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On the trail of Amerigo Vespucci, noted world traveler


By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo

Many of us know that our country was named after Amerigo Vespucci even though he did not set foot on what was once referred to as the “New World” until after Columbus. Who is this man and why does America bear his name?

Amerigo was born in Florence on March 9, 1451. He was the third son born to Nastagio Vespucci and Lisa di Giovanni Mini. While his two older brothers went to the University of Pisa, he was tutored by his uncle Giorgio, a Dominican friar in the monastery of San Marco. Under his guidance, Amerigo received a broad education including extensive studies of geography and astronomy. This knowledge would serve him well in later years when he set off to explore the new world.

When his father died in 1482, Amerigo went to work for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici as a household manager and then tasked to oversee various business activities of his patron. In 1488 he was sent to Seville to find a new business manager for Lorenzo. Amerigo recommended Giannotti Berardi and he also became involved with the manager. He settled in Spain permanently by 1492 and would eventually become a citizen.

Berardi was a major sponsor of Columbus’s expeditions. When he passed away in 1495, Amerigo was left to settle his estate. He continued to provide provisions for ships bound for the west Indies, but profits were not as expected, and he was losing the support of his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici Between 1497 and 1504, Vespucci set off on four expeditions. Some historians dispute that he made the first voyage in 1497 or one in 1503 but agree that he did explore the northern part of South America in an expedition from 1499 to 1500 and present-day Brazil in a voyage from 1501-1502.

A letter sent to Florentine statesman Piero Soderini (dated 1504) is allegedly an account from Vespucci of an expedition which departed Spain on May 20, 1497. His account has been disputed by some historians who state there were many inconsistencies during the journey. Some feel he may have incorporated aspects of his expedition of 1499 to 1500 so he could position himself as the “first” explorer to encounter the mainland.

This wood cutting is thought to depict Amerigo Vespucci’s 1497-98 voyage to the New World.

During the second journey from 1499 to 1500, Vespucci joined an expedition funded by the Spanish monarch led by Alonso de Ojeda. Vespucci’s role in the expedition was never clear but the intention was to explore the new landmass discovered by Columbus and to follow up on a lead that there was a rich source of pearls in this area. Their first stop was in the Canary Islands and then near present day Suriname. From there the fleet split up with Vespucci on a southbound vessel. Amerigo also wrote about this part of the journey noting they were now on the coast of Asia and would round the “Cape of Cattigara” and reach the Indian Ocean. A world map from 1489 marked this cape as the southeastern part of Asia so his calculations were based on what was known about the world at that time. They passed the areas where both the Amazon and Paras flowed into the sea and then ventured another 150 miles before turning around and landing somewhere on the shores of Venezuela.

In 1501 Manuel I of Portugal funded another expedition which included Vespucci. The goal was to investigate a landmass which is now Brazil. The king wanted to know if he could claim this land based on the Treaty of Tordesillas. Amerigo was hired to serve as a pilot under Goncalo Coelho and his is the only surviving record of this journey. They reached the landmass on August 17, 1501, where they encountered hostile natives. Heading further south they met friendlier natives and engaged in some minor trading.

In 1503 Vespucci may have participated in another expedition for the Portuguese crown. There is evidence of the journey but no recorded confirmation that Vespucci was involved.

So why did our country end up being named after Vespucci even though Columbus is credited with discovering the Americas landmass? Vespucci wrote letters and kept detailed records of these journeys and was the one who recognized it was not just an island but was a new continent. In his Mundus Novus, a letter to Lorenzo
di Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1502/1503) he wrote, “A few days ago I wrote to you at length about my return from those regions we searched for and found with the fleet, at the expenses and by the command of the most serene King of Portugal, and which can be properly called a “New World” since our forebears had absolutely no knowledge of it, nor do any of those who are hearing about it today. On Aug. 7, 1501, we dropped anchor off the shores of that new land, thanking God with solemn prayers and the celebration of the Mass. Once there, we determined that the new land was not an island but a continent.”

Vespucci’s accounts of these voyages became widely known in Europe. The Soderini letter came to the attention of a group of scholars studying geography and two of them, Matthias Ringmann and Martin Waldseemüller, published their Introduction to Cosmography with included a world map. The map was created using Vespucci’s description from the Soderini letter and a Portuguese maritime map as well as a geographical map created by Ptolemy circa A.D. 956. A thousand copies of the map were published with prominent portraits of Ptolemy and Vespucci. They marked the landmass America after the explorer who recognized that it was a continent. Successive maps printed also used the name America for the continent and in 1538 Gerardus Mercator used it to name both the northern and southern continents. By this point the use of Vespucci’s’ first name was firmly set. Vespucci died on Feb. 22, 1512, possibly not aware of this honor.

It is likely that things would have been different if he had not written the letters describing these journeys and ascertaining that the “New World” was a new continent. Once the first maps of the continent were marked as “America” the name became standard and Columbus was deprived of his discovery of the continent bearing his name.

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