First Printed Map of the American Continent
The 1558 state of Sebastian Münster’s map of America. This map's inclusion in the 1544 edition of Munster's Cosmographia forever caused America to be the name of the New World, perpetuating Waldseemuller's choice of names in a popular and widely disseminated work. This map is particularly notable for many reasons, including being the first to use Mare Pacificum as a place name and having one of the earliest depictions of Japan, as this map was published three years before Europeans contacted the islands.
The present map depicts North, Central, and South America in a recognizable, albeit distorted, form. Few place names or geographical features are present, aside from a few illustrations of trees, and mountain ranges, and cannibals. North America is split into two nearly separate landmasses, with a large body of water cleaving in from the north.
The eastern portion of North America, connected only by a thin strip of land, is labeled Francisca, after Giovanni di Verrazzano’s 1524 voyage to the Americas in the service of King Francis I of France. The southeastern portion of Francisca is labeled C.Britonum, recognizing England’s early exploration and fishing in the area. An island off the coast of Francisca, Corterati, likely corresponds to present-day Newfoundland.
The larger, western portion of North America is devoid of place names except for Terra florida in the southeast, making the present map the earliest to show the name Florida. In the southern part of North America, the name Chamaho refers to what is now Mexico. Off the east coast of Mexico, Yucatan is shown as an island.
To the east are Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Sciana (Puerto Rico), with a large Spanish flag planted on it, indicating Spain’s Caribbean possessions and the line defined by the Treaty of Tordesillas. A Portuguese banner is off of the coast of what is today Brazil. At the border between Central and South America, an area named Paria is indicated as having gold and pearls, as Columbus reportedly found during his voyage.
In South America, Münster includes an illustration of cannibals (Canibali) in the northeast, in present-day Brazil. To the northwest is Catigara, or Cattigara, a city originally referred to by Ptolemy as the most southeasterly point in the known world. Ptolemy placed Cattigara on his Great Promontory, the land bridge between Asia and Africa. This bridge between Asia and Africa having been disproven, Münster believed the Great Promontory to be America and thus located his Catigara on the coast of present-day Peru. To the southeast is the Regio Gigantum, a supposed land of giant Patagonian people as reportedly seen by Magellan on his circumnavigation. The Strait of Magellan is indicated at the southern tip of South America.
To the east of the American continent is the Atlantic Ocean, with the large Portuguese flag in the South Atlantic. Spain and the western edge of Africa can be seen at the eastern border of the map.
To the west of the American continent, the Pacific Ocean (Mare Pacificum) appears for the first time on a map using the modern name given to it by Magellan. The ocean is shrunk so that Japan (Zipangri) appears to be just off the coast of Mexico. Japan’s presence on the map appears three years before Europeans’ earliest known contact with the country, revealing the influence of Marco Polo’s accounts. Many small islands around and to the west of Japan are labeled Archipelagus 7448 insularũ, referring to Polo’s account of a series of 7,448 islands—the Philippines. A landmass in the northwest of the map is indicated as India Superior, with the regions of Cathay and Quinsay indicated in China.
South of Japan in the Pacific is a large illustration of the Victoria, the only surviving ship of five on Magellan’s voyage. At the southwest border of the map is part of an island named Calensuan, whose origin is unclear, although it may be a variation of Ceylon.
Aside from being the earliest printed map to depict the Americas in true continental form, Münster’s use of the name America (here seen as Americam in the phrase printed on South America) cemented it as the name for the New World. The name America had first appeared in Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 wall map of the world, derived from the name of explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
Passage to the West and Verrazzano
Almost as soon as Europeans discovered the Americas, they eagerly searched for a passage that would allow them to traverse the continent by water. In the present map, North America is almost bisected by a large body of water jutting down through what is today Canada, leaving only a thin isthmus connecting it.
Münster’s depiction of this misconception in the present map derives from Verrazzano’s 1524 voyage. As he passed the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina, Verrazzano thought he saw a vast “oriental sea,” sometimes referred to as the Sea of Verrazzano, leading to Cathay and the Spice Islands. What he likely saw was the long sandbar from the Pamlico to Albemarle Sounds. This misconception is depicted in several sixteenth-century European maps, including Münster’s.
This false idea of a vast eastern sea gradually transformed into the myth of a great Western Sea, centering on the story of Juan de Fuca, the Castilianized name of Greek navigator Ioánnis Fokás (Phokás). Little archival evidence survives of Fuca’s career, but a chance meeting with an English financier, Michael Lok, in Venice in 1596 gave birth to rumors of Fuca’s voyages in the Pacific. Fuca reported that he had been sent north from New Spain twice in 1592 in search of the Strait of Anian. Fuca supposedly traveled up a vast straight at the northernmost point of the west coast of America, around which he sailed for more than twenty days. The Spanish Crown failed to reward Fuca’s discovery of an opening in the coast at roughly 47° N latitude and Fuca left the Spanish service embittered. His story lived on in Lok’s letters and eventually was published in Samuel Purchas’ travel collection of 1625. Fuca’s account led to the depiction of a Western Sea in many maps of that time.
Publication of the map and states
The first state of the present map appeared in 1540 in Münster’s edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia in an added section of updated maps. Münster included a set of continental maps in this modern section, with this map representing America.
Münster then included it in his Cosmographia, starting in 1544, which was very popular, with nearly forty editions published in the following 100 years. Münster’s Cosmographia was the first influential German description of the world. The present map in its various states was the best known and most widely circulated map of the Americas until Abraham Ortelius’ map of 1570.
This is the eighth state of the map. There are thirteen known states, with differences in the spelling of Atlantica in South America, the use of Temistitan and Penuco in Mexico, as well as several changes:
- State 1 1540 Atlātica Temistitan NOVVS ORBIS in North and South America
- State 2 ca. 1544 Atlātica Temistitan Regio Gigantium in South America moved to the east of the small river
- State 3 1544 Atlātica Temistitan NOVVS ORBIS removed, Die Nüw Welt widely spaced
- State 4 1548 Atlantica Temistitan
- State 5 1550 Atlantica Temistitan Die Nüw... is moved lower down, and replaced by Nouus orbis\
- State 6 1552 Atlantica Temistitan Latitude and longitude bars added outside the map
- Stare 7 1554 Atlantica (not present) Latitude and longitude bars removed
- State 8 1558 Atlantica (not present) Sciona from the foot of the flag is removed
- State 9 1558 oua Insula… (not present)
- State 10 1559 oua Insula… (not present) Sciona replaced, but in italics
- State 11 1561 Nova Insula… (not present)
- State 12 1569 Nova Insula… (not present) Panuco removed from the Gulf of Mexico
- State 13 1572 Nova Insula… Temistitan Panuco replaced
An essential map to any collection of the Americas.
Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) was a cosmographer and professor of Hebrew who taught at Tübingen, Heidelberg, and Basel. He settled in the latter in 1529 and died there, of plague, in 1552. Münster made himself the center of a large network of scholars from whom he obtained geographic descriptions, maps, and directions.
As a young man, Münster joined the Franciscan order, in which he became a priest. He then studied geography at Tübingen, graduating in 1518. He moved to Basel, where he published a Hebrew grammar, one of the first books in Hebrew published in Germany. In 1521 Münster moved again, to Heidelberg, where he continued to publish Hebrew texts and the first German-produced books in Aramaic. After converting to Protestantism in 1529, he took over the chair of Hebrew at Basel, where he published his main Hebrew work, a two-volume Old Testament with a Latin translation.
Münster published his first known map, a map of Germany, in 1525. Three years later, he released a treatise on sundials. In 1540, he published Geographia universalis vetus et nova, an updated edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia. In addition to the Ptolemaic maps, Münster added 21 modern maps. One of Münster’s innovations was to include one map for each continent, a concept that would influence Ortelius and other early atlas makers. The Geographia was reprinted in 1542, 1545, and 1552.
He is best known for his Cosmographia universalis, first published in 1544 and released in at least 35 editions by 1628. It was the first German-language description of the world and contained 471 woodcuts and 26 maps over six volumes. Many of the maps were taken from the Geographia and modified over time. The Cosmographia was widely used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The text, woodcuts, and maps all influenced geographical thought for generations.