German makeover

A chapter in which Ross attempts to uncover, beneath a crust of Anglo-Saxon-dominated “myth-making”, the German contribution to America’s history. In tracing personalities and anonymous people for their importance to the continent’s exploration and development he uses the term German retroactively.

The way Ross introduces the first personalities, cartographer Martin Waldseemüller (1470-1520) and cartographer-cum-instrument maker Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), is typical. The former is credited with the first recorded use of the designation America, for today’s South America, on his 1507 map Universalis Cosmographia; the latter applied the name in his 1569 world map also to the northern part of the continent. Freiburg-born, German-speaking Waldseemüller may well have considered himself a Swabian; or, after he moved to work at Saint-Diéy (today’s Saint-Dié-des-Vosges), the place where his map was published, a Lorrain. Mercator, on the other hand, was born near Antwerp, in what was then the Netherlands, as Gerard de Kremer, or de Cremer; only from 1552 onwards did he live in Duisburg, in the Duchy of Cleve, in whose duke he found a patron for his map of the world. In writing this history, then, Ross has it both ways: as long as a person remained within the Holy Roman Empire’s territories he considered him ‘German’ either when that person left or moved to ‘Germany’.

For Ross writing an American history from a German point of view was an untiring task of identifying and subsequently appropriating personalities and their significance for America’s history (elsewhere in the book he even suggested that such American icons as Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln were of German descent, yet had the good sense not to press the point). But throughout his historical overview he avoids to raise the question, let alone provide an answer, to what extent these people regarded themselves, and their contemporaries them, as German—which they weren’t to begin with—and identify them with more specific geographical designations, e.g. Swabian, Bohemian, Hessian, etc., not to mention Dutch, French, even American.  

Anonymous persons, too, were given a German makeover. Somewhat vexed Ross noted that the British settlers of Jamestown, in 1607, not only took Waldseemüller’s designation “America” for only a small part of an entire continent, but also claimed it in the name of England, while only half its settlers were British; many of them, he suggested, were Germans. Here, however, his history is particularly low on facts. Firstly, the English attempts at colonization off the American mid-Atlantic coast as well as the first permanent settlements along the James River were actually all referred to as Virginia, while the Jamestown enterprise was overseen by the “Counsell of Virginia”. As both settlements and council were named in honor of British Queen Elizabeth I, one would have thought that Ross might have found this designation even more appropriative than “America”.1 Secondly, Ross’s sense of the proportion of its ‘German’ population is in all  probability exaggerated; academic and popular sources of recent date mention only a handful of German craftsmen in Jamestown.2

Nico de Klerk

Colin Ross. Der deutsche Name Amerika. In: Unser Amerika. Der deutsche Anteil an den Vereinigten Staaten. 1. Aufl. Leizpig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1936; 28-33.

Topic: Auslandsdeutsche
Case: American journeys


1 James Horn. A land as God made it: Jamestown and the birth of America. New York: Basic Books; 2005; 132, 37. See also various contemporary texts collected in: James Horn editor. Captain John Smith: writings with other narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the first English settlement of America. New York: Library of America; 2007.


2 Renate Ludanyi. German in the USA. In: Kim Potowski editor. Language diversity in the USA. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2010; 146. Horn. 2005; 40-41—the latter source mentions “four Germans” who actually undermined the settlement’s survival through betrayal to Indians; see pp. 123-124, 128-130, 151. Gary C. Grassl. First Germans at Jamestown. In: German Corner. [n.p.]: Davitt Publications; 2000;  [accessed 2017 January 20],

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