America got its name from a French town

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A small town in the Vosges, not far from Strasbourg, is famous for having given America its name. In 1507 a map was printed in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges which was the first one to include a fourth continent in addition to Europe, Asia and Africa. The name America is written on this new piece of land.

The map was the work of a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, who was one of a group of scholars called the Gymnasium Vosagense which met at Saint-Dié-des-Vosges.

A book explaining the map was published at the same time and was most likely written by another member of the group, German humanist, Matthias Ringmann.

The map and book were based on documents and discoveries from the late fifteenth and the first years of the sixteenth centuries and included data gathered during the Italian Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages of 1501-1502 to the New World.

When Christopher Columbus died in 1506, he still thought he had found a new way to reach Asia and so it is not he, but Amerigo Vespucci, who is recognised as the first man to have discovered the existence of a fourth continent. In the book, written in Latin, a passage suggests this new landmass should be named after the man who discovered it and as the other three continents have feminine names Europa, Africa and Asia, Amerigo is changed to America.

It was a huge leap forward in knowledge, describing a new continent and the Pacific as a separate ocean. At that time the accepted knowledge of the shape of the world was still based on the second century AD work of the Greek geographer, Claudius Ptolemy.

It is thought that 1,000 copies of the map were made, but only one has survived and it is kept in the Library of Congress in Washington under its full title Universalis Cosmographia Secundum Ptholomaei Traditionem et Americi Vespucii Aliorum que lustrationes, St Dié, 1507. (A drawing of the whole earth following the tradition of Ptolemy and the travels of Amerigo Vespucci and others). The map is regarded as America’s birth certificate and in 2003 the library paid 10 million dollars to have it in its collection.

At Saint-Dié-des-Vosges visitors to the library can see a copy of the map and one of the original books that went with it. Alexandre Jury, responsible for the town’s written heritage says it is not clear why the town was chosen for the publication of the document, though it was a known centre for intellectuals.