Go on, finish that sentence for me.
For a genocidal maniac who didn’t know the West Indies from an Asian subcontinent, Columbus has quite an afterlife.
But the whole Columbus-as-an-imperialist-bad-guy-horse has been beaten to an uninteresting pulp. Let’s go back five hundred years. Around 985 CE, a European almost set foot on North America. His name was Bjarni Herjólfsson, and he saw the northern reaches of modern day Canada from his boat. All he knew was that it was not Greenland, and being blown off course, he didn’t care what it was. Perhaps if Herjólfsson had made landfall we’d all be singing “In 985, Bjarni sailed the ocean wide.”
Luckily, Leif Ericson cared very much about things that were “not Greenland.” He bought Herjólfsson’s boat and landed in modern day Newfoundland and set up camp: he called it Vinland. We know all of this from Icelandic sagas (“Eirik the Red’s Saga” and the “Saga of the Greenlanders”) that detail the expeditions of Ericson, contain descriptions of North America, and even relations with indigenous populations. While these sagas are known to be very old, the written record postdates the expedition by three centuries. In addition, the Skálholt map from 1690 details the location of Vinland. Despite the fact that stories about the Norse exploring America have existed for years, there was no definitive proof that they set foot in the Americas.
That was, until the 1960s, when archaeologists used the Skálholt map to locate a site believed to be Ericson’s winter camp. Over the course of three years, archaeologists excavated the site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Northern Newfoundland. They found remains of houses and unmistakably Norse objects like a whetstone, a bronze pin, and a stone oil lamp. Carbon-14 dating from the site confirmed that it was inhabited between 975 and 1000 CE. Therefore, it is without doubt that there was an Icelandic presence in the New World long before Columbus.
So why is Leif Ericson Day hardly remembered or commemorated? In a country where fringe theories are more popular than written history, why hasn’t there been a radical rewrite? Why does Columbus get all the credit?
Columbus Day is important for all the wrong reasons. His arrival to the New World was undoubtedly a watershed event in world history. Yet, the holiday itself seeks to celebrate Columbus’ ingenious, his persona, not the result of the discovery. The truth of the matter is that we are not celebrating Columbus at all. Columbus Day is more a reflection of Italian-American identity than it is a remembrance of history. Angelo Noce, an Italian immigrant tired of discrimination, persuaded a senator from Colorado to lobby for the holiday in 1907. Noce wanted Americans to celebrate the one Italian that they “would not throw rocks at.”
I appreciate the sentiment as an Italian American; I too would like an American hero of Italian descent. Regardless, we need to change the conversation from heroes to history. The traditional Columbus narrative is outdated. By glorifying Columbus and ignoring Ericson, we tacitly grant larger importance to European imperialism than events that occurred beforehand. We cannot ignore the cultures that built the Serpent Mound of Ohio or the mounds of Mississippi. American history does not begin with Columbus.