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Who Was America Named After?

Who was America named after? A look at the truth of how America got its name.

I am sure you all know where America is, but have you ever wondered where the name came from? Assuming that you have come this far, the answer to that question has to be a resounding yes. Fret no more, you are about to find out the answer below.

There is a popular misconception doing the proverbial rounds that America was named after an Italian cartographer and merchant called Amerigo Vespucci. Alas, it is a myth; America was actually named after Richard Ameryk, a Bristol merchant and a proud Welshman.

To understand where the misconception originated from, what better place to start than at the beginning. Giovanni Caboto was an Italian navigator from Genoa. He moved to London in 1484, becoming known as John Cabot, and was quickly authorised by King Henry VII to seek out as yet unknown lands to the West.

(John Cabot) Image Source

Cabot set off in a little ship called Matthew in 1497, by the summer he became the first European on record to step foot on American soil when he stepped off his boat at Labrador. This happened a good two years before Vespucci. Cabot mapped the North American coastline from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia. On board the Matthew was Richard Ameryk, there in the guise of chief patron of the voyage; such a position was held so high that there would have been the expectation that any new found land would be named after him. And so it was.

The event was recorded in the Bristol calendar for that year and said that on St John the Baptist’s day, the land of America was found by the merchants of Bristowe in a ship called the Matthew. Although the original manuscript of said calendar is no longer around, there are enough references to it in contemporary documents, that have survived, to confirm it.

The oldest surviving map to name the continent of America dates from 1507 and was created by Martin Waldseemuller, although it should be noted that the term was only applied to what is now South America. In Waldseemuller’s notes, at the side of the map, he makes the assumption that the name was based on, and derived from, Amerigo Vespucci’s first name (possibly from a Latin version). Vespucci had been the first to discover and map the South American coastline (1500-1502) but Waldseemuller had no real idea whether or not it was named after Vespucci and perhaps was trying to account for a name that he had previously seen on other maps.

One such map that Waldseemuller may have seen was Cabot’s. Interestingly, at the time of Cabot’s map, the only place where the term ‘America’ was common was Bristol. In 1513, Waldseemuller created another map, surprisingly he decided to omit the reference to ‘America’ and instead, replaced it with ‘Terra Incognita’.

As for Vespucci, he never actually made it to North America – he had no need to; all the early trade to the Northern part was British and all early maps were also. There is also no documented record of Vespucci ever using the term ‘America’, let alone coining it. There is a very simple reason for that and one that should, once and for all, end the misconception; new countries and new continents were never named after someone’ first name, instead, they were named after the person’s surname. Some examples include: Cook Islands, Van Diemen’s Land and Tasmanis.

One other example, of course, is America – named after Richard Ameryk, the wealthy Bristol merchant who was chief patron on the voyage that ‘discovered’ America. Not a bad claim to fame for one who was Welsh.

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Comments (6)

Alistair, your article, albeit interesting, makes me smile and think of the different nations who claim the ancestry of St. Patrick. I found one article that repeated what is claimed here in your article and that was on a blog by one individual for Amazon.com - not a good comparison reference for all the history books that claim differently. What is your reference and claim to authenticity on this? By the way, the claim that it was a Welshman was cited by a Celtic. Please state your reference on this. Thanks, Marie

Ranked #14 in History

One point of reference comes from the Rodney Broome book 'Amerike, The Briton Who Gave America its Name'.

Allstair, This claim has not been substantiated and in light of the fact that Factoid should be 'true' facts - think it should be more of an opinion article than a statement that America's name is a "misconception and a myth'". I think substantial evidence would have come out before Rodney Broome’s recent book, Terra Incognita: The True Story of How America Got Its Name (2001), in which he argues for the Amerike theory, is a very good read, but ultimately lacks the hard evidence to support the author’s claim. He presents a compelling inference at best. A longtime U.S. resident, Broome is originally from Bristol. He summarizes his argument this way in the Bristol Times: "Bristol merchants bought salt cod in Iceland until the King of Denmark stopped the trade in 1475. In 1479, four Bristol merchants received a royal charter to find another source of fish and trade. Not until 1960 did someone find bills of trading records indicating that Richard Amerike was involved in this business. Records show that in 1481, Amerike shipped a load of salt (for salting fish) to these men in Newfoundland and I believe the Bristol sailors named the area after the Bristol merchant..." Cosmographiae Introductio, printed on April 25, 1507, appear these famous words (as translated from the original Latin; see below) written most likely by one of the two poet-scholars involved in the project: "But now these parts [Europe, Asia and Africa, the three continents of the Ptolemaic geography] have been extensively explored and a fourth part has been discovered by Americus Vespuccius [a Latin form of Vespucci's name], as will be seen in the appendix: 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 Europa and Asia got their names from women" (see John W. Hessler's quincentennial edition of the Cosmographiae Introductio).

Alistair: I'm sorry I spelled your name wrong - it was a typo.

Ranked #14 in History

Don't worry about the typo :) The thing, I feel, about history general is that unless one was there it is nearly impossible to know for sure what did or didn't happen. All we can do (and indeed hope for) is to guestimate to the highest degree. The salient points on this topic are: 1) Amerius Vespuccius was not the first European to reach 'America'. 2) Vespuccius never went to what is now 'North America'. 3) At that time, new world's were never named after someone's first name. 4) Despite Waldseemuller's assertion, Vespuccius himself never stated himself that it was named after him. With Waldseemuller's 1507 map being the first known map of the area, and considering that Vespucci only went to the South America, it is interesting to note that the map describes the western coast of North America so accurately. The implication is that someone else must have mapped that coast out and Waldseemuller had seen the earlier map to copy it from. btw, it was actually during the 1890's that the link to Ameryk was first found. The wall map from Wallseemuller was only discovered in Germany in 1901.

I'm all for updating history if the proof is there, but like you said, it's nearly impossible to know what really happened. We have some issues here in America where certain groups want to change our history books according to their ideology and there is quite a controversy about that. Again, yes, update it if the evidence is conclusive, but I shy away from saying long-time beliefs from past declarations are 'misconception' and 'myth' based on Broome's book and a few others. A good debate article - thanks for commenting back.

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