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Amerigo Vespucci Day

Amerigo Vespucci Day was proclaimed by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, on March 2, 1959, and was designated to take place on Amerigo Vespucci's birthday on March 9. Rockefeller said that the day was appropriate because Vespucci had continents named after him, was one of the first Europeans to arrive in the Western Hemisphere, was one of the great Italian mariners of the Age of Discovery, and opened up a new world and a new era of freedom. Rockefeller went on to say that the spirit of Vespucci had a certain appeal at a time when many challenges were currently being faced. He trumpeted Vespucci as someone everyone could have pride in, no matter what their background was. He called upon the people of New York "to participate in all appropriate observances of the occasion." Although March 9 is both Vespucci's birthday and the day on which Rockefeller proclaimed the celebration to take place, some have suggested that Amerigo Vespucci Day should take place the same day as Columbus Day, replacing that holiday.

Amerigo Vespucci, a navigator and explorer, was born on March 9, 1451 (some believe 1454), in Florence, Italy. He grew up in a cultured family that was friends with the Medici family—the family that ruled Italy from the 1400s into the 1700s. Vespucci's uncle, the Ambassador to Florence under King Louis XI of France, sent him on a diplomatic mission to Paris. It was probably this trip that germinated a hunger for travel and exploration in the young Vespucci. Before taking to the seas, however, Vespucci held many other jobs. He was in business and worked for the Medici family. In the late 1490s, he worked with merchants who supplied Christopher Columbus on his voyages. It is believed that Vespucci met Columbus in 1496 in Seville, which further interested him in exploration.

Some believe Amerigo Vespucci took his first voyage in May of 1497. Letters Vespucci may or may not have written are the source for this, and they are often seen as being manipulated or forgeries. They claim he sailed through the West Indies, and then made it to mainland Central America in about five weeks. If true, this means Vespucci discovered Venezuela before Columbus arrived there.

It is certain that Vespucci set sail in May of 1499 on behalf of Spain, navigating for commander Alonzo de Ojeda. They first landed in present-day Guyana. It is believed that Vespucci then ventured on his own to explore the coast of Brazil, possibly discovering the mouth of the Amazon River and maybe making it as far as the Cape of St. Augustine. At this time he thought he had traveled along the coast of the eastern peninsula of Asia. Upon returning home, he wanted to proceed with another expedition, but Spain did not want to sponsor another journey for him.

Vespucci's third voyage—or second if the first did not take place—was his most successful and consequential. He departed Lisbon, Portugal, on May 14, 1501, setting sail on behalf of King Manuel I. He didn't start the voyage as its commander, but after Portuguese officers asked him to take charge, he obliged. After crossing the ocean, their ships sailed south along the coast of South America from Cape São Roque; it is not known exactly how far they went, but they could have gone as far as Patagonia. On their southern journey, they discovered what is present-day Rio de Janeiro and Rio de Plata. Vespucci returned to Lisbon on July 22, 1502. No longer believing he had just been in Asia, but in a new continent instead, he called it the New World. Scholars at the time also believed he was correct in his assessment.

Many believe he took one more expedition, but it can not be confirmed. On this trip he is thought to have left Portugal with Gonzal Coehlo on June 10, 1503, to head to Brazil. Not much was found on this voyage and it was aborted. There is wide consensus that if he did take this voyage, it was his last. There is no definitive evidence that he went on more voyages.

Vespucci became a citizen of Spain in 1505 and was awarded the office of master navigator of Spain in 1508. With this title he recruited and trained other navigators, examined the licenses of those navigating ships, gathered data on New World exploration, and used this information to prepare an official map of newly discovered lands. He died of malaria on February 22, 1512, while in Seville, Spain.

He did live long enough to see his name reach some lasting significance. In 1507, scholars in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges in northern France, were working on a geography book titled Cosmographiæ Introductio, which included large cutout maps to be used to create globes. One of its authors, Martin Waldseemüler, had the idea to label the new Brazilian section as America, a feminine version of Amerigo, in honor of the first European to discover it. In 1538, mapmaker Gerardus Mercator made a map marking America on both the northern and southern continents of the Western Hemisphere. Although not all of the territory had been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci, it has since had his namesake. It only makes sense that a man that has two continents named after him, and who brought the awareness of new lands to his mother continent, would have a day celebrating him.

How to Observe Amerigo Vespucci Day

Besides actually taking a voyage to new lands, the best way to celebrate the day may be to study maps. The map from the Cosmographiæ Introductio, the first to bear the name America, may be a good place to start. Today may also be a good day to learn about the geography and history of some of the places that Vespucci went to. Learning more about Vespucci and his travels by reading a book is another way to spend the day.

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