Guest column: Naming of America


Do you believe in divine intervention — that things happen for a reason like the naming of a continent or simply running into a friend by chance?

I wasn’t a particular believer before I wrote this article, but I have made a great discovery in fate.

Amidst deep research in the chronicles of New World explorers, I took a lunch break. I went to Theo’s Restaurant and ran into my friend, Diane Vespucci. Now there’s nothing unusual about unexpectedly running into someone you know in St. Augustine, but I felt like I’d run into her for a reason. It didn’t hit me until I returned to my research on Italian explorers, and the name “Vespucci” kept coming up!

Turns out Diane Vespucci is related by marriage to Amerigo Vespucci, for whom “America” is named, and her oldest son, Joseph, is a direct descendant.

Many St. Augustine families have direct connections to Spain, Island of Minorca, Italy, Corsica and other areas throughout the world. Local residents can be traced back to historic figures and icons similar to Amerigo and even Christopher Columbus.

However, this was an awesome coincidence researching Italian ancestry and finding a living descendant in St. Augustine—yes!

Being at the right place at the right time worked for Amerigo Vespucci as well.

Amerigo Vespucci was born in Florence, Italy in 1451, and he was a daring seafarer who led a number of voyages to South America. He explored its eastern coast extensively between 1499 and 1502, during which time he discovered that the continent extended farther than the landmass on record. Additionally, he discovered what we now know as the Indies.

Vespucci’s voyages were widely known all over Europe through his published accounts; however, his name landed on the southern continent of the New World thanks to a cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller. Waldseemüller, in making a revised world map, highlighted the new continent of the southern hemisphere and labeled it with a name nearly synonymous with exploration and discovery: “Amerigo.”

The New World was dubbed “America” after one man, reflecting the Renaissance ideal of individualism, and Amerigo Vespucci signed the map as one would sign a piece of art. These maps were mass-produced and after printing, it was too late to change the name to “Columbia” for Christopher Columbus. Thus Amerigo Vespucci’s name was given to the South American continent by Waldseemüller in 1507.

Controversy arose that Vespucci was trying to usurp the glory of Christopher Columbus; however, that debate eventually subsided and Vespucci’s name was given to the North American continent as well.

Vespucci was educated by his uncle, who had also introduced Amerigo to the business of seafaring and trade. The trading business took Vespucci to Spain, Portugal and halfway across the globe. As a skilled navigator, Vespucci consistently planned shorter routes to Asia, mapped across Central and South America and Venezula and Brazil.

He embarked on many explorations of the regions in and around South America while he worked for the brothers Lorenzo de’ Medici and Giovanni. He had been relocated to their agency in Spain in 1492. While there, he earned the designation of ‘Chief of Navigation of Spain’ or ‘Piloto Mayor de Indies.’ In 1508 Vespucci was put in charge of planning ocean voyages.

Amerigo Vespucci depicted his explorations of the New World in two letters, which were both published. The first letter, Mundus Novus or New World, was an account sent from Lisbon to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, describing a voyage to South America between 1501 and 1502. The second letter was Lettera di Amerigo Vespucci delle isole nuovamente trovate in quattro suoi viaggi or ‘Lettera al Soderini’, an account on the newly discovered isles off the coast of the New World. This letter was addressed to Piero Soderini and was printed in 1504, highlighting Vespucci’s voyages to the Americas.

Between 1499 and 1500, Amerigo Vespucci and Alonso de Ojeda sailed to determine a route around the southern tip of Africa, towards the Indian Ocean. However, the teamwork came to an end as the two explorers reached what we now know as Guyana. Vespucci continued to sail southward and discovered the Amazon River, Trinidad and the Orinoco River. He successfully took the Hispaniola route back to Spain. Thereafter, on the voyage led by Gonçalo Coelho between 1501 and 1502, Vespucci’s published account claims that the crew first sailed to Cape Verde, then the coast of Brazil and finally, to the Rio de Janeiro bay. This last account is shrouded by controversy since the estuary of the Río de la Plata is not mentioned at all.

After many explorations, Amerigo became Master Navigator at Seville, Spain and continued in that position until his death in 1512.
Vespucci was commissioned by King Ferdinand to start a school for navigators, to standardize and modernize techniques used in navigation, and to develop an accurate method of determining longitude. His commitment to the development of books and maps on navigation remains unparalleled. Vespucci’s calculations on distance covered were mostly based on the conjunction of Mars with the Moon. His published accounts are also a rich source of information on the culture of indigenous people with whom he met and interacted. His accounts offer us an insight into native diet, religion and even childbirth practices.

Amerigo Vespucci was truly a man of the world, and ready to share it. The Carta Mariana, a wood block map, was printed by Waldseemüller in honor of Vespucci’s last few explorations of the New World.

Derek Boyd Hankerson
St. Augustine, FL

Derek Boyd Hankerson is the Managing Partner of Freedom Road, LLC. Derek is former vice president of the St. Johns County Republican Executive Committee and was an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention. Derek has been a leader in numerous community projects in support of Fort Mose, multicultural education and heritage tourism. Historic City News is pleased to be able to publish Derek’s periodic guest columns which are both informative and entertaining. Derek and his wife live in St. Augustine.