Columbus Day: Biggest Misconceptions and Exploring the Era of First Contact

Famed painter and illustrator N.C. Wyeth created a series of murals in 1927 for National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., including this one showing the ships of Christopher Columbus’s voyage of discovery. (Photo courtesy NGS)

Christopher Columbus’s landfall in the Western Hemisphere on October 12, 1492, is commemorated throughout the Americas and elsewhere with various emphases, including celebrations of exploration, history, cultural heritage, cultural diversity, and more. It has also been seen as a dark day marking the beginning of centuries of violence, disease, and oppression for the people who already dwelt on these shores.

It is of course all of these things. There were good and bad aspects of all groups and populations involved in the history that began on that day. One thing is certain though: It was going to happen sooner or later. With only so much land on Earth, eventually the branches of the human family that had been growing separately on two hemispheres were bound to meet again. When they did, there would be conflict, disease, and misunderstanding, as well as trade, cultural exchange, inspiration, and the sheer thrill of discovery. (Scott Wallace on today’s uncontacted tribes.)

As things turned out, that moment of reunion began in earnest on October 12, 1492. To explore this pivotal moment in the story of our species, I spoke with Tony Horwitz, author of A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America. (Read more about Vikings in America.)

What do you see as the biggest misconceptions people have today about first contact?

Tony Horwitz: Many Americans imagine that Columbus landed in what is now the United States. Actually, he landed first in the Bahamas and never touched this continent. Many people also believe that the European chapter of our history begins with the English at Jamestown and Plymouth. In fact, by the time they arrived in the early 1600s, the Spanish, French, and others had been exploring and settling the continent for a century.

Another common misconception is that this continent was wild and lightly inhabited by nomadic natives before Europeans arrived. The reality is that there were millions of natives, enormous mound cities that rivaled European settlements in size, agriculture and trade routes, and other practices that had shaped the land in many ways. This wasn’t a virgin or primitive wilderness.

A dark spot in the history of the Western Hemisphere is the amount of violence and destruction toward the indigenous inhabitants (Read community stories from the Pine Ridge Reservation). Were there Europeans actively working for a different approach? How did they fare?

TH: Yes, there were members of the clergy in particular, such as Bartolomé de Las Casas (known as “Defender of the Indians”), who opposed the exploitation and slaughter of natives. Even some conquistadors, like Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, came to believe that natives should be treated with humanity. The Spanish also established missions and sought to peaceably convert natives and live alongside them. But the lust for land and riches, epidemic disease, and other forces proved much more powerful than the humane impulses of a few.

N.C. Wyeth's murals for National Geographic also include this map of the routes of early European explorers in the Western Hemisphere. (Photo courtesy NGS)
[Click Image to Zoom] N.C. Wyeth’s murals for National Geographic also include this map of the routes of early European explorers in the Western Hemisphere. (Photo courtesy NGS)
It may have started at this moment, but there were hundreds of years of interaction between the cultures. What are some of the things of value or joy you found exploring this forgotten era?

TH: The greatest joy, for me, was reading accounts that convey the wonder and strangeness of people encountering places and cultures that are entirely new to them. This is an experience we simply can’t have today, no matter how far we travel. How do humans who have never seen, or in some cases even imagined, each other behave when they first come face to face? How do they communicate? Get along?

No two stories are the same and many of them are filled with touching and even comic detail. For instance, newcomers and natives often exchanged food, with natives gagging on English mustard and Frenchmen griping that the native fare was insufferably bland. Natives marveled at writing, this magical communication that didn’t require sound, and Europeans—who were generally filthy and malnourished—were struck by how tall, healthy, and clean the natives seemed. Europeans also expressed amazement upon first seeing buffalo, or alligators, or even fireflies. Things we regard today as commonplace were alien and wondrous. I found myself seeing my own country through fresh and newly appreciative eyes.

Finally, different cultures come into contact all the time. What about first contact in the New World makes it of particular interest or value for us today?

TH: I’ve written about early contact in other parts of the world, too, for instance Captain James Cook’s exploration of the Pacific in the late 1700s. In Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and other places, that history is well known. But Americans, in general, aren’t aware of the early contact that occurred in their own country, often in their own backyard: in Florida, Texas, California, New York Harbor, and other points all along the eastern seaboard. The Spanish were even roaming Kansas in the 1540s.

This forgotten history influenced the late-arriving English colonists, and it helped shape the world they found here and the society they created, which we in turn have inherited. The notion that our national story somehow begins in 1776, or with the Pilgrims’ landing in 1620, is a creation myth. If we want to truly understand this land we inhabit, including the environment, it behooves us to know the true story of what happened here a long time ago.


Tony Horwitz’s Recent Book on John Brown’s Raid

First-Hand Stories From the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Scott Wallace on Uncontacted Tribes of Today

Did Sixth-Century Irish Monks Reach the New World?

Read Christopher Columbus’s Journal on Project Gutenberg

Explore 125 Years of National Geographic Expeditions

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • Bill Jacobs

    I enjoyed the article, but am troubled by the use of the word “natives”. All other people referred to by their origin begin with a capital letter, e.g., Europeans, Spanish, English & French. If you must use the word “natives”, why not “Natives”?

  • Lorenzo

    Christopher Columbus’s Controversial Identity Revealed Columbus Day in New York City

    Upcoming Columbus Day lecture at New York’s Kosciuszko Foundation claims to expose “censorship, invention and mysteries” in the long contentious history of Christopher Columbus. Was Christopher Columbus the secret Portuguese son of an exiled Polish King?

    New York, NY, September 26, 2013 –(PR.com)– In a twist that could rile the feathers of Italian-Americans everywhere, researcher claims Columbus was not Italian after all, but of Polish extraction.

    The controversial subject will be presented by Manuel Rosa, historian and author who has spent the last 22 years investigating and examining the facts concerning the life of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of America on October 12, 1492. Utilizing a non-biased scientific approach that has taken him to Portugal, Spain, Dominican Republic, Poland and many places in-between in a relentless pursuit of the truth, Mr. Rosa unearthed unknown facts and new information about Christopher Columbus that resulted in the publishing of his first book in 2006, “O Mistério Colombo Revelado” in Portugal, followed by “COLÓN. La Historia nunca contada” in Spain. In May 2012, “KOLUMB. Historia Nieznana” (COLUMBUS. Unknown History) became a bestseller in Poland and “KOLUMBAS. Atskleistoji istorija” will be published in Lithuania, February 2014.

    By juxtaposing the documentation he found in the different countries, Mr. Rosa claims that it is impossible to fit the new information into the currently accepted Italian narrative. One blatantly obvious conundrum is that the supposedly “Italian” Christopher Columbus did not write a single letter of correspondence in Italian, not even to his brothers who lived with him in Spain. Another sheer impossibility is that, if Christopher Columbus had been the peasant wool-weaver of the history books, he could never have married into the restrictive nobility of Portugal in 1479. The new evidence shows that Columbus’s Portuguese father-in-law was of such nobility that he was uncle to the king’s mistress and Columbus’s brother-in-law was the king’s bodyguard, plus Columbus’s wife was so elite that she was one of the twelve “Donas” of the Commandery of All-Saints from the influential Military Order of Santiago, requiring the king’s permission to marry. Furthermore, Columbus’s son married the King of Spain’s cousin.

    This clear evidence shows that what the schoolbooks had been teaching was an impossible “rags-to-riches” fairytale between a peasant and a noble that would rival many Walt Disney films. In short, academics are now forced to acknowledge that Christopher Columbus was no simple wool-weaver’s son from Genoa but a very well connected nobleman. Miltiades Varvounis, distinguished Greek-Polish historian, researcher and critically acclaimed author declared, “KOLUMB. Historia Nieznana is a magnum opus … and maybe the time has come for the discoverer’s life to be finally rewritten. – Source Lithuanian Heritage Magazine, (January/February 2913).

    Another little publicized fact is that the discoverer’s true name was not Christopher Columbus, this name, or better yet, Cristóbal Colón in Spanish, was the discoverer’s assumed identity in Spain, thus Mr. Rosa fittingly titles his lecture: “The Secret Identity of Columbus: Peasant to Viceroy in 33 Days.”

    According to Mr. Rosa’s provocative new theory, far from a peasant, Cristóbal Colón was actuality born Prince Segismundo Henriques de Sá Colonna, the son of a Portuguese high-noblewoman and the mysterious Henrique Alemao, the false name utilized by none other than Wladyslaw III, the former king of Poland who disappeared at the Battle of Varna in 1444 and went to live incognito on the Portuguese Island of Madeira.

    This illuminating event is an extension of the Kosciuszko Foundation’s partnership with Early Music Foundation’s New York Early Music Celebration 2013: Pro Musica Polonica.

    The event will take place on Columbus Day, October 14th, 2013 at 5:00pm at the Kosciuszko Foundation: 15 E. 65th St. New York, NY 10065.

    Entrance is Free and Open to the Public.

    About Manuel Rosa:
    Manuel Rosa is a Portuguese-American historian and author who emigrated from the Azores to the Boston area in 1973 with his parents. In his early professional life he was employed as a graphic artist working on books and national magazines including The Atlantic Monthly and Boston Magazine and currently works at Duke University. Fluent in several languages, he participated in the DNA studies of the bones of Columbus and he is also a recipient of the Boston Globe’s Art Merit Award and the Lockheed Martin Lightning Award. He is working to find a US publisher for the English version of the book.

    “Another nutty conspiracy theory! That’s what I first supposed. I now believe that Christopher Columbus is guilty of a huge fraud carried out over two decades.” – James T. McDonough, Jr., Ph.D. Professor for 31 years at St. Joseph’s University.

    More event information: http://www.thekf.org/events/upcoming_events/was_columbus_polish/

    Manuel Rosa’s website: http://www.1492.us.com/default.htm

  • Danny Lum

    There are civilization in south and North America before the Europeans arrival. The Aztec ,Maya ,Incas . They build their pyramid , township and writing.
    Bear in mind tobacco, maize, potato,chilli,tomatoes and rubber are originated from them.
    Just too bad European termed them uncivilized and wipe them off.

  • Sly b

    In simplests terms and totally leaving out the gore and torture, C. Columbus never landed on what is now know as the U.S. why are we celebrating a horrific event on humanity torture and genocide that never even occurred in this country. Can it be that the pride of warped, greedy human egos needs to feel included in this part of “world shame” , yet wear it as a medal of honor. Thier greed = karma.

  • dale

    hello….i dont know what your talking about here…total lies….i heard some chinese dude was here first…way before europeans….get your facts right jack!!!!!

  • Loero

    Tony Horwitz: Many Americans imagine that Columbus landed in what is now the United States. Actually, he landed first in the Bahamas and never touched this continent.
    In the United States, it is taught that there are 7 continents. In which continent do you place The Bahamas?

  • Esteban

    I really enjoyed this article!!!

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media