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The Letter That Announced a New World: Revisiting the Roots of Columbus Day

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By Abby Tannenbaum
The New York Public Library

Christopher Columbus may not have been able to Tweet news of his first voyage to the New World, but his reports on the 1492-93 expedition reached readers in Europe fairly quickly given the resources available 500 years ago.

In February 1493, on the last leg of his trip back to Spain after reaching a number of Caribbean islands, including Cuba, Hispanola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and the Bahamas, Columbus wrote an account of his travels to Luis de Santangel, Chancellor of Aragon, an advisor to King Ferdinand, and one of Columbus's strongest supporters.

Although the handwritten version of that letter has long since disappeared, The New York Public Library owns the only known copy of the first edition of the printed letter, in Columbus's original Spanish. Santangel took the letter to the printer just days after he received it; at least several hundred copies were printed. The letter was subsequently translated into Latin, printed in Rome, Paris, Antwerp, and Basel, and distributed and widely read in Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

In that way, denizens of the Old World learned about Columbus's discoveries in what he thought was Asia, including "many harbours on the sea coast beyond comparison with any I know in Christendom, and so many good, wide rivers that it is a marvel" not to mention "marvellous pine groves and broad meadows... many different kinds of birds and many varieties of fruit... many mines of metal and incalculable numbers of people."

Columbus's Letter to Santangel is part of NYPL's Treasures Collection, as is a second letter, to Gabriel Sanchez, Treasurer of Aragon.

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Christopher Columbus. Letter to Luis de Santangel, Chancellor of Aragon. Barcelona: Pedro, 1493. The New York Public Library, Rare Book Division, from the Lenox Library.

Learn more about NYPL's resources on Christopher Columbus and Early European Exploration.

After Columbus: Four-hundred Years of Native American Portraiture offers a survey of the Library's collection of Native American portraiture, which was the subject of an NYPL exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the Americas.