The Columbus and Grandpa We May Never Know

(c) 2012 The Catholic Counselor Lady. Grandpa “Benedetto Columbo’s” makeshift Santa Maria on a trip from New York to California.

Grandpa was quite the storyteller

Grandpa was a man for stories.  His tales were something that I thoroughly enjoyed as a wide-eyed kid.  Sitting on his lap, I always wanted him to share the same ones over and over again. His grandkids heard them around bonfires during many of his camping trips. This natural troubadour’s repertoire included everything from two characters he created named Chitty Pop and Pop Chitty that spit water melon seeds, to a tale of a ghost cat that walked on a piano, to a recitation of “Mushy Meow” in Italian, to recapping Bible stories and parables, and to perking our curiosity as he spoke of “undiscovered territory” that he claimed still existed on this planet.

A descendent of Christopher Columbus?

My Grandfather Joseph Salvatore also has been known to tell family members that he was a descendant of Christopher Columbus. However, this was something that none of us took very seriously— until recently.

Grandpa Joe not Joe

It was with great shock recently that my cousin obtained his birth certificate. The Grandpa who had always been called “Joe” was actually named “Benedetto Columbo Salvatore” at his birth in 1917. This was also the name of an older sibling who had predeceased him as an infant. We had always known Grandpa as Joseph Benjamin Salvatore. We discovered that his birth certificate was amended in 1941. Benedetto Columbo was literally crossed out and replaced with “Joseph”.  We don’t know the reasoning behind this change. Most likely, he was actually called “Joseph” all of his life as the name Joseph appears in the old census records. We could jokingly theorize that his name was changed for the witness protection program as he was an Italian in Niagara Falls. However, more likely he just didn’t want to be named after a deceased older brother.

We don’t know much at all about Grandpa and his family that came from Italy.  And the emergence of Columbo on his birth certificate does perk everyone’s curiosity as to the fact and fiction behind Grandpa’s claims of ancestry to Christopher Columbus. Fact or fiction, we may never know.

Researching ancestry of Christopher Columbus next to impossible

Researching the ancestry of Christopher Columbus is a formidable task including the fact that everything that is published is surrounded in controversy.  I tried to find a connection to the family name of Salvatore with Columbus and Colon (the Spanish version) but so far came up empty-handed. I have only scratched the surface of such an investigation. This is a job for someone beyond professional. The generations are shrouded with name changes and migrations across countries and even continents which are not atypical for most families.  Tradition has it that Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy in 1451. He moved to Spain and controversy still exists on where he actually died. I have even found some sources that speculate that Christopher Columbus had some Jewish ancestry as well.

An MSNBC news article from May 19, 2006 verifies that the bones of Christopher Columbus are buried in a Cathedral in Seville, Spain.  A forensic team confirmed that the DNA extracted from fragments of these bones match those from Christopher Columbus’ brother Diego.  At the same time, the Dominican Republic also claims to have the remains of Christopher Columbus.  Which may be indeed true, if body parts were divided up throughout the years which was commonly done with famous persons and saints in the past.

Curious Salvatore and Columbus connections

My Grandpa Joseph’s father’s family was from Mignano, Italy near Naples.  It is not known if Mignano was my Great Grandfather’s last stop before New York or if it was a centuries-long family foothold.  I do know that a street in Mignano bears the family name:  Via Salvatore.  There is also a Via Columbo.  But also in Italy, names like Salvatore and Columbus are as common as Smith and Jones.  A quick google of Christopher Columbus genealogy returned a file that said the name Christopher Columbus appears in over 59 million profiles.

The controversial Christopher Columbus

This year October 8 marks the observance of Columbus Day in the United States. Some people get a day off from work and school, others don’t. These days much of the opinion of Christopher Columbus is mixed. He had been accredited to discovering America but many say that this country was not discovered. It was already populated by the Native Americans long before his infamous voyage.  But for Christopher Columbus and the people of Europe, it was indeed a discovery, as it was a whole continent which was previously unknown to them.

Could Grandpa have a genetic factor from Columbus for adventure?

I will be bold in saying that my Grandfather Joe’s love for discovery and the unknown was seen in his stories and life.  Particularly curious was his ranting about territories that were yet to be discovered.  Could it be that he indeed had a gene that was part of our infamous Explorer Columbus?  My Grandfather did go about discovering his world in the best way that he knew for his resources and state in life at the time.  His Santa Maria was his homemade travel trailer that he took on cross-country trips from New York to California.  Not once, but several times. It was quite an adventure in the mid 1940-70s.  I was even invited to go once, but was talked out of it by my Mother who convinced me that I would have been uncomfortable travelling across Death Valley in a station wagon with no air conditioning.

Christopher Columbus’ sense of adventure, boldness, and adherence to convictions is well stated in the following passage:  “It is for the boldness of his conception and his magnificent courage in laying his life on the line to carry it out that Christopher Columbus is most rightly honored. It was these qualities that Queen Isabel of Spain recognized in him, that caused her to override the cautious advice of counsellors doubtful that such an unprecedented enterprise could succeed. Isabel knew nothing of navigation and little of world geography, but she was a superb judge of men and women. It was to Columbus the man and to Columbus the devoted Catholic that she gave her support.” (From Honoring Christopher Columbus, by Warren H. Carroll).

Christopher Columbus was a devout Catholic

Christopher Columbus was a third order Franciscan and took friars with him on his voyages.  He carefully chose the Feast of Our Lady of the Angels on August 2, 1492 to set out on his voyage to “discover” America.  He was a deeply religious man. His journey was a sort of mission trip with the search for gold along the way.  His crew consisted of a lot of rough men and rascals but Columbus commanded a ship that held regular Masses, prayers, fasting, and observance of religious holidays. The desire to spread the Catholic faith appeared to be a priority in his writings.

Christopher Columbus as a flawed hero

However, Christopher Columbus was a flawed hero.  He had been a pirate.  He had a child out of wedlock.  His grandson Don Luis Colon, was described as turning “out to be a wastrel who married four times and left numerous children.”(  His purported discovery of America led to the destruction of many Native communities through disease and abuses.  Christopher Columbus definitely had his shortcomings and was not without sin. While we cannot downplay the suffering that was experienced by the aboriginal people of American, at the same time, Christopher Columbus was not a sole participant nor total decisionmaker  in what happened.  Dinesh D’Sousa describes Columbus as “a typical man of his time.” Typical or atypical he displayed a sense of mission and boldness. He is not a Saint in the Catholic Church, but definitely a person of influence.  He clearly made an impression on my old Grandfather and his family.

We may never know

We may never know if Grandpa was fabricating a story of being related to Christopher Columbus.  Although it appears that DNA evidence does exist.  If any of my kin is up to it, it would be interesting to see if we indeed have a biological connection. But also consider this: we might also have a genetic connection to the Native people that Columbus “discovered”in America!  Grandma Pearl, she has another story and our Native American roots are yet to be discovered through her as well!

This entry was posted in Genealogy, Holidays, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *