The Mythical Norembega

From 1548 to 1614, cartographers often named the New England area ‘Norembega.’ The etymology of that place-name has been much debated. At first it was spelled ‘Nuremberg.’

Europeans(1) began charting today’s New England after Giovanni Verrazzano surveyed the coast for the French. Genoese cartographer Vesconte de Maiollo [aka Maggiolo] drafted the following map in 1527.

Vesconte de Maiollo [Maggiolo], World Map, 1527.(2) [We have inserted the red labels.]

We have already seen the world map by Girolamo Verrazzano drafted two years later in 1529.

Girolamo Verrazzano, Mappa Mundi, 1529.(3)

Here is a detail of the east coast of today’s United States between ‘Terra Florida’ and ‘Terra Labrador.’ We have added the red labels.

A few things to note:

  1. Girolamo drew ‘Terra Nova’ [Newfoundland] as part of the mainland instead of as an island.
  2. Long Island is missing.

Some cartographers still confused the east coast of North America with the east coast of Asia, as illustrated on Oronce Finé’s map drawn two years after that.

Oronce Finé’s chart of the North and South Pole, Paris, 1531.(4)

Things to note:

  1. Finé drew ‘Baccaleas’ [Newfoundland] and ‘Terra Florida’ on the same continent as ‘Manji’ and ‘Catay’ [Marco Polo’s names for south and north China.]
  2. He labeled the coast between them ‘Terra Francia Nuya Indiya’
  3. He drew the North Pole in the manner described in Inventio Fortunata.

Nuremberg first appeared thirteen years later, in 1548, on a map titled Tierra Nveva by Venetian cartographer Giacomo Gastaldi (c1500-1566).(5) This chart shows the coast between ‘La Florida’ and ‘Tierra del Laborador’ with ‘Tierra de Nuremberg’ and ‘Tierra del Bacaloas’ in between.

Giacomo Gastaldi, Tierra Nueve, 1548. Copperplate print.(6) Printed from copper plates in his edition of La Geographia di Claudio Ptolemao Alessandrino – one of the first books to revise Ptolemy’s maps to include the newly found Americas

Things to note:

The Origin of ‘Norembega’

The most likely explanation for the origin of the place-name ‘Nuremberg’ is that John Cabot used it to name one of the islands he found in honor of Martin Behaim of Nuremberg. Like on Gastaldi’s map, the following maps show ‘Nurumberg/Norembega’ located close to ‘Tierra de Baccaloas’ and ‘Tierra de Lábrádor.’ That was the area explored between 1492 and 1503 by John Cabot, William Weston, the Corte-Real brothers, and João Fernandes de Lábrádor. The latter two explorers hailed from Terceira Island in the Azores. In Crossing the Ocean Sea, we outlined historian Douglas Hunter’s explanation for how Martin Behaim was connected to Cabot and the Terceiran explorers. Hunter believes that Martin Behaim helped fund Cabot’s expedition and accompanied him on the voyage. While attending King Henry VII’s court, Cabot was quoted as saying that he would name an island after Behaim to thank him.

Or maybe one of the English or Portuguese explorers named a place after the Bavarian city because Nuremberg was very important at the time. In the 1470s, the ‘Free City’ of Nuremberg in Franconia, was central to the Holy Roman Empire as a seat of learning, publication, commerce, and art. For that reason, the famous scientist known as Regiomontanus (1436-1476) [after whom the crater on the moon is named] moved there in 1471. Because of him, Nuremberg also became a center for astrological and mathematical studies. In 1485, Martin Behaim (1459-1507) employed what he had learned from Regiomontanus to, with the help of Abraham Zacuto, improve the astrolabe so that it functioned south of the equator. In 1492, the city of Nuremberg hired Behaim to construct a terrestrial globe, which became famous throughout Europe. [Douglas Hunter asserts that John Cabot used that globe to show King Henry his route to the ‘new found lland.’]

Fifty years later, Nuremberg was the center of the German Renaissance. The Lutheran’s Peace of Nuremberg was signed there in 1532. However, by that time, the Portuguese presence in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edwards island had diminished. They were focused on Brazil. Meanwhile, the English, Spanish, French, Basque, Venetians, and Genoese came up with their own spellings for ‘Nuremberg.’

Even the Germans added an ‘a’ to the end of the place-name. This illustration of the city from the Nuremberg Chronicles, published in 1493 by a friend of Martin Behaim, spells the city-name ‘Nuremberga.’

Woodcut of Nuremberga from the Nuremberg Chronicles by Michel Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, 1493.(8)

In 1556, eight years after Gastaldi produced his chart, an older cartographer named Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485-1557) drew a map of the same area. He labeled the coast of today’s Maine ‘Terra de Nurumbega’. Ramusio was a geographer and travel writer from Treviso in the Republic of Venice. The book in which he inserted this map, Terzo Volvme delle Navigationi et Viaggi [Third Volume of Navigation and Voyages] featured first-hand experiences of the adventures of Marco Polo [in China], Magellan’s crew [circumnavigating the globe], and Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca [exploring Florida and America’s Southwest]. This book set the stage for Richard Hakluyt’s Discoveries and Samuel Purchas’ Purchas His Pilgrims.

Giovanni Battista Ramusio, La Nvova Francia, 1556. Woodcut block print(9).(10)

Some features to note:

In the article on Richard Grenville, we showed you this map drawn by Paulo Forlani of Venice in 1565. He also claimed New England for France. Forlani named the area southwest of L’Arcadia ‘Norumbega.’

North America by Paulo Forlani, Italy, 1565.(11)

Here is a close-up of the coast from Labrador to Florida.

Gerard Mercator used the spelling ‘Norombega’ on his world map of 1569.(12)

Abraham Ortelius spelled the name ‘Norabega’ on his world map in 1572.

In 1582, after the adventures of  Martin Frobisher and Humphrey Gilbert that we are about to tell you about, their associate Michael Lok charted the North Atlantic. [We have traced the original drawing because it is too difficult to decipher.] Lok placed ‘Norembega’ on the island of Newfoundland, where the port of St. John was located. He credited its discovery to John Cabot in 1497. As usual, ‘Norembega’ is located close to ‘Corte Real’ and ‘Cape Labrador.’ This supports the theory that John Cabot came up with the name Norembega.

By the way, Michael Lok, a lead scientist for Queen Elizabeth, knew nothing about the terrain between Newfoundland and Florida. He thought the sea Giovanni Verrazzano had discovered was the Mar del Sur [Pacific Ocean].

Our favorite map of ‘Norumbega’ was drawn by Cornelius Wytfliet in 1597 titled Norvmbega and Virginia. Wytfliet (1555-1597) was a Flemish cartographer. He created one of the first atlases devoted solely to the New World, incorporating information from Ramusio’s map above and from Richard Hakluyt. He drew this map sixteen years after the English seaman David Ingram testified that he visited the city of ‘Bega’ on his trek from Florida to Nova Scotia.

Cornelius van Wytfliet, Atlantic States, North America, 1597.(13)

David Ingram testified that the “city of Bega was three-quarters of a mile long and had many streets wider than those of London. Some houses had massive pillars of crystal and silver.” Over the following decade, the myth of Norembega grew. By the time Wytfliet drew his chart, legend claimed that the magnificent kingdom had its capital city on the banks of a river, and that the city was more beautiful than any city in Europe – a treasure-land of crystal, pearls, gold, and silver. It was said her rich brown soil sprouted seed in four days. Fist-sized gold nuggets lay on the ground.

Wytfliet drew the crystal city at the confluence of two rivers just as Gerard Mercator had placed ‘Norombega.’ Notice how Wytfliet spelled the name of the city ‘Norombega,’ whereas he named the kingdom ‘Norumbega.’

The last example is credited to both Girolamo Ruscelli and Giacomo Gastaldi. It was published in 1598. They used the term ‘Nurumberg,’ which brings us full circle back to the name of the Bavarian city.

Girolamo Ruscelli and Giacomo Gastaldi, Tierra Nveva, 1598.(14)

Even though this chart was made fifty years after the first chart by Gastaldi [shown above], it is essentially the same with some additions:

After Captain John Smith gave ‘New England’ its name in 1614, and the Massachusetts Bay Company received its royal charter for land on the Charles River in 1630, Willem Blaeu, in 1635, named today’s Maine ‘Normubega.’

Like Mercator and Gastaldi, Blaeu placed ‘Normubega’ at the confluence of two rivers. If we compare Blaeu’s map to a contemporary map from Google, ‘Normubega’ lies above the large dent in the coastline, which is the mouth of the Penobscot River.

Or, ‘Norumbega’ is the Algonquin Indian interpretation of ‘Norvega,’ which meant ‘Norway.’ At least one historian, Eben Norton Horsford, believed that the Algonquin Indians came up with the name ‘Norumbega’ when referring to the place where the Norse Vikings built a fort on the banks of the Charles River over a thousand years ago. In 1889, Horsford, who had been studying the possibility of a Viking presence in Massachusetts, built a tower on the spot where he thought the fort had been. Norumbega Tower rises 38 feet in a nice little park in Weston at the confluence of the Stony Brook and Charles Rivers. It is composed of mortared field stones with a spiral stone staircase. At its side Horsford installed a brass plaque detailing how the Icelandic Sagas describe the Norsemen visiting ‘Vinland,’ which he believed to be Massachusetts. [See this story in Crossing the Ocean Sea.]

 A photo of Norembega Tower taken July 26, 2011, posted on Flickr by Jewishfan From Boston.

Some of you who live in Massachusetts might know about Norumbega Park in Newton, just west of Boston. It was a very popular amusement park before World War II. According to the Norumbega Park web site, “The park’s name was taken from Norumbega Tower.”

Location of Weston and Norumbega Park. [©2016 GoogleMaps]

Next article: England Prepares for an Arctic Expedition


  1. It appears the Chinese had already surveyed the New England coast in 1421. Arab cartographer Piri Reis drew a much more accurate world map in 1516.
  2. Image source: The web site is run by Jim Siebold. For more information, he has written a comprehensive ‘monograph’ about this map, Ref. No. 340. For a higher resolution image, contact
  3. Verrazzano, Girolamo. Mappa Mundi, held in the Vatican Library, 1529. Image source: Paullin, Charles; Wright, John (ed). Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institute, 1932. The Verrazzano Map: pl. 13. Image source:
  4. Finé, Oronce. Maps of the North and South Poles, Paris, 1531. {{PD-Old}} Public domain for USA and France. Image source:, and
  5. The characters “U” and “V” were interchangeable, i.e. Nveva was also Nueva.
  6. Gastaldi, Giacomo. Terra Nueve, Venice, 1548. {{PD-1890/it}} Public domain in both USA and Italy. Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc. []
  7. According to Wikipedia: “‘Arcadia’ derives from the Arcadia district in Greece which, since Classical antiquity, had the extended meanings of “refuge” or “idyllic place.” The Dictionary of Canadian Biography says: “Arcadia, the name Verrazzano gave to Maryland or Virginia ‘on account of the beauty of the trees,’ made its first cartographical appearance in the 1548 Gastaldo map and is the only name on that map to survive in Canadian usage.”
  8. Woodcut of Nuremberga from the Nuremberg Chronicles by Michel Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, 1493. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Image source:
  9. The illustration was hand carved in a block of wood using small knives and chisels. When it prints, the image on the paper is reversed from the image on the block, like a mirror.
  10. Ramusio, Giovanni Battista. La Nuova Francia, 1556/1565. {{PD-1890/it}} Public domain in both USA and Italy. Image source:
  11. Map by Paolo Forlani, published 1565. Republished 1566 by Venetian Bolognino Zaltieri who purchased plates from Forlani. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Image source: High resolution available at Birmingham Public Library, Birmingham, Alabama. []
  12. Source: Wikimedia. Basel copy of the 1569 world map photographed by Wilhelm Krucken. He holds the copyright for the high definition photographs but he permits use of these medium resolution scans. 12 March 2012, Mercator 1569 world map sheet 09 of 18. Image source:
  13. Cornelius van Wytfliet. (1555-1597) Atlantic States, North America, 1597. Print held in Boston Public Library. Image Source:
  14. Ruscelli, Girolamo and Gastaldi, Giacomo. Tierra Nueva, appears in Ruscelli's edition of Ptolemy’s Geografia di Claudio Tolomeo Alessandrino, 1598. Accession no: OS-1598-6. Barcode no: 342.0001. Permanent URI: [] “Descrittione dell'America Libro Quatro 128.” To obtain hi-resolution image: