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How America Got Its Name

The short answer is: we don’t know for sure but we think we got a reasonably good answer.
The long story is that what we have all been taught at school – i.e. that America was named after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, travelling on behalf of King Manuel I of Portugal – is very likely to be the right answer but there are a few obscure points and interesting alternative options.

Why America’s name comes from Vespucci and not from Colombus?

We now know that the first Europeans disembarking in what we now call America were Scandinavians (Norse or Vikings) around 1000 A.D., as confirmed by the archeological site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada. Nevertheless, it is after Columbus’ travels – and because of them – that Europe got extremely interested in the discovery. After all, Columbus may not have “physically” discovered America, but he put it in the mind of the influent people of his time….

So why not naming it after him? Possibly because Columbus was looking for new routes to Asia. When he disembarked for the first time in an island (firstly named San Salvador, now part of the Bahamas; the natives called it Guanahani; exactly which island in the Bahamas is still unresolved), he thought he had landed in Asia. That’s why he called the indigenous inhabitants Indians – one name that never went away, together with the name of West India for most of the Caribbean. The fact that Columbus remained convinced to the very end that his journeys had been along the east coast of Asia seems confirmed by a 1502 letter to Pope Alexander VI where he asserted that what we now call Cuba was the east coast of Asia. However, there is also evidence of the fact that he might have had doubts about that: it transpires from his journals from the third voyage where he called the land of Paria a hitherto unknown continent.

The point is that, during the same period (between 1499 and 1502), Vespucci was crossing the Atlantic Ocean as well. He was a well educated man and he soon realised that this new world was not part of Asia. Vespucci’s books were published in 1502 and 1504 and, being both entertaining and educational, they were reprinted in almost every European language. Vespucci called that part of the planet Novus Mundus (New World in Latin) and many still refer to America with these words….

Only in 1507, a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, decided to draw a new map that included the “new world”. He was aware of Vespucci’s travels – thanks to his books – but not of Columbus’s expeditions, because Columbus never wrote about them publicly! And he just attributed to Vespucci – instead of Columbus – the discovery of this new land. He then named it after him, and an accompanying book, Cosmographiae Introductio, anonymous but apparently written by Waldseemüller’s collaborator Matthias Ringmann, stated:

Naming of America in Cosmographiae Introductio (1509)
Naming of America in Cosmographiae Introductio
(from Wikimedia)

Nunc vero et hic partes sunt latius lustratae et alia quarta pars per Americus Vesputium (ut insequentibus audietur) inuenta est: qua non video cur quis iure vetet ab Americo inventore sagacis ingenium viro Amerigen quasi Americi terram sive Americam dicendam: cum et Europa et Asia a mulieribus sua sortita sint nomina. Ejus situ et gentis mores ex bis binis Americi navigationibus quae liquide intelligi datur.

(But now these parts [Europe, Asia and Africa] have been extensively explored and a fourth part has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci, 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, and so to name it Amerige, that is, the Land of Americus, or America: since both Europe and Asia got their names from women. Its situation, uses and customs will be easily understood by the reading of the repeated voyages of Amerigo that are inserted here.)

Waldseemüller’s map had a large AMERICA title across what is now present day Brazil. The new world in this map only showed what we now call South America because Waldseemüller used Vespucci’s travel writings as a reference….
To be honest, Waldseemüller recognised the mistake. And, in the 1513 edition of his work, the name America disappeared to make place for an inscription:

Hec terra cum adiacendibus insulis inuenta est per Columbus inannuensem ex mandato Regis Castellae.

(This country with the adjacent islands was discovered by Columbus under the mandate of the King of Spain.)

Even his other chart in 1515 does not bear the name America. However, others continued to use it, starting from Johann Grüninger from Strasburg in 1509, following with Henry Glareanus in 1510 and Jan of Stobnica from Cracow in 1514, up to Leonardo da Vinci in 1515! And it became the standard, especially when, in 1541, the famous geographer Gerardus Mercator chose to name the entire north and south parts of America as one large America.

There are indeed several alternate theories of the naming of America.

America’s name coming from a tribe

In the late XIX century, French geologist Jules Marcou, while studying North America, argued that America could come from the name of a Central American mountain range and a tribe, both called Amerrisque or Amerrique (meaning Land of the Wind), apparently also known to both Columbus and Vespucci. This theory was advanced in a paper contributed by Marcou to the Atlantic Monthly, as well as to the Bulletin of the Paris Geographical Society, in 1875. In support of his theory, Marcou raised a few facts about Vespucci: the fact that the Christian name of Vespucci is Alberico in Italian and in Spanish, Albericus in Latin and the fact that, before 1507, the date of the publication of the name Americus, this name is not to be found in any printed document, nor in any manuscript document of recognised and unquestionable authenticity. These facts have never been objected. So Marcou’s interpretation is that Vespucci changed his Christian name from Alberico to Amerigo after his discovery.

When the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society (No. 4 – 1886) examined the theory, the reactions were rather cold and the theory was substantially rejected. Later, in 1888, an article by George C. Hurlbut on the Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York (Vol. 20 – 1888) came back to the point and definitely dismissed it, by commenting that, in the XV and XVI centuries, names were latinised or “vulgarised”, or anglicised, and  the spelling was not standard and constantly changing. Moreover, according to Hurlburt:

[These variations could be explained as] modifications of the original Alberico to any one who remembers that the seamen who commanded and worked the Spanish ships spoke at least six different Spanish and Portuguese dialects, or tongues, and quite as many of Italy and the Italian islands. The sea-change that a Tuscan name would suffer under such conditions is illustrated by the case of Vespucci as well as by the familiar example of Livorno, turned into Leghorn by the Genoese who traded with England.

This was enough for explaining the drift from Alberico to Amerigo, and to dismiss a theory that was never strong.

America’s name coming from a Welsh man

Another interesting theory has been proposed by the local Bristol antiquarian Alfred Hudd in a paper which was read at May 21st 1908 meeting of the Clifton Antiquarian Club and which appeared in Volume 7 of the club’s Proceedings, quoting a late XV century manuscript (a calendar of Bristol events), the original of which had been lost in an 1860 Bristol fire, that indicated the name America was already known in Bristol in 1497: about ten years before Waldseemüller drew the map and baptised the “new world”.

This year (1497), on St. John the Baptist’s day (June 24th), the land of America was found by the merchants of Bristow, in a ship of Bristowe called the ‘Mathew,’ the which said ship departed from the port of Bristowe the 2nd of May and came home again the 6th August following.

According to this theory, John Cabot, an Italian who sailed on behalf of England, reached America in 1497. Hudd proposed that the word America was originally applied to a destination across the Atlantic Ocean, possibly an island or a fishing station: after the king of Iceland had cut off trade for fish, England sent out expeditions to find new sources. After Cabot’s second voyage in 1498-1499, he received two pension payments from King Henry VII. Of the two customs officials at the Port of Bristol who were responsible for handing over the money to Cabot, the more senior was Richard Ameryk (High Sheriff of Bristol in 1503). He stated that Cabot had a reputation for being free with gifts to his friends, such that his expression of gratitude to the official would not be unexpected.

A slight variation comes from John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, in their The Book of General Ignorance where they explain that Richard Ap Meryk (later changed in Ameryk) was the chief patron of the voyage and, as such, his name was publicly associated with the voyages and he would have expected discoveries to be named after him.

While Hudd’s speculation has found support from some XXI century authors, there is no hard proof to substantiate his theory, as writer Jonathan Cohen noted. Also, in 2001, scholar John Davies briefly mentioned the story as a kind of Welsh patriot piece….

When America was unnamed….

The first humans started inhabiting America approximately from 19000 to 23000 years ago. Mitochondrial evidence shows that all Native Americans come from a single population group around the time of the last ice age, probably coming from Asia. Over the following 5000 to 8000 years, there was a large population boom. DNA evidence suggests that this population spread quickly throughout all of the America’s via a Pacific Coast route.

So maybe Columbus had a point in claiming that he had discovered another portion of Asia….

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