Welcome and thanks to new Friends of Woody, Jackie P., Linda H., Michele D., Emmanuel M., Jonathan C., and Pamela M.! Let’s get together soon.
Here in San Francisco we’ve said goodbye to Columbus Day for some time. Monday was our Indigenous Peoples/Italian American Heritage Day, an odd combination that only makes sense in relation to the man we do not want to celebrate in October.
Christopher Columbus, the person most identified with opening up the “New World” to European colonization and the subsequent exploitation and deaths of millions, lived in a time when there was no Italy. He grew up in Liguria (then claimed by the Republic of Genoa), resided in Portugal, and made his fame working for the Spanish crown.
You probably heard about that fame in school, of Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492. What you may not have learned is, 400 years after his death, the “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” landed in what is today San Francisco’s aquatic park. We have video proof:
It’s hard to imagine the United States of America having an inferiority complex, but we once did. To pump ourselves up, we engaged in big-time myth-making, especially in the 19th century.
Columbus was our founder, our god of creation, set up to represent and model virtues such as vision, bravery, perseverance, piety, rationalism, and what some of us today call hustle culture. And he was frequently and blatantly used as a standard-bearer of white superiority, the moral and physical representation of Europeans triumphing over inferior and heathen races.
The whole Columbus veneration story became more complicated when he was claimed by immigrant groups, especially Italians, who were trying to break into an Anglo-Saxon-identified American society. Columbus Day became a kind of peace offering to Italian-Americans from national and state administrations when something terrible happened to their community. So, we had/have our battles over whether being anti-Columbus means being anti-Italian, whether we charge him with genocide and millions of deaths, or just poor administrative skills and tens of thousands of deaths.
The video dates from a much different time, when the city was all in on Columbus. It comes from a large collection of old San Francisco-related newsreels I received years ago from Jack Tillmany, who used to play them before features when he managed the Gateway Theater. I think they were duped, clipped, and combined from copies at the Library of Congress. I’ve shown a couple in previous San Francisco Stories.
This is a one minute glimpse at an “aquatic parade,” likely on Columbus Day, October 11, 1913. The San Francisco Examiner previewed it: “The feature of the day will be the landing of Columbus, and for this a complete and picturesque spectacle has been arranged. Standing on the deck of the Santa Maria, a fishing boat altered to the semblance of a caravel, Columbus will approach the shore and be greeted by a horde of Indians, who will scamper down the hillside from their hiding place on Black Point.”
Yikes. Yes, the “Indians” are shown crouching warily in the last moment of the video. Likely those guys in buckskin with wigs and feathers on their heads are from the “Pohonachee Tribe” of—not kidding here—the Improved Order of Red Men, a prominent fraternal order of white men using native stereotypes for their networking club.
The cosplay in the crowded cove didn’t end there. A Robinson Crusoe paddled a bamboo raft with his “man Friday” and two dogs aboard. Crusoe had a pop gun and pretended to pick off Indians from canoes “to the great delight of the crowd.”
There were Vikings. A crazy forty-foot swan boat inspired by the opera Lohengrin got in everyone’s way:
Columbus was played by Emanuel Maggio, president of the Italian Fisherman’s Association, which had a motive beyond honoring the admiral. With the San Francisco Recreation League and various athletic, swimming, and boat organizations (including the Dolphin and South End clubs), the fishermen were promoting the creation of an aquatic park. This was the genesis of turning a lowercase fisherman’s wharf into a tourist mecca and uppercase Fisherman’s Wharf.
So, after Maggio planted his banner and cross on the rocky cove’s beach, “in a necessary anachronism,” city supervisor D. C. Murphy gave him the keys to the city and “asked for the aid of Columbus in further attempts to set aside Black Point as an aquatic park for the city.” Columbus agreed to help.
The Aquatic Park was created, but not until 1938, and dedicated on... Columbus Day, October 16th. Thanks to the Works Progress Administration, we have an esplanade, great views of the bay, and a centerpiece “casino” building, which today is the home of the Maritime Museum. Perhaps this is the only positive we can take away from the spectacular, if bizarre and cringe-inducing, aquatic carnivals.
Official Columbus landings at Aquatic Park went on for most of the 20th century. In 1970, mayor Joseph Alioto got pretty blustery defending them in the face of opposition from both Native Americans and Scandinavians (who were pushing a “Leif Erikson was first” campaign). “Everything is getting more complicated in politics,” he griped.
In 1992, San Francisco was designated the official national headquarters of the quincentennial of Columbus’ first voyage. The city’s celebration committee made a point to say it wasn’t just about Italians, but all immigrants, “the people in the last 100 years who were oppressed and had the courage to come over.”
The American Indian Movement planned a series of “counter-celebrations,” including a rally at Aquatic Park ahead of the Columbus Day schedule. Everyone was very polite to each other in the newspaper stories previewing the anniversary.
But then Columbus tried to come ashore once more at Aquatic Park and he encountered the resistance most people wish he’d met in 1492. A protest blockade of a dozen rafts and kayaks canceled the landing. A crowd on the shore chanted “Columbus, go back!” The event was called off.
That was it. No more landing re-enactments with a local businessman wearing brocade and pantaloons.
In San Francisco, October continues to have a day marking Italian heritage with a parade. There are “explorers” and a Court of Queen Isabella, but the man with the “C” name isn’t advertised. And truthfully, it’s way better. Italian-Americans have enough to be proud of. They don’t need that guy.
Recognition and programming for Indigenous Peoples Day continues to grow since the Board of Supervisors’ official designation in 2018. Perhaps the most significant event happens in view of Aquatic Park. The International Indian Treaty Council hosts an annual sunrise gathering on Alcatraz to commemorate more than 500 years of indigenous resistance, resiliency, and survival.
Something to get up early for next year.
Weird afterword: I know I’m giving him too much credit here, but when mayor James Rolph attended one of the first aquatic carnivals in 1912, his honor pointedly did not give the keys to the city to Columbus. Instead, he offered them to a man dressed up like King Neptune.
Am I the only one into the idea of a separate Neptune Day?
Woody Beer and Coffee Fund
Typing Lohengrin above made me think of this beverage-related jingle:
Now I will never get it out of my head. Can one even buy Löwenbräu anymore? Well, if that’s what you want, we’ll find some. Promote Woody conviviality, contribute to the Woody Beer and Coffee Fund, just like Patrick S. (F.O.W.) did this week. (Thanks, Patrick!) And let me know when you’re free, because tonight is kinda special...
“Series of Aquatic Carnivals Planned,” San Francisco Examiner, May 8, 1912, pg. 18.
D. E. Doran, “Aquatic Carnival Will Be Celebrated Today,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 16, 1912, pg. 59.
“Water Sports Arranged for Columbus Day,” San Francisco Examiner, October 10, 1913, pg. 6.
“30,000 San Franciscans See Christopher Columbus Land,” San Francisco Examiner, October 13, 1913, pg. 3.
“S.F.’s Guarantee to Columbus,” San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle, October 11, 1970, section A, pg, 13.
Michael Fox, “A World of Columbus Day Activities,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 11, 1992, Datebook section, pg. 39.
Michael Dougan, “Violence Mars Columbus Day Celebration,” San Francisco Examiner, October 12, 1992, pg. A-2.