American Culture

America's birth certificate

Everyone knows that America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who someone, apparently erroneously, thought discovered America. So, where did this story come from? Well, if you wander through the stifling heat over to the Library of Congress, you can see the map that contains the first usage of “America.” It’s a map from 1507, created by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. It’s one of the most famous maps in history. Angela Merkel presented it to the United States in 2007, and you can go see it right now, if so inclined. But this map, of which the Library of Congress one is the sole surviving copy, was not alone—Waldseemüller made some other maps to accompany this one. And one has just turned up.

This second map was discovered between the pages of a geometry book in the University Library at Munich. As this Science Daily article explains, it’s a different kind of map. The 1507 map was a wall map—this one is a segmented world map that one could, if one wanted to, use to make a globe. This one was previously unknown—there are four others, apparently, but none of them have some of the details of the recently discovered map. The University Library promised to get the map up on the internet by Independence Day, and it looks as if they’ve succeeded. And here’s the neat PDF version. It’s pretty cool. It’s also cool that this has just turned up—who knows what’s still out there waiting to be discovered in the stacks of old European university libraries? (I keep hoping for a full copy of Pytheas’s On the Ocean, “one of the great lost books,” as Kenneth White has noted, but I suspect that’s not likely. Still, you never know.) The origins of this copy appear unknown.

So, Happy Birthday, America! You were named by a German after an Italian. Here’s your birth certificate!

3 replies »

  1. You say there are four others? I am not buying it until I see the original. As far as I am concerned, America is really not America until I see it.