Columbus 'discovered' the New World … so why isn't America named after him?

1491 map
Waldseemüller created the first map to use the name America. (Image credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Christopher Columbus famously sailed the ocean blue in 1492, so why isn't the New World named after him?

The answer has to do with Columbus' reputation at the time Europeans named the newfound continents, as well as a highly successful publicity campaign led by the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, said Matt Crawford, an associate professor of history at Kent State University in Ohio.

In addition, Columbus maintained until his dying day that the new land he had discovered was, in fact, Asia, Crawford said. In contrast, Vespucci was one of the first, if not the first explorer to declare that the New World was an entirely newfound entity (at least to the Europeans at the time). 

Related: How far away is the horizon?

Columbus, born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy, moved to Portugal in 1476 to start a mapmaking business. At the time, called the Age of Exploration, Portugal was a leader, having already discovered the Madeira Islands and the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean and sailed down part of Africa's western coast.

However, what Europe really wanted was a route to India. The Ottoman Empire had blocked European access through Constantinople, as well as across North Africa and the Red Sea. Columbus wanted a piece of the action and proposed, as others had, that Asia could be reached by sailing westward. (Back then, people knew the Earth was round. The misperception that people thought it was flat was introduced by the American essayist Washington Irving, best known for writing "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," who popularized the so-called "flat Earth" controversy in his 1828 book "The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.")

After Portugal rejected Columbus' idea — not only because he wasn't well connected but also because they (rightfully) thought that he had underestimated the distance between Europe and India — he took his plan to Spain. It's unclear how successful the Spanish thought Columbus would be, which may explain why they agreed to give him so much if he found a route to India. "He's promised a lot in return; a fairly substantial portion of the trade and wealth that would come out of more direct contacts with Asia," Crawford said. "He's promised the grand title 'Admiral of the Ocean Sea' and 'Viceroy of the Indies.'"

What happened next made history; Columbus sailed straight into the Bahaman island of Guanahani. During the four voyages Columbus made to the New World, he set foot on islands such as Cuba, Hispaniola and the coasts of Central and South America. But Columbus adamantly repeated that he had found Asia, possibly to ensure that he would keep the wealth and titles that Spain had promised him, Crawford said.

This stance made some of Columbus' contemporaries view him as duplicitous and not credible, Crawford said. Meanwhile, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama traveled from Portugal to India and back again by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa from 1497 to 1499, meaning Portugal had beat Spain in the race to India.

"The Spanish crown was apparently so unhappy with Columbus' failure to get to Asia and also this mounting reputation he was getting for duplicity, that was part of the reason why they sent an agent to the Caribbean to arrest Columbus and bring him back to Spain," Crawford said. "He was later stripped of his titles." 

Related: Photos: Christopher Columbus likely saw this 1491 map

The letters

In 1493, Columbus wrote a letter to one of his supporters, Luis de Santángel, about his discovery. This letter was later reprinted and read by many people.  

America wasn't named for Christopher Columbus (left), but for Amerigo Vespucci (right). (Image credit: Shutterstock)

But letters from the Italian Vespucci (1459-1512) were far more popular. Vespucci, who sailed under the Portuguese flag, took his first trip to the New World in 1499. As mentioned, Vespucci recognized that these lands weren't Asia, but rather new continents. (Of note, "these revolutions are hard to discern in [Vespucci's] published letters," so it's possible that others saw more meaning than he meant to convey, according to a 2006 study in the journal Past and Present. For instance, Vespucci calls the land mass a "continent," but this could mean "mainland," scholars say.)

Regardless of what Vespucci meant, his letters about the New World to his patron Lorenzo de' Medici became best sellers across Europe. "It wouldn't be unreasonable to say that his letter, much more so than Columbus' letter, [helped] people learn about this New World," Crawford said. In these letters, "Vespucci played up the sensational aspects of the sexual and dietary customs of the inhabitants and the novelty of his own scientific observations," Christine Johnson, an associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in the 2006 study.

These letters, in turn, influenced a famous mapmaker. In 1507, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller created the first map to use the name America. However, this name hovered over Brazil. "Waldseemüller doesn't really label the whole region as America," Crawford noted.

As for why the land mass was named "America" and not "Amerigo," an introduction in a pamphlet that Waldseemüller wrote for the map notes that "Inasmuch as both Europe and Asia received their names from women, I see no reason why anyone should justly object to calling this part Amerige, i.e., the land of Amerigo, or America, after Amerigo, its discoverer, a man of great ability."

In reality, Portugal had already named Brazil "Ilha de Vera Cruz," or "Island of the True Cross," but it's possible that Waldseemüller didn't know that at the time, Crawford said.

In subsequent 1513 and 1516 maps, Waldseemüller stopped using the name America and instead used the names "Terra Incognita," and "Terra Nova," possibly because he realized that it was Columbus, and not Vespucci, who had arrived first in the New World, Crawford said. But by then it was too late; other mapmakers had already copied him and spread the name far and wide. The name America was firmly rooted by the end of the 1500s, Crawford said.

Granted, naming a new land is largely a symbolic gesture, given that the Europeans didn't control these areas for some time.

"This whole enterprise of making maps and assigning European labels and names to places that Europeans have no business labeling or naming, that's part of their effort to take possession of these lands," Crawford said. That's the ideology of colonization — that these are our places, we've given our names to those places."

Originally published on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.