Geographical Distribution of Monuments for Christopher Columbus

Paper presented by Peter van der Krogt

at the 44th annual meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries, New Orleans, La., 24 October 2003

On October the 12th, 1492 Christopher Columbus set foot upon one of the Bahamas. Europe's Age of Exploration had begun, but Columbus himself died fourteen years later without ever realizing that he had reached a new continent. In fact, when Waldseemüller in 1506 named the continent America, he gave the credits for the European discovery to the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Moreover, Columbus certainly was not the first non-native American to set foot on the continent, that honour is to give to Leif Eriksson, Saint Brandan, shipwrecked Roman sailors or others.
However, the voyages of Columbus set into motion a series of historical events that resulted in the exploration of a new world. And therefore he has captured the imagination of mankind and became a metaphor for discovery, adventure, bravery, daring, perseverance and much more.

A short remark in advance. I am very aware that for native Americans, Columbus and the commemoration of him is controversial and that Columbus is symbolic of much grief that they have experienced. In this paper I am leaving this question aside for now.

First Monument for Columbus The first official recognition of Columbus as a so-called "discoverer" of America was on the occasion of the 300th anniversary in 1792. The first monument for Columbus was erected on this occasion in Baltimore, Maryland. Around the same time the new capitol in Washington was officially named the District of Columbia to appease those who wanted to name the country after Columbus. The name Columbus is found throughout American popular culture, national commemorations and memory. Many towns and cities across America are named after the explorer.
One hundred years later, by the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus, all of North America joined in a celebration that lasted an entire year. Italian Americans raised the money necessary to erect a giant monument to Columbus in New York City's Central Park. Exhibitions, parades, and festivities throughout the country culminated in Chicago at the World's Columbian Exposition.
In that year and the following years Columbus monuments mushroomed all over the world, but especially in the United States. My research on the World Wide Web and during my holidays resulted in a list of almost 400 memorials all over the world.
So judgment has been passed: Columbus is honored for the discovery of America and Amerigo Vespucci is almost forgotten. In fact, I know only of one statue for him (in Florence, Italy).

Columbus-related monuments
We can distinguish roughly two types of Columbus-related memorials: those with a direct relation to the location where they are erected, and those without such a relation. The first group is the most logical: an important person is honoured in the places where the events during his life took place.
We find these memorials in three regions:

  1. Italy, especially the Ligurian coast, where Columbus was born
  2. Spain, especially the Costa del Sol, from where he sailed (the "cradle of the discovery of America")
  3. West Indies, where he actually landed
For the second group the location has no direct geographical relationship with Columbus. Generally speaking, the reason for such monuments is more symbolic. It concerns the following regions:
  1. Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina
  2. United States of America
  3. Elsewhere
This table shows the distribution:
Italy4516444 %718
Spain6716328 %1731 1
West Indies3918354 %-18
1st group total151501040 %2467
Latin America5742481 %-11
USA158952173 %340 2
Canada11-100 %--
Rest of Europe2416379 %-5
Rest of World22-100 %--
2nd group total2421562876 %356
Total393 32063852 %27105
1 incl. two statues of the Pinzón brothers and one of Rodrigo de Triana, and busts for A. Perez and Juan de la Cosa
2 incl. a statue for Queen Isabella
3 the webpages counts 389 monuments, since some of the Spain monuments are combined to a single entry

Comparison of the first group with the second group shows a remarkable result: Not only are there more memorials in the 2nd, symbolic, group, but these memorials are dominated by statues and busts of Columbus himself (76 %), while the memorials in the regions with a direct relationship to life and travels of Columbus include only 40% of these personal monuments and it is the "other" group which dominates.
This can be explained by the fact that the memorials in Italy, Spain and the West Indies generally commemorate actions which happened on the spot itself. I will give you some examples of each region:

1. Italy, especially the Ligurian coast, where Columbus was born
It is certain that Columbus was raised in the town of Genoa in Italy. His exact place of birth is not known, and there are several places claiming to be his birthplace. Each of these places has a monument, of course.

Genoa itself has a number of monuments, such as the main monument on the Piazza Acquaverde in front of the train station, the Columbus House - the inscription shows that even the Genoese do not claim to be the birth place of Columbus:

No house has a better name than this one.
Here in his paternal home,.Christopher Columbus
passed his infancy and the beginning of his youth.
And the statue of Columbus as a youth: this is a sculpture by Giulio Monteverde from about 1870. It is named "The First Inspiration of the Boy Columbus". We see Columbus as a child sitting on a mooring post upon a pier, against which the waves are breaking; he is in deep meditation and holds a book in his hand. There are several copies of this statue, including one in Vancouver, British Columbia, and one in a Boston museum

2. Spain, especially the Costa del Sol, from where he sailed

Main monument is that in Huelva.

- In the town of Palos de la Frontera, from which Columbus left for his first voyage in 1492, are 20 memorials, but not a single one is devoted to the person of Columbus. I show you my website index page for Palos. There are statues in Palos, but only for the local heroes, the brothers Pinzón, the ship-owners and captains of Columbus's fleet.

- Nearby Rota honours Bartolomé Perez, a native of Rota and the pilot of the San Juan, a ship of the fleet of Columbus's second voyage. He is given a plaque and a bust. A ship model honors all the others on the first trip.

- The memorial in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the harbor where Columbus left for his third voyage in 1498. This monument shows on a map of the Atlantic Ocean the track of this third voyage. It is a memorial from the fifth centenary of this voyage, in 1998. Curiously enough, there is no memorial in Cádiz, the port where Columbus left for his fourth voyage in 1502

- As a map historian, I mostly like of course the monument for Juan de la Cosa and his map in El Puerto de Santa Maria.

- As a last example the memorial that triggered me to make this Columbus Monuments Web page: a plaque in Madrigal de las Altas Torres, a small town north of Madrid. Here is the place where Queen Isabella was born. This fact was commemorated with a plaque, placed there by the Historical commission of Bexar county in San Antonio, Texas.
"Homage On the advent of the fifth centennial of the initial voyage of Christopher Columbus to America, the citizens of Béxar county, Texas, U.S.A., pay homage to Madrigal de las Altas Torres birthplace of Queen Isabel the catholic whose intellect, boldness of spirit, love of humanity and christianity, and material assistance contributed significantly to the discovery of the then unknown world on October 12, 1492."
Signed by the Bexar County Historical Commission, San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A., Dr. Felix D. Almáraz Jr., chairman.

3. West Indies, where he actually landed
Almost on every spot where Columbus set foot ashore is a kind of monument. On the island of San Salvador alone, where it is generally believed that he first contacted the new world, there are five monuments. Chicago monument

  1. 1891 Chicago monument: The first monument on the spot was erected on the initiative of the Chicago Herald. It is a crude stone structure on a narrow piece of land between the ocean and the bay, with a marble plaque with an inscription and a marble globe. ON THIS SPOT CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS FIRST SET FOOT ON THE SOIL OF THE NEW WORLD. ERECTED BY THE CHICAGO HERALD JUNE 15, 1891. Undoubtly, this monument is related with the world fair in Chicago.
  2. 1951 Tappan monument: It was put there on 25 February 1951 by the yawl "Heloise" while on an around-the-world cruise. This expedition was financed by the Tappan gas company.
  3. 1956 White cross at the landfall: erected on 25th December 1956 by Ruth Durlacher Wolper
  4. 1988 at the spot where the Olympic flame was brought to America for the games in Mexico.
  5. A monument hidden on the ocean floor.
As you see, no statue of Columbus here. All five monuments belong to the group of "other" monuments. But, in the activity center in Cockburn Town, the only town on San Salvador, is a relief portrait of Columbus.

It seems that there is also a theory that the first landfall was not on San Salvador, but on Grand Turk. To commemorate this, on the waterfront in Cockburn Town (same name, different island) is a plaque claiming: GRAND TURK, FIRST LANDFALL OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS IN THE NEW WORLD 12 OCTOBER 1492

There are many other monuments at the places were Columbus set foot on Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba etc.

The second group of Columbus monuments: Columbus as a symbol
This is the more difficult group to explain, even more since the majority of the Columbus monuments belong to this group. There are at least 150 Columbus memorials in the United States, and Columbus never set foot on the shores of what later became the USA. But before we go to the USA, let's look first at the other two regions.

6. Elsewhere
In Europe, outside Spain and Italy, are several monuments. They all have a symbolic value showing mainly Columbus as a discoverer among other discovers. In many cases he is one of a group. I will illustrate this with the Columbus memorials I found on my last trip to Vienna, Austria. I was very surprised to find five memorials there, while I expected none.
I will present them in chronological order. Wien, Handelsakademie

You see: of the six memorials on San Salvador there was only one showing Columbus as a person, the five monuments in Vienna all show the person Columbus.

4. Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina
I am afraid that my information on Columbus monuments in Latin America is incomplete. So far, I located the following numbers:
El Salvador1
Costa Rica2
Central America11
South America36
There is at least one monument in each of the Spanish speaking countries. Also Portuguese speaking Brazil has some monuments. There are no monuments in the other countries (Belize, Guyana, Suriname, and French-Guyana).
I have information for only a few of these monuments on the occasion of their unveiling; therefore I cannot make a reliable analysis of them.
Most of the monuments here are full size statues pointing to yonder or with a globe. One of the few exceptions is the monument in Gaiman, Argentina, which is a simple obelisk.

5. United States of America
With 158 Columbus memorials the United States has almost half of the total number of these memorials.

Why are there so many of these memorials in the USA?

Jo Ann Emerson, United States Representative of Missouri's 8th district, tried to explain the enthusiasm for Columbus in the United States as follows (8 Oct. 1999):

"How did a man, who had no idea that he had opened the door to our continent become such a prominent figure in our national conscience? After winning freedom from the King of England, America cut itself off from the Old World and its history. As a new republic, America essentially found itself without a national history. Americans were left to create a new shared national story and heros. While the Revolutionary leaders were the obvious choices for our historical heros, they believed being deemed so would be undemocratic.
Americans, searching for a history and a hero, discovered Columbus. In Columbus, our new nation found a symbol of fortitude, pioneerism and discovery from the distant past.
Like Columbus, our Founding Fathers and early patriots found a way to escape from the Old World. Just as Columbus challenged the unknown seas to find a New World, the American revolutionaries challenged the established order to found a new nation free from kings and full of new beginnings. Columbus the explorer embodied the spirit of American discovery and progress as 19th century American explorers such as Lewis and Clark sought out to discover our frontier and our pioneers settled the distant plains. And each of our own forefathers, who braved the unknown to immigrate across the seas throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, displayed a similar courage and determination as Columbus in finding freedom and opportunity in America."

Emerson seems to have taken her inspiration from books like Columbus and Columbia, published in 1892. This work - as you see on its title page - includes the complete history of America with emphasis on Columbus.
In a paper delivered at the dedication ceremonies of the Columbian fair in Chicago in 1892, Chauncey M. Depew formulated "the lights which illumine our firmament today are Columbus the discoverer, Washington the founder, and Lincoln the saviour" (perhaps it would be a good idea to list the monuments for Washington and Lincoln in the USA, and see if there is any similarity with the Columbuses).
It is rather questionable if the nation's need for an "democratic" hero is the full explanation of the many, many Columbus memorials in the USA.

The first objection against Emerson's theory is the distribution over the country. Look at this map with the distribution of Columbus memorials in the United States. You see the distribution is not equally over the states. Of course, partly this odd distribution is caused by the population density, which is indeed the largest in the north-east.
However, when we compare the populaton with the number of monuments, no relation is found: 7.5 million persons in New Jersey share 24 monuments, over 9 million in Michigan have only 2 monuments; The state of New York, with 18 million inhabitants, has 25 monuments, the 17 million Texans only 4. Three million people in Oklahoma don't have a Columbus, whereas the same number of people in Connecticut have 15.
Moreover, if Columbus "embodied the spirit of American discovery and progress", why are there so many states embodying that spirit without Columbus memorials.

This table shows the relation between the population and the number of Columbus monuments.
The right column shows the number of persons (multiply by 1000) per monument.
States not listed do not have a Columbus monument.

Example: Massachusetts has 5,913,000 inhabitants and nine Columbus monuments, that is one monument per 657,000 persons.

number of
New Jersey 7,73632 242
New York 17,95024 748
Pennsylvania12,04014 860
Connecticut 3,23915 216
Massachusetts5,913 9 657
DC 604 9 67
California 29,063 74,152
Illinois 11,658 81,457
Ohio 10,907 61,818
Florida 12,671 43,168
Texas 16,991 44,248
Rhode Island998 4 250
Maryland 4,694 41,174
Wisconsin 4,867 41,217
Michigan 9,273 24,637
Louisiana 4,382 22,191
Colorado 3,317 21,659
Missouri 5,159 22,580
Virginia 6,098 23,049
Washington 4,761 22,381
Indiana 5,593 15,593
Minnesota 4,353 14,353
Delaware 673 1 673
Georgia 6,486 16,486
Iowa 2,840 12,840

And so we must conclude that there has to be another reason for erecting Columbus monuments. This was not too difficult to discover. When you read the inscriptions on the monuments it becomes very clear what this additional reason is.
I show you a random choice of Columbus monuments with part of the inscribed text.

Garfield NJ PRESENTED TO THE CITY OF GARFIELD BY THE GARFIELD CHAPTER OF UNICO NATIONAL OCTOBER 15, 1967 UNICO is a US service organization similar to Rotary, is membership is exclusively open to American men and women of Italian heritage.
Other states
Walla Walla WA DEDICATED TO CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS ITALY'S ILLUSTRIOUS SON paid for by subscription by the Italian immigrant farmers.
Houston TX Erected in 1992 in the park across from the Italian American Center
Indianapolis Funded by Italian immigrants in Indiana
San Francisco Erected by the Italian community of North Beach.

From this sample you see the involvement of the Italian population in erecting Columbus monuments.

I show you here a map of the USA with the percentage of the population of Italian descent. The largest concentration of Italo-Americans is in the northeastern states. The three states with the highest percentage are New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, and these are the states with the highest number of Columbus monuments.

x 1000
number of
New Jersey 7,73632 10.8
New York 17,95024 23.1
Pennsylvania12,04014 9.9
Connecticut 3,23915 4.6
Massachusetts5,913 9 6.2
DC 604 9 .1
California 29,063 7 9.4
Illinois 11,658 8 5.3
Ohio 10,907 6 4.3
Florida 12,671 4 3.8
Texas 16,991 4 1.6
Rhode Island998 4 1.5
Maryland 4,694 4 1.5
Wisconsin 4,867 4 1
Michigan 9,273 2 2.8
Louisiana 4,382 2 1.4
Colorado 3,317 2 1
Missouri 5,159 2 1
Virginia 6,098 2 1
Washington 4,761 2 .9
Indiana 5,593 1 .7
Minnesota 4,353 1 .5
Delaware 673 1 .4
Georgia 6,486 1 .4
Iowa 2,840 1 .3
This table shows the relation between the percentage of Italians (right column) and the number of Columbus monuments.

States not listed do not have a Columbus monument and have all a percentage of Italians of 0.5 % or less.

Source: U.S. Census bureau; 1980 census, Table 3a Persons who reported a single ancestry group for regions and states

Generally, only 50% of the population reported a single ancestry group

And a both maps together for comparison.

Why the Italians? Why not the Spanish community?

At the unveiling of the monument in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1925, the president of the Columbus Monument Committee, Dr Ferdinando Colletti, explained this as follows:
"Among the thousands of Italians who with their genius have contributed to the advancement of our civilization, Columbus stands like a gigantic figure for he discovered a new continent and founded a new civilization which was to give to the world a higher conception of the divine rights of men. The great Italian navigator discovered America; another great Italian, Americo Vespucci, gave our country her beautiful name."
In the Reading pamphlet of 1925 is a four page list with 750 names of Italians who contributed to the monument.

An interesting example is this initiative of single Italian immigrant. John Schepis of Sicily started a small shop in Columbia, Louisiana. Around 1916 he planned a bigger building.
"It would be finer, a fitting showplace, where one could desplay one's pride in the new country, and still the love for the old."

Italians want to honour an Italian, who played such an important role in the history of the world - and made the founding of the USA possible. Simply spoken: Without Columbus, no United States of America...

The people in Worcester, Massachusetts, exaggerated this statement, and inscribed on their statue, erected in 1978:

"Not even the mountainous waves of the mighty
Atlantic could halt the progress of the Niña,
Pinta and Santa Maria, under the guidance of the
great navigator, inspired by the Lord to go forth,
search for and find these United States of America."
Thus, Christopher Columbus was not planning to find a westerly route to the Indies, but he wanted to go to the United States of America.

Although it is understandable that Italian communities erect monuments for their fellow-coutryman, I can not explain why the Spanish communities don't. Suggestions are welcome.
Here in New Orleans I found yesterday a small Columbus memorial with Spanish origin. Plaza de España (at the end of Canal Street). Around a fountain are the coats-of-arms of all Spanish provinces. That of Huelva, from where Columbus sailed, shows a map of the old and new world with Columbus's ships and the dates 3 August and 12 October 1492.

I want to finish my paper with another opinion on Columbus' motives:

he did not want to discover the USA, but the best steaks in the world on East 45th Street!

Columbus Day: Celebrating the Pioneering Spirit of America. Weekly Column by Jo Ann Emerson, United States Representative, Missouri's 8th district, 8 Oct. 1999 (
Unveiling and dedication of the Columbus Monument, (Reading, Penn., 1925), with
- Chauncey M. Depew, The Columbian Oration.
- Ferdinando Colletti, The Discovery of America: Its Relation to World Progress.

Introduction page