Map Quest

A journey through Alsace-Lorraine to the town that gave America its name
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Slideshow: "Images from Alsace-Lorraine"

A journey through picturesque villages to a surreal America in the heart of France.

For that eccentric breed of human being known as the antique-map enthusiast, the town of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges is sacred ground. Situated in the Vosges mountains of Lorraine, in northeast France, the town spreads out along the banks of a swift and muddy little river called the Meurthe. Gentle forest-cloaked hills rim the town, creating a natural basin that practically invites fog to settle in and stay awhile. The setting feels isolated, in a cozy sort of way, but in fact Saint-Dié is only a short drive from three of the most important cities of the Rhine Valley. To the northeast is Strasbourg, France, the capital of the neighboring province of Alsace; to the east is Freiburg, a German university town at the edge of the Black Forest; and to the southeast is Basel, in northern Switzerland.

Click the detail above to see the entire Waldseemüller map

Saint-Dié’s claim to fame is a memorable one: 500 years ago, after reading about the transatlantic explorations of the Florentine merchant Amerigo Vespucci, a small group of scholars in Saint-Dié coined the name America and put it on a giant world map known today as the Waldseemüller map of 1507 (named for the group’s chief mapmaker, Martin Waldseemüller). Surviving in the form of a single printed copy, it’s a remarkable document, and not just because of the name America. Drawn fifteen years after Christopher Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic, the map departed from the prevailing idea, based on Columbus’s own beliefs, that the lands being explored were some yet-to-be-determined part of Asia. Instead, it showed the New World as a giant, entirely new landmass surrounded by water—and, tantalizingly, it did so years before any European is known to have laid eyes on the Pacific.

Was this a spectacularly good guess, or did the Saint-Dié scholars have access to information about now-forgotten early explorations of South America? It’s impossible to say. All we know is that their sponsor, Duke René II of Lorraine, somehow got his hands on at least one nautical chart of the Atlantic and passed it along to his mapmakers, who incorporated information not only about the New World but also about the very recent Portuguese ocean voyages around Africa to India. As a result, the Waldseemüller map became the first to depict the contours of the Earth’s continents and oceans largely as we know them today. The mapmakers also produced a miniature version—a series of little paper strips designed to be cut out and pasted together onto a ball, in effect creating the first mass-produced globe ever made—and a geographical treatise called the Cosmographiaeintroductio, which explained the choice of the name America. Thanks in large part to Saint-Dié’s proximity to Strasbourg, a major center of Europe’s nascent printing industry, the Cosmographiae quickly went through several printings and became a best seller, and reportedly a thousand copies of the wall map itself were also printed. The timing was impeccable: the New World needed a name, and the Saint-Dié scholars, aided by the new powers of the printing press, gave it one, to the dismay of those who felt Columbus deserved the honor.

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Saint-Dié is very proud of its history, so much so that it has taken to puffing out its chest and referring to itself as “the birthplace of America” and even the “World Capital of Geography.” To support those claims, it hosts an international geography festival each year at the end of September. I had been interested in the map since the Library of Congress acquired the sole extant copy, in 2003, for $10 million, and when I got word that the 2006 festival was going to launch a yearlong celebration of “the 500 years of the baptism of America,” I booked a flight.

When I finally saw a program of events, made available only shortly before I was due to depart, my heart sank. The festival bore the title “Geographers Rediscover the Americas,” and the program featured talks and discussions with such titles as “People and States: The Impossible Equation?” “Urban Dynamics in Guyana,” and “Snow in the Vosgian Massif, Past and Future.” To make the best of things, I decided to explore the area around Saint-Dié, which I knew to be a wonderful place to visit. As for the festival itself, I consoled myself by planning to attend the session titled “Do Americans Eat So Badly?”

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