October 8 is Columbus Day in the United States a holiday that commemorates the first voyage of explorer Christopher Columbus to the so-called "New World" in 1492. His was not the first trip that Europeans had made to the Western Hemisphere. But Columbus' voyage ushered in the age of European exploration, conquest and settlement. His letters and journal help illuminate the man and his mission.

India was the goal. The king and queen of Spain sponsored Columbus' attempt to find a western route to the Indies that would be easier and quicker than sailing around Africa. But Columbus was hoping for more than that. In a letter to the monarchs, the explorer recounted what they had all previously agreed - that he would be named viceroy and governor of all islands and mainland he might discover.

In August, three small ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, set out for the unknown with 90 crewmembers total.

Only fragments of the actual journal from Columbus' first voyage exist. What we know about the journal comes from its first editor, Bartolome de Las Casas an early 16th century Spanish missionary and historian who spent more than 40 years in the "New World." He directly quoted some parts of the journal and paraphrased others.

Sunday, 16 September: "... they found the climate everywhere very mild, so that the scent of the morning gave real pleasure and the only thing wanting was to hear the nightingales sing," he said. " And the weather was like April in Andalusia."

Wednesday, 19 September: "At ten o'clock on that day a heron came to the ship, and another in the afternoon. These birds do not usually fly more than twenty leagues from land."

Sunday, 23 September: "They sighted a dove, a heron, and another little river-bird and some other white birds. There was a great deal of seaweed and they found crabs in it. As the sea was smooth and unruffled, the men murmured and said that as there was never a high sea there would never be a fair wind for a return to Spain."

The little ships sailed on. The crew grew restive during the first ten days of October and may have been near mutiny. But on October 11, they saw flotsam. After dark, some sailors said they saw lights. And at two minutes past midnight, on October 12, they sighted land a Caribbean island that Columbus named San Salvador. Later that day, some of the crew went ashore and were greeted by islanders.

"... they took and gave to us of all that they had with good will, but it seemed to me that they were altogether impoverished folk. They all go naked as their mothers bore them, and the women too, though I saw only one, who was extremely young."

Sunday, 14 October: "... I saw... the people... and our understanding was that they were asking us whether we had come from heaven... These people are very unpractised in warfare, as your Highnesses will see from seven of them whom I ordered to be seized to take them off and learn our language and then return them. But your Highnesses, when you so order, can take the whole population off to Castile, or keep them as captives on the island itself, because with a garrison of 50 men they could all be held in subjection and could be made to do whatever was required."

The ships traveled from island to island, landing at what is now Cuba and Haiti. The sailors searched for spices and gold. And, increasingly, Columbus talked of converting the islanders to Christianity.

Monday, 12 November: "Therefore your Highnesses should resolve to make Christians of them, for I believe that once a start is made, a great multitude of peoples will have been converted to our Holy Faith in a short time; and your Highnesses and all your peoples in Spain will acquire great new lordships and riches thereby. For there is no doubt that there is a very great quantity of gold in these lands."

Christopher Columbus and his crew continued their travels, despite a shipwreck that destroyed the Santa Maria on December 25, 1492. In January, the two remaining ships and most of the crew began their return trip to Spain. In his final journal entry about his first voyage, the explorer addressed the King and Queen of Spain, saying "I hope in our Lord this achievement shall be the greatest ornament of Christendom ever to have been so lightly accomplished."

Columbus traveled to the "New World" four times over ten years, although he never set foot on what is now the mainland United States. His voyages changed the course of history by opening the Western Hemisphere to the "Old World."