Biography of Christopher Columbus

Stacy Harmsen, David Wilson
  • Author
    Stacy Harmsen

    Stacy is currently a certified high school and middle school English teacher; she has taught English 5th - 12th grade during her career. Stacy holds a Master's degree in English from Arizona State University and a Bachelor's in Elementary Education from Northern Arizona University.

  • Instructor
    David Wilson

    David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

Discover Christopher Columbus and his accomplishments. Learn Christopher Columbus facts, such as when he discovered America, his route, and his voyages’ importance. Updated: 06/27/2022

Table of Contents


Who Was Christopher Columbus?

Christopher Columbus is known worldwide by many names: Cristoforo Colombo in Italian or Cristóbal Colón in Spanish or Christóvão Colom in Portuguese.

Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer that sailed west in search of a trading route; his ambition changed the world. Columbus is credited with discovering the Caribbean and subsequently South America; his discovery began the European colonization of North and South America.

Much of his early life remains a mystery, and some of the Christopher Columbus facts are debatable. However, most historians agree that Columbus was born between August and October of 1451. The small Italian seaport village of Genoa, where Christopher Columbus was born, is on the northwest coast of present-day Italy. Columbus was the oldest of five children: three brothers (Bartholomew, Giovanni, Giacomo) and a sister (Bianchinetta). Columbus was born to a middle-class wool merchant named Domenico Colombo and his wife Susanna (Fontanarossa).

Columbus apprenticed under his father as a merchant but was fascinated by the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. Records indicate that Columbus began his seafaring career at the age of 14. He sailed on merchant vessels throughout the Mediterranean, Europe, and West Africa for most of his young adult life. Columbus attended the prestigious Prince Henry's School of Navigation in Sagres, Portugal which sharpened his naval skills. Most of his education was self-taught. Columbus was a skilled navigator, cartographer (mapmaker), and maritime explorer.

In 1479, Columbus married a young woman named Felipe Perestrello e Monis, who came from a prominent Italian-Portuguese family. The two had a son named Diego born in 1480. The marriage gave Columbus prestige and connections in the Portuguese court. Felipe died in 1485 for unknown reasons.

Christopher Columbus and his son, Diego

Painting of Christopher Columbus with his son Diego

Columbus later had an illegitimate son, Fernando, in 1488 with his long-time mistress Beatriz Enriquez de Arana. Fernando was later legitimized by Columbus.

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  • 0:03 Sailing the Ocean
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Christopher Columbus Accomplishments

After the death of his wife Felipe, Christopher and his son moved to Spain and began to campaign for funding. Columbus was in search of a quicker trade route to India. India was an exotic land plentiful in gold, spices, and silk. The existing trade routes that he sailed from 1482–1485 were long and dangerous. Based on his seafaring experience Columbus began to speculate that if he sailed west, he would land in India. This implied that the earth was round, not flat. Columbus made many calculations that the revolutionary idea seemed far-fetched and both the Spanish and Portuguese monarchs rejected Columbus's request for funding.

After multiple attempts, Columbus accomplished his goal; in 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain agreed to fund his voyage. On April 17, 1492, the Capitulations of Santa Fe was signed. This was a royal contract that officially sponsored Christopher Columbus and gave him authority to claim any discovered islands or land on his journey on behalf of Spain. The Spanish Crown granted Columbus the title of Viceroy and Admiral of the Sea. The document also allowed Columbus to become governor of any islands he may discover on his journey. In addition, Columbus was granted authority to implement an encomienda (forced labor) system over indigenous people he encountered on behalf of the Spanish Crown. The document also outlined that Columbus would receive a percentage of all riches acquired on his voyage.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain

Portrait of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain

Christopher Columbus's Route

In August of 1492 three ships, nicknamed the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, left Spain under the command of Christopher Columbus. The ships headed to the Canary Islands where they rested and restocked supplies. They left the Canary Islands on September 6, 1492, and the ships headed west into the Atlantic Ocean. This was not an easy trip for the sailors; water and food supply were a constant struggle and men died from spoiled food. The ships sailed for five weeks until spotting land on October 12. Columbus made landfall on an island he named San Salvador. Most likely, this was present-day Watling Island. This is the date recorded when Columbus did discover America. The natives of the islands were friendly but offered no spices or gold. Instead, they offered colorful parrots as trade. Columbus believed that he had reached India and began to, incorrectly, call the inhabitants Indians. The term Indians would soon refer to all native people encountered by the Europeans.

A replica of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria

Drawing of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria ships

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is Christopher Columbus really known for?

Christopher Columbus is mainly known for sailing west and landing in Caribean. For centuries he was known for "discovering" America.

How did Columbus discover America?

Christopher Columbus charted ships through the Spanish Crown for his exploration. Columbus sailed his ships west into the Atlantic believing he would find Asia.

Who discovered America?

The Americas existed before European colonization, therefore no discovery was needed. The Vikings were the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic Ocean and land in North America.

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