How Did America Get Its Name?

Today, America celebrates its independence. Our founding fathers drafted and adopted the Declaration of Independence, declaring America’s freedom from Great Britain and setting in motion universal human rights.

While the colonies may have established it, “America” was given a name long before. America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who set forth the then revolutionary concept that the lands that Christopher Columbus sailed to in 1492 were part of a separate continent. A map created in 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller was the first to depict this new continent with the name “America,” a Latinized version of “Amerigo.”

wald-america

“America” is identified in the top portion of this segment of the 1507 Waldseemüller map. Geography and Map Division.

A crown jewel in the Library’s cartographic collections is the map, also known as “America’s Birth Certificate.” While the map has been much publicized since it was acquired in 2003, it’s worthy of exploration today of all days.

The map grew out of an ambitious project in St. Dié, France, in the early years of the 16th century, to update geographic knowledge flowing from the new discoveries of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Waldseemüller’s large world map was the most exciting product of that research effort. He included on the map data gathered by Vespucci during his voyages of 1501-1502 to the New World. Waldseemüller named the new lands “America” on his 1507 map in the recognition of Vespucci’s understanding that a new continent had been uncovered following Columbus’ and subsequent voyages in the late 15th century. An edition of 1,000 copies of the large wood-cut print was reportedly printed and sold, but no other copy is known to have survived. It was the first map, printed or manuscript, to depict clearly a separate Western Hemisphere, with the Pacific as a separate ocean. The map reflected a huge leap forward in knowledge, recognizing the newly found American landmass and forever changing mankind’s understanding and perception of the world itself.

For more than 350 years the map was housed in a 16th-century castle in Wolfegg, in southern Germany. The introduction to Waldseemüller’s “Cosmographie” actually contains the first suggestion that the area of Columbus’ discovery be named “America” in honor of Vespucci, who recognized that a “New World,” the so-called fourth part of the world, had been reached through Columbus’ voyage. Before that time, there was no name that collectively identified the Western Hemisphere. The earlier Spanish explorers referred to the area as the Indies believing, as did Columbus, that it was a part of eastern Asia.

The Library has plenty of other resources on Waldseemüller and the map, including videos and a pretty cool story regarding the institution’s partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in building a hermetically sealed case for the priceless map. You can also read about the project on the NIST site.

Library in the News: February 2016 Edition

In February, the Library added a host of resources to its offerings, both onsite and online. Early February, the Library debuted a new exhibition on “Jazz Singers,” which offers perspectives on the art of vocal jazz, featuring singers and song stylists from the 1920s to the present. The ArtsBeat blog of the New York Times called […]

New Online: Rosa Parks, Page Upgrades, Search Functionality

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New Blog Series: New Online

(The following is a guest post by William Kellum, manager in the Library’s Web Services Division.) This is the first post in a new monthly series highlighting new collections, items and presentations on the Library’s website. After checking out the items mentioned here, be sure to visit some of our other blogs that highlight our […]

Library in the News: December 2015 Edition

While the new year is upon us, the Library’s headlines in December are worth looking back on. Topping the news was the announcement of the new selections to the National Film Registry. Outlets noted recognizable films such as “Ghostbusters” and “Top Gun” along with some of the list’s more obscure titles. “If there are any […]

A Whole New Blog

Today we welcome the newest member of the Library’s blog family. World’s Revealed: Geography & Maps at the Library of Congress will highlight cartographic objects from the Library’s collections that “sometimes go beyond what usually ends up in exhibits and in textbooks and bring to the forefront uncataloged objects that have never before been placed online.” The […]

Page from the Past: A Sailor’s Map Journal

(The following story, written by Center for the Book intern Maria Comé, is featured in the September/October 2015 issue of the LCM, which you can read in it’s entirety here.) Sept. 2, 1945, marked the end of World War II, following the surrender of the Japanese to the Allied forces. Seventy years later, researchers can access the […]

DICE-y Digitization

The following post is by Elizabeth Pieri, one of 36 college students who participated in the Library’s Junior Fellow Summer Intern Program. She’s in her fourth year at Rochester Institute of Technology, as a motion picture science major. Because her program focuses on the fundamental imaging technologies used in the motion picture industry, she was […]