendants were acquitted and three were the recipients of hung juries; none of them were found guilty.

This apparent miscarriage of justice enraged the self-righteous white citizens of New Orleans who broke into the jail where the acquitted Italians were lodged and summarily lynched 11 of them. The lynching was widely praised by the American public and celebrated in the newspaper editorials of the day, including the New York Times.

This did not sit well with the government of Italy, which severed diplomatic relations with the United States, and demanded, and were paid, an indemnity for the injustice. In 1892, it being the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing on semi-American shores, President William Harrison declared a one-time federal holiday honoring Columbus’ “discovery.” Since Columbus was Italian, this went a long way toward pacifying the Italian government, although it didn’t do much for those who were lynched, nor did it improve Americans’ opinion of Italians in general.

However, many Italians reckoned, if there were a day named for an Italian explorer they might as well take as much advantage of it as they could, and so by fits and starts Italian communities across America began to petition local governments to celebrate that day more than once every 100 years. As the movement grew, and as Italians became more accepted by the white Americans — became “white” as it were — the Knights of Columbus pushed for a national holiday, and in 1934 Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt granted their wish. 

One of the most significant accomplishments of Columbus was the introduction of smallpox and measles to the unsuspecting native population of Hispaniola, the island where he first landed. Of the estimated quarter million natives in 1492. there were only 14,000 natives left 25 years later.

The positive thing about Columbus Day is that it enabled Italians to become accepted in American society, the negative thing is that it unintentionally commemorates the beginning of the end of Native American culture. Because of that, it is falling out of favor in many American cities and is being renamed Indigenous Peoples’ Day after the people who, as far as I know, were the first to discover America. 

Much of this article is based on the October 12, 2019 New York Times article “How Italians became white.”

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.