As there is already a country called Colombia, this may seem like an obvious question. Yet, as school history lessons continue to teach us (wrongly) that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, then where on earth did the name America come from?
In truth, the naming of both the Americas and Colombia, are a little misleading.
While Colombus is widely credited with having discovered the Americas in 1492, in truth, his first two voyages, between 1492–1493, and 1493–1496, explored only the Caribbean isles. It wasn’t until his third voyage, between 1498–1500, that Columbus arrived in South America.
In total, Columbus undertook four voyages to the ‘New World’, during which he never set foot on Colombian soil.
Nor on Northern American soil, in fact.
Considering that Colombia was not named thus until 1819, 327 years after Columbus’ first voyage, it’s understandable that history had become a little muddled by then. Colombia was named after him, as the famous explorer of the Americas.
The name ‘America’, on the other hand, was first coined in 1507, a year after Colombus’ death. And so, how was it that the Americas didn’t come to be known as ‘the Colombia’s? Personally, I think ‘The United States of Colombia’ has quite a nice ring to it. The United States of Colón (Cristóbal Colón having been Colombus’ Spanish name), less so.
The Americas were actually, accidentally named after an Italian ship navigator, Amerigo Vespucci.
First off, Amerigo Vespucci did not, in fact, discover America before Colombus. Nor was he a part of Colombus’ crew, on any of his voyages. While some argue that Vespucci acted first as navigator on a voyage in 1497, many dispute this claim. His first known voyage didn’t take place until 1499 — seven years after Colombus’ first.
Unlike Colombus, however, who spent the rest of his days convinced that he had explored Asia (hence Indigenous tribes we dubbed ‘Indians’), Vespucci began to suspect the land to be a new continent.
Between 1503–1505, Vespucci published two accounts of his voyages. These were thrilling tales of adventure, fierce battles against hostile natives and romantic encounters between crewmembers and the daughters of chieftains. Compared to Columbus’ own rather dry publications in which he described the geography of the land, Vespucci’s tales were a huge success.
In 1506, his Soderini Letter came to the attention of scholars and cartographers, Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann, in Saint-Dié, France. The following year, Waldseemüller and Ringmann published their book, Introduction to Cosmography, with an accompanying world map known as the Waldseemüller map, in which they assumed attribution of the discovery of what is now known as South America to Amerigo Vespucci by naming the continent after him.
I should clarify that, as of 1507, North America was yet to be explored, nor had anyone yet realised that there were in fact two continents.
The Introduction to Cosmography and the Waldseemüller map were a huge success and widely used amongst scholars and cartographers, thus further spreading the name, America, amongst the public.
In 1538, cartographer Gerardus Mercator used America to name both the North and South continents, securing the name of the two continents forever.
As for Amerigo Vespucci, it’s possible that at the time of his death, in 1512, he was unaware of the Waldseemüller map, and so died ignorant of his legacy, as Columbus had six years prior.
In the years following Vespucci’s death, he became an increasingly controversial figure, with fellow explorers including Sebastian Cabot and Bartolomé de las Casas questioning his accomplishments, even accusing him of stealing credit from Columbus.
So Who Did First Set Foot in North America?
Colombus’ first voyage led to a wave of voyages commissioned by every Western European kingdom. As a result, it’s not easy to know exactly who first set foot in North America during the Age of Discovery. Especially considering that national and political rivalries led to a great deal of ‘truth bending’, and outright lies from explorers claiming to have beaten their competitors — or even Columbus — to the New World.
However, there are a few explorers who we can credit with having first explored the North American continent.
Giovanni Caboto, (otherwise known as the far less glamorous sounding John Cabot) commissioned by Henry VIII, landed in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1497.
His son, Sebastian, later claimed to have discovered North America with his father in 1494, before Columbus, but this claim has long since been disproven. A little example of that aforementioned truth-bending.
Juan Ponce de León
Ponce de León, a Spanish explorer, was amongst the crew of Columbus’ second voyage. He settled in Hispanola, before becoming the first governor of Puerto Rico.
In 1512, King Ferdinand of Spain, commissioned Ponce de León to further explore the New World, and in April 1513, his crew sighted a new land, which Ponce de León named, La Florida.
Giovanni da Verrazzano
In 1523, Florentine explorer Verrazzano, commissioned by King Francis I of France, set out to explore the land between Newfoundland, Canada, and Florida.
On 1st March 1524, Verrazzano and his crew reached the Pamlico Sound in what is now North Carolina, from which they sailed along the coast, north. This voyage led to the discovery of New York Bay, Narragansett Bay, and Cape Cod Bay.
And so, in truth, the USA could as easily have become the United States of Verrazzania, or the United States of… Poncia? Leónia? Juania?
Doesn’t really have the same ring to it, does it?