U.S. Buys Oldest Map Marked "America"

Jonathan Haeber
National Geographic News
June 19, 2003
The first map known to have named the great landmass of the Western Hemisphere "America" has been acquired by the Library of Congress for U.S. ten million dollars. Described as "one of the greatest finds of the modern age" after it was lost for more than two centuries, the 1507 map of the entire world included data gathered by explorer Amerigo Vespucci.

"This is the most impressive acquisition, without a doubt," said John Hebert, chief of the geography and map division at the Library of Congress.

"There are items that precede [1507], but this makes a whole segment of the world known—or named… It is one of the top jewels in the world collection; it is the first map, literally, that pulls us all together 360 degrees in its correct positioning in the world."

Lost and Found

The map was kept—for more than 350 years—in the castle of Prince Johannes Waldburg-Wolfegg at Wolfegg in what is today southern Germany. Considered lost for over 250 years, it was discovered in the castle in 1901.

Shortly after it was found, the map was described by Philip Phillips, the chief of the geography and map division at the Library of Congress in the early 20th century, as "one of the great finds of the modern age."

In 1992 it was offered for sale, and the Library of Congress acquired it after making an initial down payment in June of 2001. The German state of Baden-Württemburg gave permission to export the map, since it was listed as "valuable national cultural property." It was relocated to the Library of Congress in 2001 pending completion of the sale.

The map will be handed over officially in the presence of representatives of the governments of the U.S. and Germany in 2004, when a gallery devoted to its display is expected to be completed.

The map was paid for by the U.S. Congress and private donations.

"On behalf of the Library of Congress, and on behalf of the American people, I want to express my special appreciation to Prince Johannes Waldburg-Wolfegg and to the Federal Republic of Germany and the state of Baden-Württemburg." Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, said in a statement.

The Legacy of Vespucci

The map was designed and drawn by Martin Waldseemüller, who included data gathered by explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci's voyage of 1501 reinforced the theory of the spherical shape of the earth, and confirmed Vespucci's revolutionary concept of the New World as a separate continent, which, until then, was unknown to the Europeans.

In recognition of Vespucci's discovery, Waldseemüller named the new continent "America," after Vespucci's first name. Waldseemüller said of the great new continent in his Cosmographic Introduction that, "it is indeed a fourth part of the world," Europe, Asia, and Africa being the other three.

One thousand copies of the map were believed to have been made from a woodcut five years after Vespucci's voyage to the western continent in 1501 to 1502. In addition to the place-name "America," Waldseemüller depicted, and named, various other locations from Río De La Plata northward, including modern-day Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.

Of the original thousand prints, the Library of Congress now possesses the only known surviving copy—separated into 12 pages, which are arranged like a puzzle to depict the Earth in its entirety.

Hebert says that the map is in "excellent condition," since it has rarely been on display since the map's printing. It was maintained in a portfolio, which kept out the sun and other potentially harmful elements. Unlike most modern-day wood-paper maps, the Waldseemüller map was comprised of mostly cloth paper, contributing to the preservation.

The Fate of Waldseemüller's Map

Waldseemüller's Map will be displayed in the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. A special preview of the complete map will be shown with the exhibition, "Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America," opening to the public on July 24.

In addition to public display, the map will likely be studied by a number of historical experts in various fields.

"We think we know the past, but when something like this comes forward we have an opportunity to study and begin to get information on the map. How did it get here? Why is it here? How did it come to us?" said Hebert.

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