First map to name America goes on display at Library of Congress

Visitors to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., have a rare opportunity to see the first map that used the name “America” for the New World.

The Library has the only surviving copy of the famous Waldseemüller map, created in 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller, a German cartographer living in France. The map was a major departure from earlier maps in that it relied less on the received wisdom of Classical geographers like Ptolemy and more on reports by the many explorers of the time.

Waldseemüller studied reports by Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci and decided Columbus was wrong in thinking he had reached India. Waldseemüller favored Vespucci’s theory that the lands they were exploring on the other side of the Atlantic were actually part of a previously unknown continent. Waldseemüller rewarded Vespucci by naming the continent after him. America is the feminized Latin form of Vespucci’s first name. All other continents had Latin feminine names, so it fit.

The map is not only correct about the New World, but also portrays other parts of the globe far more accurately than other maps of the time. It’s a fine work of art too, with detailed depictions of terrain and portraits of Ptolemy and Vespucci.The map is on display as part of the exhibition “Exploring the Early Americas.”