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How Did America Get Its Name?

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."

Map of the World Naming 'America,' 1507 Portrait of Amerigo Vespucci

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. Martin 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.

The Library of Congress recently completed the purchase of the only known extant copy of this map for $10 million, thanks to the generosity of the U.S. Congress, Discovery Channel, Gerald Lenfest, David Koch and several other donors.

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" is in the Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division. This extremely rare work contains the first suggestion that the area of Columbus' discovery be named "America" in honor of Amerigo 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 Vespucci Family Papers are housed in the Library's Manuscript Division.

The Waldseemüller map opens the new Library exhibition "Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America." It is one of the treasures of the Library and of the Geography and Map Division, which has more than 4.6 million cartographic items in its collections. Many of these items are online in American Memory, the Library's Web site of more than 120 thematic collections ranging from the papers of U.S. presidents, civil rights leaders and suffragists to early motion pictures, sound recordings, photographs and baseball cards.

A. Waldseemüller, [Map of the World Naming "America," 1507. Geography and Map Division

B. [Portrait of Amerigo Vespucci], Reproduction of anonymous painting. [No date found on item.] Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-63115

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