Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America

Detail of Waldseemuller mapWhen Christopher Columbus, sailing for the king and queen of Spain in the 1490s, explored what today is known as the West Indies, the central American coast, and the northern coast of South America, the existing European world view began to change in dramatic and sometimes unpredictable ways. Other explorers followed including Amerigo Vespucci, who identified these lands as a separate continent,not as islands or peninsulas attached to eastern Asia. Utilizing Vespucci's travel accounts, German geographer Martin Waldseemüller depicted this new continent on a large world map in 1507, naming it “America” in Vespucci's honor.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europeans explored, mapped, and colonized what they now called “America.” Although contradictory images of North America appeared on European world maps, the outline of the continent began to take shape.

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Recognizing and Naming a New Continent

Martin Waldseemüller's 1507 world map grew out of an ambitious project in St. Dié, France, during the first decade of the sixteenth century, to document and update new geographic knowledge derived from the discoveries of the late fifteenth and the first years of the sixteenth centuries. Waldseemüller's large world map was the most exciting product of that research effort, and included data gathered during Amerigo Vespucci's voyages of 1501-1502 to the New World. Waldseemüller christened the new lands “America” in recognition of Vespucci's understanding that a new continent had been uncovered as a result of the voyages of Columbus and other explorers in the late fifteenth century. This is the only known surviving copy of the first printed edition of the map, which, it is believed, consisted of 1,000 copies.

Waldseemüller's map supported Vespucci's revolutionary concept by portraying the New World as a separate continent, which until then was unknown to the Europeans. It was the first map, printed or manuscript, to depict clearly a separate Western Hemisphere, with the Pacific as a separate ocean. The map represented a huge leap forward in knowledge, recognizing the newly found American landmass and forever changing the European understanding of a world divided into only three parts—Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Martin Waldseemüller (c.1470-1518/21) Universalis Cosmographia Secundum Ptholomaei Traditionem et Americi Vespucii Alioruque Lustrationes [Map of the world naming “America”], Strassburg: 1507. Woodcut map, with emendations. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (1)

Cartographic Formation of The North American Continent

This presentation depicts the emerging European world view of North America, which began to change upon the dissemination of reports from the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Other explorers sailed forth, including Amerigo Vespucci who identified these lands as a separate continent. Utilizing Vespucci's travel accounts, German geographer Martin Waldseemüller depicted this new continent on a large world map in 1507, naming it “America” in Vespucci's honor.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europeans explored, mapped, and colonized what they now called “America.” Although contradictory images of North America appeared on European world maps, the outline of the continent began to take shape.

Waldseemüller's map

Link to Flash presentation. This presentation requires the Flash player. (external link) Links in the captions at left take you to enlarged versions of the maps in the presentation.

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