How did America get its name? Find out, plus see some of the oldest maps of the United States

Amerigo Vespucci - Martin Waldseemuller map in color

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How did America get its name? (1966)

The man from whom the American continents got the names of North America and South America was among the more interesting and romantic characters of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Amerigo Vespucci (pronounced Ves-poo-chy) was born sometime between 1450 and 1455 at Florence, Italy.

His family was well-to-do and well educated, and as a young man Vespucci was settled into a job as a clerk in the big business establishment of the Medici, then Florence’s ruling family. Somehow, Amerigo Vespucci became an expert on what was known of astronomy in those times, and also at calculating longitude and latitude.

In 1492, or perhaps 1493, he went to Seville, Spain, and joined the business firm of Giannotto Berardi. Berardi was employed by the Spanish royal family, in the capacity of fitter-out of ships for Atlantic expeditions.

Christopher Columbus had made his first voyage of discovery across the Atlantic in 1492. Working for the Berardi firm, Amerigo Vespucci met many explorers — one of whom was Columbus himself.

Amerigo Vespucci - For whom America got its name

America’s name started with the help of 12 ships

In 1495, Giannotto Berardi signed a big contract to furnish twelve ships, totaling 900 tons; but shortly thereafter, Berardi died.

Vespucci carried out the contract. It is believed by some historians that this deal was the one which produced the ships for Columbus’ second voyage westward.

In May of 1497, Amerigo Vespucci himself became an Atlantic explorer. He was dispatched by King Ferdinand of Castile to have a look at what Columbus was doing as governor of Spain’s island colonies far across the sea — the King being a man who didn’t trust anybody implicitly.

Vespucci’s adventures between the years 1496 and 1504 are known only from a couple of long and detailed letters which he wrote in 1503 and 1504 to Lorenzo de Medici and Piero Soderini — both of Florence.

These letters were long discredited by many historians. Recent researchers, however — notably by the Colombian scholar German Arciniegas — have done much to restore the good name and reputation which Vespucci enjoyed among Europeans of his own time.

Before America, reaching Costa Rica or Honduras

On his 1497 voyage, he almost certainly hit the coast of Costa Rica or Honduras — as those Central American areas are now called. Since Columbus had discovered only some West Indian islands, this made Vespucci the first Latin to reach mainland America.

Having made friends with the Indians ashore, the Vespucci expedition proceeded to sail around the Yucatan Peninsula (now belongs to Mexico), to trace the general contours of the Gulf of Mexico, and to cruise up the east coast of North America, possibly as far north as Chesapeake Bay.

Amerigo Vespucci’s maps, drawn during and after this and later voyages, were highly-regarded in his day, and used by other explorers.

In 1505, Vespucci became a naturalized citizen of Spain, and was appointed Chief Pilot of that country — a post he held until his death in Seville February 22, 1512.

Discovery of the American contintent by Americus - 1852

How America was named after Amerigo

How did a variation of his name become attached to the American continents?

In 1507, Duke Rene II of Lorraine, France, sponsored a church school, which was directed to produce a revised edition of the ancient geography of Ptolemy.

Among the scholars at this institution were a map-maker named Martin Waldseemueller and the poets Mathias Ringmann and Jean Basin de Sandecourt. They got hold of one of Amerigo Vespucci’s letters concerning his voyages.

From the detailed reports in this document, they concluded that he had reached a new world, whereas Columbus believed he had only discovered some islands lying off Asia.

On this map, then, the new territories were labeled America — a name which gradually became accepted all over Europe, and has endured to this day.

Below: The map on which America was first named

Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii - How did America get its name

How did America get its name? About this map

Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map grew out of an ambitious project in St. Dié, France, during the first decade of the sixteenth century.

The objective was to document and update new geographic knowledge derived from the discoveries of the late fifteenth and the first years of the sixteenth centuries. Waldseemüller’s large world map was the most exciting product of that research effort and included data gathered during Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages of 1501-1502 to the New World.

Waldseemüller christened the new lands “America” in recognition of Vespucci’s understanding that a new continent had been uncovered as a result of the voyages of Columbus and other explorers in the late fifteenth century. This is the only known surviving copy of the 1,000 maps that are believed to have been printed.

Waldseemüller’s map represented a revolutionary new geography: it was the first map, printed or manuscript, to depict clearly a separate Western Hemisphere, separated from Asia, with the Pacific as a separate ocean. The map represented a huge leap forward in knowledge, recognizing the newly found American landmass and forever changing the European understanding of a world that was previously divided into only three parts — Europe, Asia, and Africa. – From the US Library of Congress

Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii alioruue lustrationes

1688 Map of America: Carte de l’Amerique Septentrionnale

1688 Map of America - Carte de l'Amerique Septentrionnale

How did America get its name: Map of the US from 1722

“A new map of North America shewing its principal divisions, chief cities, townes, rivers, mountains”

Map of the US from 1722 - A new map of North America shewing its principal divisions, chief cities, townes, rivers, mountains

The Lewis and Clark Expedition, 100 years later (1905)

Map of America and Atlantic Ocean from 1562

Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio

Map of America and Atlantic ocean from 1562 - How did America get its name

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