How America Got Its Name

The Waldseemüller map, the first map to show 'America,' is now in the U.S. Library of Congress. Martin Waldseemüller/Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

The man whose name formed the basis for two continents and the colloquial title of the United States isn't widely covered in today’s history books. Florentine navigator, writer and map-maker Amerigo Vespucci crossed the Atlantic from Europe several years after Christopher Columbus, and he didn't find much success until a later voyage to the New World in 1501. Some historians doubt the authenticity of the claim that he landed in South America before Columbus.

The story of Columbus, who is a controversial figure in some circles, is well-known. Even today, history books portray him as the central figure in the European exploration of the Americas. Why, then, are the continents known as North America and South America instead of North Columbia and South Columbia? And what caused the early U.S. government to call their country the United States of America?

A new discovery and a new map

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Vespucci was popular because of the well-written accounts of his exploratory voyages to the continent now known as South America. Vespucci’s writings focused on the people and the land he encountered on his trips. The journals of Columbus, on the other hand, were more practical and focused mainly on cataloging plants and animals in the New World.

As was the custom at the time, explorers published their journals when they returned to Europe. Vespucci’s colorful accounts were popular with educated Europeans. His writings and a series of events and coincidences led to his name being forever connected to the Western Hemisphere.

Vespucci also understood one important fact that Columbus missed: Early explorers, including Columbus, didn't realize they had reached a new continent. Instead, they thought they had discovered the edge of eastern Asia. Vespucci, however, hypothesized (correctly), that these European seafarers were actually on an entirely different continent.

A map-maker names 'America'

As the different European powers headed to the New World, curious people in Europe followed their exploits through the published journals. One fan of Vespucci’s accounts was Martin Waldseemüller, a German map-maker. He used maps and writings of Columbus, Vespucci and others to create the first world map. Though hardly accurate by today’s standards, the map, which Waldseemüller published in 1507, was the first to show the two New World continents as separate from Asia. Waldseemüller, or perhaps friend and fellow German cartographer and writer Matthias Ringmann, wrote a book called "Cosmographiae Introductio" ("Introduction to Cosmography"), which also uses the name America.

America is the feminine version of Americus, Vespucci’s first name in Latin. Latin and the Romance languages that dominated at the time all made the distinction between masculine and feminine nouns, and all known continents were feminine nouns.

After the first printing of the book and map, Waldseemüller — perhaps wary of the controversy sparked by Columbus supporters, who thought Vespucci was trying to steal the spotlight from his fellow Italian — made a new version of the map that called the new continents "Terra Incognita," instead of America. But the fascination with the original maps was such that the name America stuck, even after the updates came into circulation.

Was it a mistake?

Painting of Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus — depicted here in a painting — may have landed in South America in 1498, but that didn't mean he won the name game. Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection/Wikimedia Commons

Why the change on the second map? Historians can only guess. Some theories suggest that the nod to Vespucci was a mistake and that writing attributed to Ringmann showed he might have thought Vespucci’s voyage actually preceded Columbus or that he was the first to land in South America. Columbus landed in South America in 1498, and there are questions about whether Vespucci reached the continent on his first voyage.

Spain, which funded the initial expeditions by Columbus, refused to accept the prevalent usage of "America," saying that the name should somehow honor Columbus. The name stuck, however. In the late 16th century, a German-Dutch map-maker called Gerardus Mercator made a more accurate map of the world and kept the name America, with some suggesting that he didn't do so because of history, but because it simply sounded better that any other option.

Though most historians accept that Vespucci was the inspiration for the name "America," there are other theories. One of the most believable is that the name came from a mountain range in Central America. When Christopher Columbus landed in what is present-day Nicaragua on one of his later voyages, he tried to communicate with the native people, who called the local mountain range Amerrisque in their language. The account of this meeting might have found its way back to Waldseemüller through word of mouth, and he put it on the map, only later realizing that people confused it with an attempt to honor Vespucci.

This theory lacks the same level of written evidence as the Vespucci hypothesis, so it's not widely accepted.

How did the Unites States become 'America?'

The United States of America, known in many parts of the world simply as "America" because it is the only country in the Americas to use the continents’ name in its title, didn't come about until later. By the 18th century, America had become the accepted term for the New World. The United States of America was first officially coined in the Declaration of Independence. The main author of that historic document was Thomas Jefferson. However, some point to articles in a magazine called the Virginia Gazette, which included references to the "United States of America." These were published several months before the Declaration. Even earlier, Thomas Paine used terms like "American states" and "states of America," in his famous publication Common Sense.

The original Waldseemüller map is now in the U.S. Library of Congress.