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1507 Waldseemuller Map of America Got the Big Picture Right

The 1507 map of America got some things right. (Washington Post photograph)

The 1507 map of America got some things right. (Washington Post photograph)

Recently a bunch of historians convened at the Library of Congress to discuss the work of Martin Waldseemuller.

You surely recognize the name Martin Waldseemuller.

Waldseemuller was the German mapmaker whose 1507 map was the first to use the name “America” for the New World. (He placed it on South America; North America was an attenuated land mass labeled “Terra Ultra Incognita.”) “America” is the feminized (per map protocol) version of Americus, the Latin for Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who had canvassed South America’s Atlantic coastline in several voyages circa 1500.

Waldseemuller supposedly made 1,000 copies of the map but only one survived, and it was lost for 350 years until someone found it in 1901 in a castle in Germany. The Library of Congress bought this map — the “birth certificate” of America, some say — for $10 million about a decade ago, and you can see it in the protective dim light of a specially constructed display case, alongside another Waldseemuller map from 1516, plus several other maps that are on exhibit through June 22.

The protective cases are filled with argon, which I assume cuts down on wear and tear and fire risk. These maps are very safe, which I appreciate, since I’m totally the type who would spill coffee on a prized map and then try to fix the problem by blotting with my shirt sleeve, and then there’s the tearing and ripping and more spilling of coffee, and finally the attempt to piece it back together and Cuba suddenly is west of California and historians are confused forever.

As David Brown noted in a 2008 Post article, the 1507 Waldseemuller map is rather mysterious: Waldseemuller seems to know things that the textbooks would suggest he couldn’t have known. For example, he shows South America as a continent, and he depicts a Pacific Ocean, even though it’s hard to fathom how the existence of that ocean got to Waldseemuller so early in the Age of Discovery. Not until 1513 did Balboa make what was officially the first European discovery of the Pacific, after he crossed the isthmus of Panama.

What I find striking is the little finger of land that probably corresponds to Florida. It was also in 1513 that Ponce de Leon made his famous voyage that “discovered” Florida, but the 1507 map shows a series of bays on the western side of this finger of land that, to my Floridian eye, resemble the contours of Charlotte Harbor, Sarasota Bay and Tampa Bay.

The suggestion, then, is that there were data floating around and pieces of information that hadn’t yet cohered into “knowledge,” which is the basis of the textbook version of history. I think there were people scampering all over the place in those days, with lots of rumors, misinformation, lies, not to mention abundant information from indigenous peoples, and the result is that people knew stuff before they officially knew it. Including Columbus in 1492, but that’s another story.