The Americas: The Unexpected Continents

Although Europeans had known that the world was round since antiquity, the existence of the Americas was a surprise. When he set sail in 1492, Christopher Columbus had heavily underestimated the distance between Asia and Europe, reducing an 18,000-kilometer distance to 5,300 kilometers. Luckily for the Spanish explorers, there was a massive landmass only 7,000 kilometers to the west. As Europeans explored the new landmass, evidence mounted that this was not part of Asia but a different continent and in 1501, the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) suggested that the area be called the “New World.” The German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller (ca. 1470-1520) subsequently named the new continent in Vespucci’s honor, using the feminine version of his Latinized name “Americus.” (All continents were considered feminine in Latin.) This name was then popularized by Gerhard Mercator (1512-1594) in a world map he prepared in 1538. A formal division into the two continents of North and South America did not fully take hold until the twentieth century.

The Americas collectively make up over a quarter of the planet’s landmass (nearly a third if one discounts the uninhabitable continent of Antarctica). For Europeans, they were truly a new world: European geography was based on classical and Islamic scholarship, none of which anticipated the presence of a continent between Asia and Europe. The only documents describing anything related to the Americas were the Vinland sagas and a few medieval histories of Northern Europe, none of which were heavily read in the south or provided much in the way of geographical detail. European maps of the western hemisphere were therefore heavily informed by guesswork and accounts by explorers more interested in treasure and territorial conquest than geographic information.

For this exhibit, we have chosen maps from the 1570s to the 1860s that highlight different aspects of mapping the western hemisphere: two maps depicting both American continents with approximately a hundred years of development between them, two maps from the 1780s depicting North and South America separately, and two maps of Missouri and the surrounding states from the 1860s. As you look at them, try to reflect on how they relate to one another. What information became available to cartographers between each map being made? What interests — political, economic, pedagogical, etc. — were coming to the forefront as the new maps were being drawn?