Amerigo Vespucci: Namesake of the Western Hemisphere

If not for cartographer Martin Waldseemuller two of the four continents in the Western Hemisphere would have different names. Photo: Martin Waldseemuller, 1507

FORT WORTH, Texas October 15, 2013 — Christopher Columbus. His name is synonymous with exploration and the [re]discovery of the New World. He is the rock star of adventurers.

However, there is another Italian explorer not quite as well known as the Captain from Genoa. The man, that is. Though his name is one we hear every day in one form or another.

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Amerigo Vespucci. The entire Western Hemisphere bears his name. How did this come to be? And who was this man?

Explorer, Cartographer and America’s namesake: Amerigo Vespucci

There is a controversy over whether or not he is actually the namesake of North and South America.

Jonathan Cohen dissects the dispute in his essay, The Naming of America: Fragments We’ve Shored Against Ourselves. Various groups have claimed ownership of the name for themselves and others. Norse, Mayan, Nicaraguan, Hungarian, English, Irish, Phoenician, Algonquin, African and even Atlantean are said to be where the name came from.  

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Cohen surmises, “No definitive conclusions can be reached. Too many claims are, for lack of hard evidence, based on speculation. Theories about the true origin of the name are ultimately historical fictions, whose authors are inclined to impose their own political, cultural, or national agendas on the name and its origin.”

Despite all the claims, the source with the most verifiable evidence is cartographer Martin Waldseemüller and his map. It was he who conferred Vespucci’s name on the New World.

In the Cosmographiae Introductio he states, “But now these parts have been extensively explored and a fourth part has been discovered by Americus Vespuccius will be seen in the appendix: 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, Amerige, that is, the Land of Americus, or America: since both Europa and Asia [and Africa] got their names from women” 

Amerigo Vespucci was born in the City-State of Florence, Italy on March 9, 1454. He was the third child to Nastagio and Lisabetta. Fr. Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, his uncle, taught many of the children of nobility and Amerigo as well. In time he excelled in physics, geometry, astronomy, and cosmography.

A merchant, soon he worked for the Medici family as a steward. In 1492 they sent him to work in their firm in Seville, Spain. He became one of the chief agents and had a leading part in fitting out the oceanic expeditions headed west.  

Cohen goes on to say, Vespucci was involved in fitting out the fleet for Columbus’s second voyage. The two men eventually became friends; Columbus later wrote that he trusted Vespucci and held him in high esteem.”

Soon after, he joined other adventurers in the race to find a western passage to India. He obtained ships from King Ferdinand of Castile and set sail in May of 1497. Some web sites claim he made two trips across the Atlantic, others say he made several. It was during these explorations, however, that Vespucci was the first European to set foot in South America.


The name America (applied to present-day Brazil) appeared for the first time on Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map; also known as America’s Birth Certificate

Vespucci even sailed along the coast of Patagonia as far south the Falkland Islands. He was the first European to find Rio de Janero, Rio de la Plata, and the entrance to the Amazon River. During his voyages Amerigo figured out a method to measure longitude. Until that time seafarers could only calculate latitude.

And as a result of sailing below the equator Vespucci was able to map the two stars Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri, as well as the stars of the constellation Crux. The ancient Greeks knew these stars but they were no longer visible north of the equator due to precession. Europeans had not seen this part of the galaxy in centuries.  

Because of his experiences Amerigo started to believe that he was not in Asia at all, but a whole new section of the globe. Then realizing he was the first European to step foot on this new continent he called it the New World.

But this was not why America was named for him.

Why was it? The reason has to do with four personal letters he wrote. Duplicates of these accounts called, Quattuor Americi Vespuccij navigationes permeated Europe. It was through these dispatches that Europeans learned about what he found and they wanted to know more.

Because of the surge in exploration maps were being re-drawn all the time but they were inaccurate and contradictory. It was at this time that a group of scholars in St. Dié, near Strasbourg, France, then part of Germany set out to create a revised version of Ptolemy’s map.

They created a new map of the world, Universalis Cosmographia, drawn by cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. It included a Latin translation of Vespucci’s letter to Piero Soderini of his claimed account of the four voyages to the Americas made between 1497 and 1504.

Printed on April 25, 1507, it was the first time America, in name and image, appeared on a map.


Cosmographiae Introductio - Preamble to Universalis Cosmographia including Waldseemüller’s map of the New World


A single copy of the map survives to this day and is on display at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. 

Vespucci was married to Maria Cerezo in 1505 but had no children. He died in 1512 of malaria.

Regardless of who discovered America, there is still the fact that it was the voyages of Columbus, and not earlier explorers that changed the course of world history.

Columbus proved to Europe that he could sail west without falling off the earth and how to do it. Vespucci showed Europe that the land Columbus had found was not Asia but a whole New World and beyond.




Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul in the Communities @ The Washington Times and Greater Fort Worth Writers.

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Claire Hickey

Claire has held a Texas Cosmetology License, Certification in Surgical Technology and has decorated cakes professionally. She believes that life is a banquet to be experienced and wants to learn and do as much as possible while she’s here. This Stay @ Home Mom has always loved to write and thanks to the Communities @ The Washington Times has got her chance. Her curiosity and writing lead her to create her column based on “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought provoking pieces that enrich her readers. A proud member and Treasurer for the Greater Fort Worth Writer’s Group she is currently working on her first novel.  


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