Naming Of America

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One of the mysteries of history asks the question, "How did America get its name?" The question is not easily answered because it involves explorers during the Age of Discovery, a German cartographer, and finally the Thirteen Original Colonies. Everything and everyone has a name when it is "born" and America was no different.

The beginning of the naming of America began with a Florentine, Amerigo Vespucci, who in 1492 was the commercial representative of the Italian house of Medici in Spain, and manager of a ship-chandlery business in Seville which helped fit out Columbus's voyages (Johnson 817). In 1499 he accompanied the conquistador Alonzo de Hojeda on a coastal voyage of what is now known as South America. Later as a junior officer in the service of Portugal, after 1501 he took part in three other voyages where the crew explored several thousand miles of Brazil. During these voyages, the mouth of the Amazon River was discovered, the West Indies were visited and a huge bay and another river was discovered near the Rio de la Plata, which they called Rio de Janerio because they found it in the month of January.

After his second voyage across the Atlantic in 1501, the Florentine navigator, Amerigo Vespucci published a widely disseminated account of his expedition, calling into question the prevailing Columbian geography (Faragher 957). Vespucci was the first person to recognize the Americas as the New World because he said the northern coast of South America was a "Mundus Novus." Columbus had named the new lands he had discovered as an "Other World" (Otro Mundo). It was mere chance that he did not write Nuevo Mundo, New World, which have entitled him to credit afterward accorded to Amerigo Vespucci for having recognized it as such (Morison 489). Since Vespucci wrote about his adventures, his writings made him famous.

He later wrote in his letters, some of which are judged to be authentic and others held to be forgeries, included the statement: These regions we might rightly call Mundus Novus, a New World, because our ancestors had no knowledge of them (Johnson 817). Although there was possible stretching of the truth, Vespucci's system for mapping longitude and his writings of his three voyages showed the extent of the South American mainland. His false claim of having made a 1497 voyage to South America led to his being credited initially with the discovery of the mainland (Faragher 966). Vespucci's landing on the mainland should be dated 1499 (Morison 485). This knowledge helped to create a more accurate understanding of the globe. Vespucci wrote "In those southern parts, I have found a continent more densely peopled and abounding in animals than our Europe, Asia or Africa" (Hakim 85). Vespucci claimed the land was a continent, not China. The validity of Vespucci's claim was confirmed when Magellan sailed around the tip of South America and across the Pacific less than 20 years later (1519-22) (Faragher 31). In 1508 Vespucci was made Spain's pilot major, who was responsible for training sailors and charting new discoveries in New World mapping.

A young German geographer and cartographer Martin Waldseemuller gave the land Amerigo Vespucci described in his writings of his voyages the name America. Waldseemuller was very excited about Vespucci's writings and letters. He said "Americus Vespucius has first related without exaggeration of a people living toward the south, almost under the Antarctic pole. [They] go around entirely naked, and not only offer to the King the heads of their enemies whom they have killed, but also feed eagerly on the flesh of their conquered foes" (Hakim 86). In 1507 Waldseemuller printed a huge map of the world which he named Cosmographiae Introductio including the new continent. He used the information from Columbus, Cabot, and Vespucci to make the map. He decided to put the name America on the southern continent, since Vespucci had written about it (Hakim 86). Also, a group of scholastic monks christened the New World "America" in Vespucci's honor in a revised edition of Waldseemulleer's world map (Faragher 957). But, when Waldseemuller issued his Carta Marina in 1516, he had changed his opinion as to the relative value of the achievements of Columbus and Vespucci, for the word America does not appear on the map of 1516 (Encyclopedia Americana 275). Even though he left the name of America off the map, people were already using the name and they continued.

        America came to refer to both North and South America until the British colonies proclaimed themselves, in the Declaration of Independence (1776), the United States of America (Faragher 957). It was here, that the people of the Thirteen Original Colonies named their country America. Under the Articles of Confederation (1776-77) the Thirteen Original Colonies were loosely connected. Under the constitution they were brought together under a central government (Faragher 957). Then and now our country is called the United States of America, U.S.A. or just "America." The naming of America began with a voyager, Amerigo Vespucci during the Age of Discovery, the cartographer, Waldseemuller, and ended with the people of the Thirteen Original Colonies, who officially named their country the "United States of America" when forming their government. One famous historian had this to say about how America got its name: "America was discovered accidently... and most of the exploration for the next fifty years was done in the hope of getting through or around it. America was named after a man who discovered no part of the world. History is like that, very chancy (Faragher 85). Although the naming of America has many stories about it, we do know that now our country is America and we are Americans because of history.

Works Cited Encyclopedia Americana International Edition Vol. 28. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Faragher, John Mack. The American Heritage Encyclopedia of American History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

Hakim, Joy. The First Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Johnson, Thomas. The Oxford Companion to American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Great Explorers "¢The European Discovery of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.