On October 12, 1492, explorer Christopher Columbus made the first recorded sighting of land in the New World. He had set sail from Spain more than two months earlier, and he claimed the new land for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who sponsored his trip.
Although he was the first to claim the New World, Columbus actually thought he was in Asia! He believed that by sailing west from Europe, he would reach Japan. At the time, nobody understood that the North American continent was in the way. Over the next dozen years, Columbus made three more journeys to the New World – but interestingly, he never set foot in what is now the United States. He traveled through the Caribbean and sailed along the Central American coast.
Regardless, Columbus Day became an official U.S. federal holiday in 1937. It is observed on the second Monday on October; in 2016, it is Monday, October 10.
U.S. Coins Commemorating Columbus’ Voyages of Discovery
As early as 1892, the United States Mint struck the first U.S. coin to recognize Christopher Columbus’ place in history. In fact, the 1892-1893 silver half dollar was the first commemorative coin in U.S. history. Exactly the same size and silver weight as a current Barber Half Dollar, it was issued to honor the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
The portrait on the obverse was designed by Charles E. Barber (who also designed the Barber series of silver coins), while the reverse showing Columbus’ Santa Maria flagship was designed by George T. Morgan, whose Morgan Silver Dollar is one of America’s most legendary coins.
One hundred years later in 1992, the U.S. Mint once again issued Columbus commemoratives – this time for the 500th anniversary. It struck a half dollar depicting Columbus on the obverse and his Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria ships on the reverse … as well as a silver dollar showing Columbus and a split image of Santa Maria and the Space Shuttle Discovery to represent 500 years of exploration history.
In addition to the individual 1992 coins and the two-coin 1992 set, one of the most fascinating sets of commemorative U.S. coins combines both the 1892 and 1992 coins. These sets highlight a rare example of the U.S. Mint producing commemoratives 100 years apart for the same event.