The True Story of How America Got Its Name

by Rodney Broome, MJF Books, 2001, ISBN 1567315453, 188 pages, $7.95.

This is a revised edition of  the previously published “Terra Incognita: The Story of How America Got its Name.” The author is a native of Bristol, England, having ancestral roots in North Wales and for the last thirty years residing in Seattle, Washington.

As indicated by the book’s title its objective is an attempt to resolve one of historical geography’s numerous conundrums, that being, how did identifying the New World as America find its way onto Martin Waldseemuller’s map of 1507?  With the recently highly publicized purchased of Waldseemuller’s map by the Library of Congress, interest has again been heightened by this centuries old question.

As with all historical assumptions based on circumstantial evidence I am reminded of the caveat that everyone tells the story the way they wish others to interpret it. This being said I still found this little book to be very interesting in its depiction of little known events that took place prior to 1492, leading up to Waldseemuller’s 1507 map production. While its stated objective is to attempt to identify the origin of how America got its name, a majority of its pages discuss the question of who was the first to arrive in the New World.

After briefly mentioning historically documented landings in the New World by early Vikings and others, the author spends a good deal of time attempting to document  that mariner’s sailings from the port of Bristol had reached and settled as early as 1480 on what they called the island of Brassyle, currently assumed to be Newfoundland. Given the author’s Bristol origin one wonders just how objective his hypothesis might be. In an attempt to cross-reference these Bristolian mariner’s exploits to Waldseemuller’s America he highlights adventurers such as John Cabot, accepted by many as the first European to land on North America. In developing his argument the author does present some revealing anecdotes relating to Cabot’s and other lesser-­known mariners voyages across the Atlantic, then referred to as Mare Oceanum.

The author’s primary assumption is that a grateful Cabot named these virgin lands for his financial backer, a Bristol banker and entrepreneur named Richard Amerike who’s Welsh ancestors went by the name of Meryke. His argument however is based on circumstantial evidence and when balanced against what is documented for Amerigo Vespucci nomination the author’s assumptions appear to lack justification.

There is evidence that Waldseemuller had second thoughts about using the name America to designate the newly discovered territory. This however seems to have been motivated mainly by political grumbling of the times for Columbus to be so recognized. However, once Waldseemuller’s map was released with the name America identifying what we now know to be South America it became impossible to rectify this established toponym.
A rebuttal to this author’s argument is available in a paper by Jonathan Cohen titled “The Naming of America: Fragments We’ve Shored Against Ourselves,” originally published in 1988 in The American Voice and currently available via the internet at http://www.uhmc.sunysb.edu/surgery/america.html.

Both of these authors in each of their respective publications refer to the following statement by either Waldseemuller or one of the other cartographers at Saint Die monastery in France where the 1507 map in question was produced.

“But now these parts (Europe, Africa, and Asia) have been extensively explored, and a fourth part has been discovered by Americus Vespuccius; I do not see what right any one would have to object to calling this part Americus; who discovered it and who is a man of intelligence, and so to name it Amerige, that is the land of Americus, or America, since both Europa and Asia got their names from women.”

Giving credit to Vespucci for the discovery of the New World is beyond the scope of this review. Given that the above statement however was available to Waldseemuller at the time he produced the 1507 map is an indication of how he was influenced to select the name America.  While Rodney Broome falls short of his objective of showing that America received its identity from a Bristol banker he does provide numerous interesting bits of information on a very productive if turbulent period that has left its mark on our country’s history.

Chuck Gray
From Society’s September 2003 Newsletter