Christopher Columbus


There is no question that the explorer Christopher Columbus had a huge impact in the history of the American continents. The exact nature of his legacy, however, is debated by historians. Join Active Minds as we tell the story of Columbus, his voyages, and the ways in which he changed the world.

Key Lecture Points

  • Christopher Columbus is commonly regarded as the discoverer of the New World. Strictly speaking, he was not. Indigenous peoples arrived in the Americas between 17-50,000 years ago. The Vikings also reached North America from Europe almost five centuries before Columbus.
  • Columbus made four voyages to the Western Hemisphere and served for a time as Admiral of the Oceans and Governor of the New World. His “discovery” inaugurated the Age of Discovery in Europe, a period of extensive overseas exploration and colonization.
  • The legacy of Columbus is complex. To some Americans, Columbus is the heroic explorer who discovered the Americas. To others, he is a brutal tyrant whose discoveries led to the deaths of millions of indigenous people.
  • Franklin Roosevelt established Columbus Day as a national holiday in 1937. Today, many people question whether it is appropriate to celebrate Columbus at all. Some activists have attempted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
  • Columbus’s complex legacy complicates the way educators teach American history.

Exploration Questions

  • What are the most positive aspects of Columbus’ legacy? The most problematic? How should history remember Columbus?
  • Who do you think held the rights to the land in the Americas? Indigenous peoples or settlers?
  • Is it fair to blame Columbus for the consequences of European colonization in the New World?

Reflective Questions

  • How has the way we think about Christopher Columbus changed during your lifetime? What were you taught about Columbus in school?
  • What would the United States gain lose if we no longer celebrate Columbus Day? Should we replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

More to Explore

  • Library of Congress on-line exhibit 1492: An Ongoing Voyage Click here
  • Columbus' voyage logs Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Bergreen, Laurence. Columbus: The Four Voyages. Penguin Books, 2011. 423 pages. A recent biography of Columbus that considers both the positive and negative aspects of his legacy.
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  • Mann, Charles C. 1491. Alfred Knoff, 2006. 541 pages. Mann makes the case that new archeological and anthropological evidence supports claims of extensive, complex cultures with large populations living in the Americas before Columbus.
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  • Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States, 1492-present. Harper, 1980. 729 pages. Perhaps the best-known work of revisionist American history. The first chapter attempts to tell the story of Columbus from the Indians’ perspective.
    Click here to order