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Christopher Columbus: How The Explorer's Legend Grew—and Then Drew Fire

July 7, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

Columbus’s famed voyage was celebrated by Italian-Americans, in particular, as a pathway to their own acceptance in America.


Columbus’s heroic stature was further cemented by Washington Irving’s freely embellished 1828 bestseller, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, which launched the popular myth that only Columbus believed the earth was round and stood as the lone voice of reason against medieval Catholic Church authorities.

But starting in the second half of the 19th century, as more Irish and Italians immigrated to America, they embraced Columbus as a pathway to validate their burgeoning communities. San Francisco’s Italian Americans celebrated their first Columbus Day in 1869. In New York City, the earliest evidence of a distinctly Italian American Columbus Day was an event held in 1866, sponsored by a local chapter of the Italian Sharpshooters Association.

And in 1882, a group of Irish Catholic priests founded what’s thought of today as a chiefly Italian American organization, the Knights of Columbus. “It’s a measure of how much respect Columbus had,” says Connell, “that the Irish Catholics saw Columbus as a path to legitimization, just as the Italians would.”

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Christopher Columbus

Flood of immigration sparks anti-Italian violence

A lynch mob in New Orleans breaks into the prison where Italian immigrants were being held, accused of murder in 1891.

The masses of Italian immigrants who began arriving in America in the 1880s stood out from the predominantly Northern Europeans who came before them. Mostly poor farmers escaping starvation in Southern Italy, they had dark complexions, spoke little English and often lived in squalid, overcrowded tenements. They were frequently stereotyped as simple-minded criminals, and the press stoked fears of Southern Italians as all being members of the Sicilian mafia.

Anti-Italian discrimination occasionally engendered brutal acts of violence. In 1891, after the police chief of New Orleans was gunned down in the street, police rounded up 250 Sicilian immigrants without cause, trying nine for murder. After all were acquitted for lack of evidence, a 20,000-person mob organized by the mayor and other prominent New Orleans citizens stormed the prison and killed the nine men, plus two more Sicilians being held on unrelated charges. The mob then strung up the mangled corpses, in what was one of the largest mass lynchings in American history.

“One of the most startling things about the New Orleans …read more


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