Why America was Named America
Today I found out how the Americas got their name.
Like most, I’ve known that the Americas were named after Amerigo Vespucci since my early education. However, the story behind why this is the case is somewhat more interesting and quite a bit less well known. Vespucci was a navigator that traveled to “the new world” in 1499 and 1502. Being a well educated man, he realized that this new world was not part of Asia, as some had initially thought. Vespucci chose to write about his travels and his books were published in 1502 and 1504. Being both entertaining and educational, his accounts of the new world were reprinted in almost every European language.
In 1507, a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, chose to make a new map that included the new world. He and two scholarly partners were aware of Vespucci’s writings and were ignorant of Columbus’s expeditions. As such, they mistakenly thought Vespucci was the first to discover this new land and so named it after him, stating:
But now these parts (Europe, Asia and Africa, the three continents of the Ptolemaic geography) have been extensively explored and a fourth part has been discovered by Americus Vespuccius (the Latin form of Vespucci’s name), I do not see what right any one would have to object to calling this part after Americus, who discovered it and who is a man of intelligence, and so to name it Amerige, that is, the Land of Americus, or America: since both Europa and Asia got their names from women.
When the large new map, approximately 8 feet by 4 feet, was unveiled by Waldseemüller, it had the large title “AMERICA” across what is now present day Brazil. Waldseemüller used Vespucci’s travelogues as a reference for his drawing and so his map had South America as the only part of this new western hemisphere. When North America was later added, the mapmakers of the time retained the original name. In 1538, The famous geographer Gerard Mercator chose to name the entire north and south parts of America as one large “America” for the entire western hemisphere.
Christopher Columbus might well have had the new world named after him, had it not been for two shortcomings. The first was that Columbus was under the mistaken impression that he had found a new route to Asia and was not aware that America was an entirely new continent. The second was that he never wrote publicly about it so the masses were not aware of his discovery. Had he done this, Mr. Waldseemüller and his colleagues might have named it Columba! As it happened, Vespucci did write about it and was the first to call this land the “Novus Mundus” (Latin for “New World”).
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- Waldseemüller’s 1507 map was lost to scholars from 1538-1901 when it was discovered inside a German castle. Once found, it was recognized as the earliest map to record the use of the name “America”. Today, that map is on permanent display in the Library of Congress. They purchased it in 2001 for $10 million.
- Christopher Columbus and Vespucci were actually good friends. Vespucci was sent to Spain in 1490 by his employers to help in their business venture of fitting out new ships. In that role, he became involved in fitting out Columbus’s fleet for his second voyage and Columbus later wrote the he trusted Vespucci and held him in very high esteem.
- Vespucci was also credited for inventing a system of computing longitude. This system was so accurate that he was able to calculate the circumference of the earth, at the equator, to within 50 miles of the actual measurement.
- Vespucci was born in March 9, 1454 in Florence. He was baptized, “Amerigho”, named after his grandfather. Remarkable to think that when his parents were picking a name for this baby, they were also picking a name for the Americas. He died February 22, 1512.
- Vespucci is thought to have taken four voyages to the new world. His first voyage from 1497-98 has been called in to question, and many scholars believe it might not have taken place. However, there is significant evidence that his second and third voyages in 1499-1500, and 1501-1502 actually took place. It is believed that he might have taken another voyage to the Americas in 1503-04.
- Vespucci’s writings, while scholarly, also entertained the masses by his descriptions of the new world. For instance, he wrote in one of his letters about the natives of the land how they would have sex with anybody, including “Mom”.
- The first people to inhabit the western hemisphere did so approximately 19,000-23,000 years ago. Mitochondrial evidence shows that all Native Americans come from a single population group around the time of the last ice age, during what is known as “the last glacial maximum”, probably having migrated over from Asia. Over the next 5-8 thousand years there was a large population boom. DNA evidence suggests that this population spread quickly throughout all of the America’s via a Pacific Coast route.
- In 1508, Vespucci was appointed “Chief Navigator” also known as “Pilot Major” for Spain. He was in charge of examining and licensing all Spanish ships and voyages. He also made the official maps of the newly discovered lands and the routes that future captains were obliged to take. He maintained this title of distinction until he died.
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