Amerigo Vespucci
Italian-born explorer for whom America was named


Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian-born explorer for whom America was named. He claimed to have explored what is now the American mainland in 1497 and believed he had reached a "New World." Christopher Columbus had sailed to this area for the first time in 1492. But Columbus thought he had arrived at islands off the coast of Asia and may never have realized that he reached a New World.

Martin Waldseemuller, a German mapmaker, believed that Vespucci was the first European to reach the New World. In 1507, he suggested that the land be named America. Soon, this name was used throughout Europe. Today, however, many scholars doubt Vespucci's role in the exploration of America.

Vespucci was born in Florence and studied navigation as a youth. He spent his early career in the banking firm of Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de' Medici of Florence. In 1491, he moved to Seville, Spain, and became connected with a company that equipped ships for long voyages.

Vespucci later claimed that he made four voyages to the New World. After what he called his first voyage, in 1497, he said he had sighted a vast continent (South America). In 1499 and 1500, Vespucci took part in an expedition led by the Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda. During this voyage, Vespucci's ship traveled along the coast of Venezuela. In 1501 and 1502, and again in 1503 and 1504, Vespucci sailed with the fleet of Goncalo Coelho, a Portuguese captain. Both of these expeditions explored the southern coast of Brazil.

Vespucci's reputation came largely from a letter he wrote to Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de' Medici in 1502 or 1503. In it, Vespucci told of his discovery of a new continent and vividly described it. The letter was published in 1503 or 1504 under the title of Mundus Novus (New World). It became extremely popular and later was published in several editions and translations. The letter established Vespucci as a famous explorer.

Vespucci became a Spanish citizen in 1505 and went to work for a government agency that regulated commerce with the New World. He served as chief navigator for the agency from 1508 until his death.

Soon after Vespucci died, scholars began to question his claims of discovery. They found little evidence to support his own reports of making a voyage in 1497. Vespucci also claimed to have led all the expeditions, but he actually had been only a navigator or commander of a single ship. In time, Christopher Columbus became known as the European discoverer of the New World.

Contributor: Charles Gibson, Ph.D., Former Prof. of History, Univ. of Michigan.


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