How did America get its name?

Even though it was Christopher Columbus who discovered the American continent, he had no role in naming the land. He thought the place he had discovered was India, as that was his goal. In a bizarre turn of events, America was named after the Italian traveler Amerigo Vespucci by two cartographers, possibly due to ignorance of Columbus’ achievements.

Columbus discovered the American continent in 1492. Amerigo Vespucci, who was a friend of Columbus, was excited about this discovery. Vespucci was a Florentine merchant who owned a business of furnishing supplies for ships in Spain. In 1499, seven years after Columbus’ first voyage, Vespucci accompanied an expedition that consisted of four ships. They crossed the Atlantic and sailed along the eastern coast of South America, and visited Trinidad.

Returning after a couple of years, Vespucci wrote letters to home in which he described the newly discovered places with exaltation. He called the lands he had visited Novus Mundus, meaning New World. It was he who put forward the concept that the land his friend had discovered was not India. He published his accounts of the voyage and discoveries in 1502, and they became widely popular.

In 1507, Martin Waldseemuller, a German cartographer, chose to make a new map of the world and decided to incorporate the new lands detailed in Vespucci’s accounts into it. He and his associate, Mathias Ringmann, had been working on a reproduction of Ptolemy’s treatise on geography, based in the French town of Saint-Die. They produced a huge map, in which this new land was depicted as a separate continent with the name America. It was the first time the word America was printed. Presumably, they were not aware of the discoveries of Columbus and thought it was Vespucci who discovered the new continent.

Ringmann, in the introduction to the treatise, wrote that they chose to call the land America, meaning the Land of Americus as a tribute to Vespucci. The map of Waldseemuller initially had only South America. North America was added to it later. It was the famous geographer Gerard Mercator who used the name America to denote the entire north and south parts of the continent, in 1538.

Lately, there has also arisen the claim that America might have been named after Richard Amerike, a wealthy merchant from England. It is claimed that a group of Bristol merchants had discovered the continent before Columbus and decided to name it after their major sponsor.

For the patriots and history enthusiasts, the following books may satisfy the thirst for knowledge of the Etymology and history of America’s name.