"In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue"—that much is actually true. But the rest of the childhood poem about Christopher Columbus is a patchwork of revisionist history, as is much of what has been traditionally taught. No, he did not discover America. No, he did not prove the earth was round. Yes, he did basically kick off the transatlantic slave trade and instigate the genocide of millions of native people.
Irrefutably, Columbus was an accomplished explorer and historical figure who captures a certain spirit of adventure and bravery in our imagination. But, we have lots of those. Here are just a few of them below:
Bartolomé de las Casas: An early defender of the rights of indigenous peoples
“Christopher Columbus left his home and found a new world,” wrote Matthew Inman, in a piece about Columbus Day on his site, The Oatmeal. “Bartolomé de las Casas left his home and found his humanity.” That sums up the contributions of de las Casas (1484 – 1566), the 16th-century Spanish colonist, historian and, later, Dominican priest, who, having witnessed the atrocities committed against indigenous people in the Caribbean, eventually became one of the first major figures in the fight for universal human rights.
“[De la Casas] was one of the voices that was raised against Indian slavery in the 1530s, and against the system of land and labor grants that Columbus had installed, known as the encomienda system,” Patt Morrison wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
Leif Eriksson: The explorer who actually discovered the Americas
Columbus was hardly the first European to set foot in what we now know as North America. That honor goes to Leif Eriksson (920 – 1070). As Iceland Magazine explains: “Leifur is probably the best known hero of Viking age Iceland, the first European to arrive in America: Leifur’s voyage to America in the year 1000 preceded the Christopher Columbus’ voyage by roughly half a millennia.” (And, likely, Polynesians “discovered” America long before that.)
Leif Eriksson Day is celebrated each year on October 9, but it’s not a federal holiday.
John Cabot: The explorer who actually landed in what is now the United States
As writer Brian Handwerk of the Smithsonian points out, if we are looking for someone who discovered the land we now call home, it’s actually John Cabot (née Giovanni Caboto) (1450 – 1498), an Italian explorer, sailing under the English flag, who landed on the Labrador coast in 1497.
Pocahontas: The Pamunkey princess who helped bridge the New and Old Worlds
A princess of the Pamunkey tribe of Virginia, Pocahontas (1596 – 1617)—whose real name was Amonute—is not who you think she is, especially if all you’ve seen is the Disney movie. History, of course, is more complicated than that. In a retelling of her story, which now includes interviews on the Pamunkey people, Pocahontas was, as Jackie Mansky wrote in the Smithsonian, “a spunky, cartwheeling [girl] who grew up to be a clever and brave young woman, serving as a translator, ambassador and leader in her own right in the face of European power.”
Sacagawea: The Shoshone woman who lead the Lewis and Clark expedition
The first American expedition to cross the western half of the United States wasn’t led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. It was led by Sacagawea, their Shoshone interpreter and wife of French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau. Her various skills made it possible for the explorers to navigate meeting new Native American tribes and to find food and clothing along the 3,700-mile trek.
Crazy Horse: The Lakota Sioux war chief who fought to preserve Native American culture
Crazy Horse (1841 – 1877) was one of the greatest Native American chiefs in U.S. history. He not only led the Oglala Lakota against the advances of the U.S. government in several key battles, he made a name for himself trying to preserve the traditions and values at the core of Native American culture. “The aim of his fight,” wrote one biographer, “was to retake the Lakota life he'd known as a child, when his people had full run of the Great Plains.”
Amelia Earhart: The first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean (pictured)
It takes a truly special indefatigable spirit to defy all gender conventions and launch, alone, into the sky—and Amelia Earhart (1897 – 1937) had it, in spades. In 1928, Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic—as a passenger—and she continued to break records as a fearless female pilot after that. She vanished in 1937, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean—and experts are still trying to prove what happened to her, the Lockheed Electra plane she flew and her navigator, Fred Noonan.
Matthew Henson: The African American explorer who co-discovered the North Pole
Matthew Henson (1866 – 1955) was a little-known African American explorer who, after several perilous trips, was part of the team that finally discovered the North Pole in 1909 alongside Robert Edwin Peary. He was the son of two free-born black sharecroppers.
Neil Armstrong: The first person to walk on the moon
If space is the final frontier, astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930 – 2012) was one of its earliest and most accomplished explorers. On July 20, 1969, as part of the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon—and he made an indelible contribution to the American imagination with his words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Sally Ride: The first American woman in space
Although the honor of first woman in space goes to Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who piloted the Vostok 6 in June 1963, the first American woman in space was Sally Ride (1951 –2012). On June 18, 1983, she was aboard the space shuttle Challenger.