Christopher Columbus, The Knights of Columbus, and American Indians

tags: Columbus

Historian. Author. Professor. Budding Curmudgeon. Heather Cox Richardson studies the contrast between image and reality in America, especially in politics.

When Italian mariner Christopher Columbus and his sailors “discovered” the “New World” for Spain’s monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, they brought with them both ideologies and germs that would decimate the peoples living in the Americas. Estimates of the number of native people living in North America and South America in 1490 vary widely, but there were at least as many as 50 million, and possibly as many as 100 million. In the next 200 years, displacement, enslavement, war, and, especially, disease, would kill 90% of those native peoples. The destruction of America’s native peoples is widely seen as the brutal triumph of western whi te men over those they perceived to be inferior.

It is ironic, then, that the creation of the Columbus Day holiday was an attempt to destroy the idea of America as a land of white Protestant supremacy. 

In the 1920s, a resurgent Ku Klux Klan tried to create a lily-white country by attacking African Americans, of course, but also immigrants, Jews, and Catholics. This was an easy sell in the Twenties, since government leaders during the First World War had emphasized Americanism and demanded that immigrants reject all ties to their countries of origin. From there, it was a short step for native-born white American Protestants to see anyone different from themselves as a threat to the country.

A Catholic fraternal organization called the Knights of Columbus ran afoul of the Klan. Klan members spread the rumor that one became a leader of the Knights of Columbus by vowing to exterminate Protestants, and to torture and kill anyone upon orders of Catholic leaders. To combat the growing animosity toward Catholics and other American minorities, the Knights of Columbus began to emphasize the roles minority groups had played in American history. In the early 1920s, they published three books in a “Knights of Columbus Racial Contributions” series, including The Gift of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois. The Knights of Columbus were determined to reinforce the idea that America should not be a land in which white Protestant people attacked minorities, but rather should include everyone equally.

The desire of the Knights of Columbus to honor minorities made them turn to an old American holiday. Since the late 1860s, Italian Americans in New York City had celebrated a Columbus Day to honor the heritage they shared with the famous Italian explorer; in the 1930s, the Knights of Columbus added national weight to that celebration. ...

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