Columbus Day honors the European discovery of the New World—at least the discovery which led to European settlement.
Cristoforo Colombo was born in the Republic of Genoa around 1451. His father worked as a merchant and small businessman. Columbus first gained experience at sea while working as a business agent for a merchant family in Genoa. In addition to acquiring some experience in seamanship, he educated himself in astronomy, geography, and cartography.
One one of his many business oriented journeys in 1476, he became shipwrecked on the coast of Portugal. Some fellow Genoese merchants heading for England picked up the stranded Columbus. He lived a couple of years in England, where he learned about some recent English explorations of the North Atlantic.
He returned to Portugal in 1479 and settle in Lisbon where his brother lived. He learned of Portuguese efforts to reach Asia by sailing around the southern tip of Africa. (Because of the expansion of the hostile Turks into Central Asia, European trade had become much more difficult than in earlier years.) He event participated in at least one exploration of the coast of west Africa.
In 1481, he learned about the contents of letter written back in 1474 by another Italian, a Florentine astronomer named Paolo Toscanelli. In this letter, Toscannelli proposed that Europeans could reach the East by sailing West. This letter had been forwarded to King Manual of Portugal, but Portugal persisted in their efforts to reach Asia by the southern route.
Columbus put together a plan to reach the east by sailing west and presented it the King of Portugal. He showed no real interest, especially after Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias successfully reached the southern tip of Africa. He presented his case to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain as well, but they put him off because they were engaged in driving the last of the Moors out of southern Spain. Columbus even directed his brother to broach the idea with the King of England while on a visit there. Finally, with the victory over the Moors, the Spanish monarchs agreed to fund his journey.
The Pinzon family provided two Portuguese style caravels, the Nina and the Pinta. He hired a third, larger ship called the Santa Maria. On August 1, 1492 Columbus set out for Asia. After nearly twelve weeks, his crew began to grow restless. Finally, the crew saw a flock of birds and turned south. On October 12. 1492 Columbus landed on what we now call San Salvador Island in the Bahamas.
After conducting additional exploration, the Santa Maria ran aground on Hispaniola. Columbus left its crew on the island to start the first Spanish colony. (They were never seen again.) He returned to Spain. After three more voyages by Columbus and additional voyages by other explorers, Europeans recognized that they stumbled upon a New World.