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U.S. History/Why is Columbus credited with discovering America if North, Central and South America and America are named after Amerigo Vespucci?


QUESTION: Hi. I am curious about this. I couldn't really find a category that could be a better fit on AllExperts, but this is technically a question on American history so I am hoping you can help.

I do not get it. I am not an expert on history. From what I read, Columbus wasn't even meant to go to America, he was supposed to go to India and discover the New World. He never actually set foot in America. I know the continents of North and South America and Central America and that America the country are named for Vespucci. IF Vespucci did in fact discover America, why was Columbus credited as the one who discovered it? I may be mixing some factoids up. Please help me out. Thank you.

ANSWER: Hi Jason,

I'll be glad to help with your question, which is an excellent one. I apologize for the delayed reply but I've been affected by the big blizzard that hit the northeast.

You are definitely correct: Columbus's intended destination was East Asia, specifically the "Spice Islands" (Indonesia) and China. It's also true that Columbus never landed on North America, though he did reach South America on his third voyage. Nevertheless, Columbus is rightfully considered the "discoverer" of the New World because his voyages led to European expansion. (Of course, there were people already living in the Western Hemisphere so the New World wasn't actually "new" except to Renaissance Europeans. Further, Norse explorers reached North America in the 11th century, but there is no evidence that knowledge of Norse voyages was widely known in the 15th century).

So, why is the New World named after Amerigo Vespucci? Because Vespucci led expeditions to the New World and wrote extensive letters about his voyages. Those letters were published as a pamphlet and circulated around Europe. A man named Martin Waldseemuller read Vespucci's letters and was impressed. It just so happened that Waldseemuller was working on a new map of the world. In a pamphlet that preceded the publication of his new map, Waldseemuller proposed that the New World be named "Americus" which is Latin for Amerigo. Because of his letters, Amerigo was strongly associated with explorations in the New World. Perhaps more important, Amerigo was the first to propose that North and South America were not part of Asia - which is what Columbus thought - but instead previously unexplored continents.

So, the Americas are named after Amerigo Vespucci not because he discovered them but because he was the first one to understand that they were "new" continents, and because his letters about his explorations linked him to the New World in the same way that Neil Armstrong is linked to the moon landing.

Ironically, there is evidence that the letters of Vespucci were actually forgeries. But of course no one knew that at the time.

I hope that this is helpful, Jason!

- Marc  

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi Marc, thank you for answering. Apparently there was some kind of mix-up- I apologize if you got a duplicate question. I was not sure if you had received this one.

How and why did the U.S.A. get named for Vespucci? I read somewhere they were originally going to the nation "Columbia" after Columbus.

Who officially discovered the U.S.A., if it wasn't Vespucci or Columbus? Was it Leif Erickson? Or Admiral Zheng or John Cabot or someone else? There are records of other explorers reaching the shores of America.

Thank for your help. Thank you.


ANSWER: Hi Jason,

No apology necessary! Yes I did get the question twice but no big deal. Regarding why America was named for Vespucci, please see my earlier response for the answer. To be specific about who actually discovered the New World, I'll put it this way:

1) North and South America were originally peopled by migrants from Asia who arrived approximately 23,000 years ago (recent research has pushed that timeframe back from 15,000 years).

2) Norsemen (Vikings) reached North America around the year AD 1000. Norse settlements have been excavated in Newfoundland. Evidence of settlements farther south has not been discovered.

3) In 1492 Columbus reached the islands of the Caribbean. In a later voyage he reached South America. His 4 voyages constitute the European "discovery" of the New World, even though Columbus died thinking that he simply reached East Asia.

4) Traditional historians do not believe that Admiral Zheng reached North or South America. For the record, neither do I, since the evidence that he did is unconvincing.

5) John Cabot was one of the later explorers who followed Columbus. People like him, DeSoto, Balboa, further explored the New World beyond what Columbus did, but they only knew about the New World because Columbus found it, so to speak.

Finally, as I recall, Benjamin Franklin at some point during the Revolutionary Era (1763-1789) proposed naming the new country formed from the colonies after Christopher Columbus, but clearly not enough people agreed!

I hope that this is helpful, Jason!

- Marc

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you for your help. I went to and saw this:

According to a literal interpretation of Einar Haugen's translation of the two sagas in the book Voyages to Vinland, Leif was not the first European to discover America, nor the first to make landfall there: he had heard the story of merchant Bjarni Herjˇlfsson who claimed to have sighted land to the west of Greenland after having been blown off course. Bjarni reportedly never made landfall there, however. Later, when travelling from Norway to Greenland, Leif was also blown off course, to a land that he did not expect to see, where he found "self-sown wheat fields and grapevines". He next rescued two men who were shipwrecked in this country and went back to Greenland (and Christianised the people there).[25] Consequently, if this is to be trusted, Bjarni Herjˇlfsson was the first European to see America beyond Greenland, and the two unnamed shipwrecked men were the first people known to Europeans to have made landfall there.

And right of of Google it says, Columbus didn't reach the New World until 1492, 500 years after Leif Erikson's arrival in 1001 AD. Leif Erikson was the first European to set foot in the New World, opening a new land rich with resources for the Vikings to explore.

WAS Bjarni Herjˇlfsson the first person to officially discover America? Please let me know. Thank you.


Hi Jason,

It's definitely true that Norsemen reached North America almost 500 years before Columbus. Because sources are limited, it's impossible to know for sure whether the Norse sagas (which name Bjarni) are 100% accurate. As the Wikipedia article states, if the sagas are accurate, then yes he was. If there was another Norseman who arrived prior to Bjarni, then we don't know who it was. So, if you're looking to call someone the first European to land in the New World, then Bjarni is not a bad choice.

- Marc  

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Marc Aperio


I'm able to answer most questions about US History, whether related to political, social, economic, or military issues.


I've studied American history for nearly 20 years. I'm currently volunteering for AllExperts in Medieval and European history.

My newest book is called (REAL QUICK) HISTORY ( I've also written: WE NEED TO TALK: 27 DIALOGUES ON RACE IN AMERICA is available in the Amazon Kindle store. AMERICAN REVOLUTION 2016: RATIONALE AND AIMS FOR RADICAL CHANGE

BA History (High Honors)

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