Mapping America in 1507

Washington Travel Blog

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Map photo from Library of Congress

Queen Elizabeth II visited Jamestown, Virginia, this week and brought media attention to the 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of the first permanent English colony in North America. In Washington, DC, a smaller ceremony marked another anniversary of the age of discovery and exploration. In 1507, exactly a century before the founding of Jamestown, a German cartographer named Martin Waldseemüller drew the first world map showing North and South America as continents distinct from Europe, Asia, and Africa. His map was also the first to use the name “America.” The Waldseemüller Map, as it is known, went on brief display at the Library of Congress prior to a ceremony marking the formal transfer of the map from Germany to the Library.


The map is a large wall map, composed of 12 panels printed from engraved wood blocks. The figures of Ptolemy and Amerigo Vespucci look down upon the world. At first, one wants to note how the accuracy of the map compares with today’s maps. The geography of continental Europe and costal Africa were well known by that time. Surprisingly, the British Isles are not rendered with the definition afforded more distant locales. Clearly, India, the Spice Islands, and China--labeled Cathay and located in Siberia--were still under exploration. Japan is thought to be an island in the Pacific midway between Asia and America. Then, one turns to the narrow Western Hemisphere. Suddenly the realization dawns that this was the first time there was a Western Hemisphere shown on any map. Fifteen years after Columbus’s first voyage the European worldview had changed forever. The word “America” appears where present-day Chile and Argentina would be located. Straight lines with the word “Incognita” cut off the western coasts of both North and South America. The Pacific, though not yet named, appears for the first time as a distinct ocean. Cuba, Santo Domingo, Jamaica, and the West Indies appear in the Caribbean. North America extends only as far as the Chesapeake Bay--where Jamestown would be founded a century later. Did this very copy of the map inspire explorers to seek out new lands? After half a millennium, the Waldseemüller map continues to impress and inspire.


More information on the map at the Library of Congress site:

Andy99 says:
Yes, but this was the first map to show both of the Americas as continents and the first to use the name "America". The question remains, where did Waldseemüller obtain his information?
Posted on: Jun 12, 2009
tj1777 says:
nice blog. But there might have been an older map with parts of America from the viking days with small parts of North America called vinland map .

Of course this map is somewhat controversial.
Posted on: Jun 12, 2009
reikunboy says:
very interesting
Posted on: May 27, 2008
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Map photo from Library of Congress
Map photo from Library of Congress
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