Amerigo Vespucci, Explorer and Navigator

The Man Who Named America

Portrait of Amerigo Vespucci
De Agostini / A. Dagli Orti / Getty Images

Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) was a Florentine sailor, explorer, and trader. He was one of the more colorful characters of the early age of discovery in the Americas and captained one of the first journeys to the New World. His lurid descriptions of the Native people of the New World made his accounts extremely popular in Europe and as a result, it is his name - Amerigo - which eventually would be modified into "America" and given to two continents.

Early Life

Amerigo was born into a wealthy family of Florentine silk traders who had a princely estate near the city of Peretola. They were very prominent citizens of Florence and many Vespuccis held important offices. Young Amerigo received an excellent education and served for a time as a diplomat before settling in Spain just in time to witness the excitement of Columbus' first voyage. He decided that he, too, wanted to be an explorer.

The Alonso de Hojeda Expedition

In 1499, Vespucci joined the expedition of Alonso de Hojeda (also spelled Ojeda), a veteran of Columbus' second voyage. The 1499 expedition included four ships and was accompanied by well-known cosmographer and cartographer Juan de la Cosa, who had gone on Columbus' first two voyages. The expedition explored much of the northeastern coast of South America, including stops in Trinidad and Guyana. They also visited a tranquil bay and named it "Venezuela," or "Little Venice." The name stuck.

Like Columbus, Vespucci suspected that he may have been looking at the long-lost Garden of Eden, the Earthly Paradise. The expedition found some gold, pearls, and emeralds. They also captured enslaved people. But the expedition was still not very profitable.

Return to the New World

Vespucci had earned a reputation as a skilled sailor and leader during his time with Hojeda, and he was able to convince the King of Portugal to finance a three-ship expedition in 1501. He had become convinced during his first trip that the lands he had seen were not, in fact, Asia, but something altogether new and previously unknown. The purpose of his 1501-1502 journey, therefore, became the location of a practical passage to Asia. He explored the eastern coast of South America, including much of Brazil, and may have gone as far as the Platte River in Argentina before returning to Europe.

On this journey, he became more convinced than ever that the recently discovered lands were something new: the coast of Brazil that he had explored was much too far to the south to be India. This put him at odds with Christopher Columbus, who insisted until his death that the lands he had discovered were, in fact, Asia. In Vespucci's letters to his friends and patrons, he explained his new theories.

Fame and Celebrity

Vespucci's journey was not an extremely important one in relation to many of the others taking place at the time. Nevertheless, the seasoned navigator found himself something of a celebrity within a short time due to the publication of some letters he had allegedly written to his friend, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici. Published under the name Mundus Novus ("New World") the letters became an immediate sensation. They included fairly direct (for the sixteenth century) descriptions of sexuality as well as the radical theory that the recently discovered lands were, in fact, new.

Mundus Novis was followed closely by a second publication, Quattuor Americi Vesputi Navigationes (Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci). Supposedly letters from Vespucci to Piero Soderini, a Florentine statesman, the publication describes four voyages (1497, 1499, 1501, and 1503) undertaken by Vespucci. Most historians believe some of the letters to be fakes: there is little other evidence that Vespucci even made the 1497 and 1503 journeys.

Whether some of the letters were fakes or not, the two books were immensely popular in Europe. Translated into several languages, they were passed around and discussed exhaustively. Vespucci became an instant celebrity and was asked to serve on the committee which advised the King of Spain about New World policy.


In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller, who worked in the town of Saint-Dié in Alsace, published two maps together with Cosmographiae Introductio, an introduction to cosmography. The book included the purported letters from Vespucci’s four voyages as well as sections reprinted from Ptolemy. On the maps, he referred to the newly discovered lands as “America,” in honor of Vespucci. It included an engraving of Ptolemy looking to the East and Vespucci looking to the West.

Waldseemüller also gave Columbus plenty of credit, but it was the name America that stuck in the New World.

Later Life

Vespucci only ever made two journeys to the New World. When his fame spread, he was named to a board of royal advisers in Spain along with former shipmate Juan de la Cosa, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón (captain of the Niña on Columbus’ first voyage) and Juan Díaz de Solís. Vespucci was named Piloto Mayor, “Chief Pilot” of the Spanish Empire, in charge of establishing and documenting routes to the west. It was a lucrative and important position as all expeditions needed pilots and navigators, all of whom were answerable to him. Vespucci established a school of sorts, to train pilots and navigators, modernize long-distance navigation, collect charts and journals and basically collect and centralize all cartographic information. He died in 1512.


Were it not for his famous name, immortalized on not one but two continents, Amerigo Vespucci would today no doubt be a minor figure in world history, well-known to historians but unheard of outside of certain circles. Contemporaries such as Vicente Yáñez Pinzón and Juan de la Cosa were arguably more important explorers and navigators.

That’s not to lessen Vespucci’s accomplishments, which were considerable. He was a very talented navigator and explorer who was respected by his men. When he served as Piloto Mayor, he encouraged key advances in navigation and trained future navigators. His letters – whether he actually wrote them or not – inspired many to learn more about the New World and colonize it. He was neither the first nor the last to envision the route to the west that was eventually discovered by Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano, but he was one of the best-known.

It’s even arguable that he deserves the eternal recognition of having his name on North and South America. He was one of the first to openly defy the still-influential Columbus and declare that the New World was, in fact, something new and unknown and not simply a previously-uncharted part of Asia. It took courage to contradict not only Columbus but all of the ancient writers (such as Aristotle) who had no knowledge of continents to the west.


  • Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.
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Minster, Christopher. "Amerigo Vespucci, Explorer and Navigator." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). Amerigo Vespucci, Explorer and Navigator. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Amerigo Vespucci, Explorer and Navigator." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).