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The American Traveller

ISSUE:  Spring 1998

He was known as the American Traveller. He died young and was forgotten. Except for a brief revival of his work in the 1940’s, he remains today off on the margins of literary history. Tourists in Mexico run across his journals now and again, as I did. Usually he survives on the dustier shelves of old bookstores and other unvisited places.

The late literary critic Van Wyck Brooks called John Lloyd Stephens “the greatest of American travel writers.” But his contributions went beyond the creation of several monuments in the worthy genre of travel writing: they infused the scholarly disciplines of anthropology and history as well as the art of literature. They gave birth to the science of American archeology. For it was Stephens, with his partner and friend, the English artist Frederick Catherwood, who raised the jungle curtain that had concealed for centuries the ancient civilization of the Maya.

It is not that Stephens “discovered” the Maya, no more than Balboa discovered the Pacific. But he made a considerable portion of the world aware of the mysterious stone metropolises of Copan, Palenque, Uxmal, Chichen-Itza, and something of the people who built them. He described in vivid language the adventure of their rediscovery, the effort to reclaim them from the forest, an enterprise still underway in the Yucatan, where, it is said, thousands of Maya sites remain yet uncovered. Catherwood illustrated with accuracy and beauty the soaring palaces, pyramids, and temples richly ornamented with the intaglio of an impenetrable hieroglyphic language.

Stephens’ books encouraged a fresh way of thinking about the indigenous people of the Americas. He discredited forever the bigoted idea prevalent during much of his life (1805—1852) that they were incapable of meeting European standards of civilization. The dominant attitude in Europe was articulated by William Robertson, an 18th-century Scottish historian. “Neither the Mexicans nor Peruvians [were] entitled to rank with those nations which merit the name of civilized,” he wrote.

Why would Robertson write such a thing, with his limited experience of the New World? Religious bigotry, perhaps, directed at Spain. Many people in northern Europe were still in thrall to the Black Legend at the time, that generalized campaign of detriment stimulated by rival imperialists in England, France and Holland to denigrate Spain and its people and all positive reports from its dominions.

For North Americans, the expression “Indian Civilization” was a contradiction in terms. Indians lived in tents made of hide. They did not throw up pyramids, pave streets, and sculpt arcane stelae. The lands to the south were not widely known, nor their history understood. Few people in early 19th-century America had ever heard of the Incas or Toltecs or Aztecs. The Maya were a mystery yet to be encountered, and the Olmecs, that pristine civilization that nourished the Mayan culture and left behind the great round heads of gray stone, were even more deeply buried in the canyons of time.

The preferred theory in Europe and North America among educated people was that the ancient cities of Latin America were built by Etruscans or Phoenicians, the Chinese, Vikings, or more commonly the lost tribes of Israel who journeyed to the New World after the Great Flood and transmogrified themselves into red Indians. Fanciful as it was, this theory held sway for the longest time.

John Lloyd Stephens was “a small, wiry, nervous man” with large eyes that gave him the look of someone perpetually startled. He was one of the salient figures of his era, the “Roaring Forties” of the 19th century. When I think of him I recall the words of H.M. Tomlinson: “Everything is inherent in the genesis.” But for contrary reasons: Stephens, it seems, belied that observation. For who could have ever suspected that the life of this man, that began in ordinary middle-class circumstances in 1805 in Shrewsbury, N.J., would flower into such fantastic configurations?

Fused within him were some of the most contradictory impulses: he personified the brusque and sometimes brutal triumphalism of American Manifest Destiny, yet this was ameliorated by a governing humaneness. He anticipated the Victorian romance with the exotic; he was drawn to distant and little-known places.

With all that, he never failed to exhibit practical and entrepreneurial considerations. Business was never far from his mind. Once, while hanging in some peril from a perpendicular wall inside a volcano in Nicaragua, and “impressed with the solitude and extraordinary features of a scene upon which so few human eyes have ever rested,” he mused: “At home this volcano would be a fortune; with a good hotel on top, a rail round to keep children from falling in.”

Stephens, Van Wyck Brooks wrote, “did not believe in the existence of inferior races. He had seen full-blooded African Negroes serving, in perfect equality, as officers in the Greek and Turkish armies.”

This is true; his travel books are full of incidents reflecting his racial sensibility, such as this: “Before I had been an hour in Belize I learned that the great work of practical racial amalgamation, the subject of so much angry controversy at home, had been going on quietly here for generations; that color was considered a mere matter of taste.”

This was an unusual liberality of attitude for the age of slavery. But it was not constant, as several incidents in his books about Egypt and Arabia attest. He had contempt for the Bedouin. And there were lapses in Central America as well.

In a church in Tecpan, Guatemala, Stephens seizes and with his knife scars a stone held sacred by the Indian people. His accomplice, he writes, “feared that the Indians might discover our sacreligious act; and as we looked in their stupid faces, we were well satisfied to get away before any such discovery was made.”

It is not really known when the wanderlust came over Stephens. No one in his family had similar impulses. Perhaps he was infected during a trip across the Illinois prairie with his cousin and a cruise down the Mississippi to New Orleans in 1824. He was 19 at the time. He had only recently graduated from the Tapping Reeve law school in Connecticut and, before that, Columbia College.


Following that journey, and a decade of legal practice and political activism in New York’s Democratic Party, Stephens was advised to go abroad by his doctor as a cure for some unspecified malady. It was a routine prescription at the time for burnt out members of the gentry. He took eagerly to the remedy and sailed for Europe. He went to Russia and Poland, and finally on an adventuresome, occasionally perilous, exploration of Egypt, Arabia and the Holy Land, where he spent much of his time trying to confirm Biblical events.

His accounts of his adventures in these countries were published in magazines and between hard covers in 1837 and 1838. They were signed “By an American.” No name; just that. Even so, they were enough to make Stephens famous. T.E. Lawrence or script writers for the Indiana Jones series could not have improved on his narratives. Two events in particular stand out: his sojourn, sick with fever, at the Aqaba fortress in the southern part of what is now Jordan; then, disguised as a “merchant from Cairo” named Abdel Hassis, complete with turban, scimitar, and pistols, he clandestinely entered the abandoned city of Petra, in modern Jordan, the ancient capital of the Nabateans. Back home Herman Melville, then a boy, saw Stephens at church one day and described him as the “wonderful Arabian traveller.”

Stephens’ interest in Central America was kindled by John Russell Bartlett, who ran a bookstore in New York. Bartlett provided him with a book by John-Frederick Maximillien, Count de Waldeck, a fey character who explored Palenque in 1831, and wrote a not-too-accurate account of it.

After reading it, Stephens and his friend Catherwood, who had moved to New York from London where the two had met, were captivated by the idea. Stephens read more: a narrative by Spanish Army Capt. Antonio del Rio, the first non-Indian to reach Palenque, in Chiapas, then a later account of that city by Guillelmo Dupaix, a captain in the Mexican army. Lorenzo de Zavala, born and raised in Yucatan, wrote about Uxmal, which he had seen, and Col. Juan Galindo published “The Ruins of Copan” in the “Proceedings” of the American Antiquarian Society, in 1835.

Owing to the scant materials available (more complete information was buried in the archives of Spain) not many people realized the cities were out there waiting for someone to come upon them. But some did. Alexander von Humboldt, Europe’s greatest South American traveller, had seen the Toltec ruins in Mexico. He believed remnants of a dead civilization lay far to the south.

Without too much idea what they would find, Stephens and Catherwood decided to go. But where? Copan, in Honduras, was selected, though it was not on any map, as were none of the other sites. Nor was there a road leading to it. Stephens agreed to pay Catherwood’s expenses, and a lump sum at the end of the trip of $1,500. In exchange Stephens would gain control over all of Catherwood’s drawings, which turned out to number in the hundreds.

A few days before their Oct. 3, 1839 departure for Belize on the brig Mary Ann, the U.S. minister for Central America, William Leggett, died in office. Seeing an opportunity, Stephens applied for the job from President Martin Van Buren. Overnight, Stephens was an ambassador, commissioned by the State Department to locate and present himself to the government of the Confederation of Central America. This was not an easy mission. The five-nation confederation was busy tearing itself apart. No one knew who was in charge, or where he maintained his capital: El Salvador? Guatemala? Honduras?

Though virtually consumed by antiquarian dreams and inebriated by the drug of expectant discovery, Stephens was determined to do his duty. Accordingly, he had himself made in a rush a blue ambassadorial coat with gold buttons. It was an impressive garment. It turned out to be just the thing to enable him to effect one of the strangest transactions in history.

Central America was a perilous place at the time. Leggett was not the first minister to die there. Passing through Isabal, in Guatemala, Stephens visited the unmarked grave of another of his predecessors, a Mr. Shannon. He had a fence built around the grave and a coconut palm planted as a marker. His diplomatic duties, his search for the leader of the dissolving Confederation, threw him right into the middle of the war between the anti-clerical liberal forces of Francisco Morazon and the conservative hordes of Rafael Carrera. At one point he and Catherwood were arrested as suspected spies in the village of Comatan, in Guatemala.

“Here we were in the hands of men who would have been turned out of any decent state prison lest they contaminate the other boarders,” Stephens wrote. Eventually they bluffed their way to freedom. Later, Stephens was called upon to surrender the village of Aguachapa to Carrera’s forces—he being the only male with a semblance of “official” status left in the town—only to turn around shortly afterwards and hand it back to the returning Morazan troops. He met and got on well with both men. He obtained a safe passage from each, neither of which was worth much (and in fact might have proved a death warrant if shown to the wrong party); he guided his mules and the rest of his little expedition literally through the war zones, full of Yankee confidence and armed to the teeth all the way.

Stephens had a journalist’s eye for detail. He reports an exquisite punishment meted out to a husband and wife in a Guatemalan village. They had “shocked the moral sense of the community by not living together.” So they were chained together hand and foot and forced to go around like this, but with strong bars between them to keep them out of each other’s reach.

When he visited Merida, he wrote warmly of that city. This was on his second visit to Yucatan. He and Catherwood had brought with them a young doctor and ornithologist named Samuel Cabot, who was more than useful, and not only to Stephens and Catherwood.

While in Merida, Cabot noticed an extremely high incidence of strabismus in the population. This is an affliction that causes a squint and cross-eyedness. Cabot was only 23 but he had learned an operation in Paris to correct it. It involved cutting one of the ocular muscles, a procedure he performed on a number of citizens. Stephens and Catherwood assisted, and as a result they became the most popular trio in Merida: every morning many pairs of squinty eyes were peering at them when they emerged from their quarters. Cabot taught the technique to local doctors before they departed.

Cross-eyedness was particularly common among the ancient Maya. It was even considered an enhancement of nature, and parents of many Mayan aristocrats tried to bring it about by dangling a small feather down the center of their infants’ forehead.

Stephens and Catherwood were welcomed to Belize by the British colonial minister, Col. Archibald MacDonald. Word had gotten out of Stephens’ intention to go to Palenque so MacDonald had dispatched two Army officers there, Patrick Walker and John Herbert Caddy, and thereby set up the sort of “race” British imperialists were fond of. But Stephens and Catherwood were uninterested in races of any kind; they went off to Copan, on a steamer to squalid Isabal, then over the Mico Mountain, the most treacherous and difficult passage the two experienced travellers had ever made. Thus they passed into that “triangle of violent geography, roughly 700 miles long, a land of graceful Spanish cities centuries old, skirted by jungles filled with fierce Indians.”


Stephens first saw his destination, and his destiny, from the other side of the Copan river, behind a tangle of vines, in dappled shade sparkling here and there with orchids: a city inhabited only by monkeys.

He crossed the river and entered. His reaction:

“It is impossible to describe the interest with which I explored these ruins. The ground was entirely new; there were no guidebooks or guides; the whole was a virgin soil. We could not see ten yards before us, and never knew what we should stumble upon next. At one time we stopped to cut away branches and vines, which concealed the face of a monument, and dig around and bring to light a fragment, a sculptured corner of which protruded from the earth. I leaned over with breathless anxiety while the Indians worked, and an eye, an ear, a foot, or a hand was disentombed; and when the machete rang against the chiseled stone, I pushed the Indians away and cleared out the loose earth with my hands. The beauty of the sculpture, the solemn stillness of the woods disturbed only by the scrambling of monkeys and the chattering of parrots, the desolation of the city, and the mystery that hung over it, all created an interest higher, if possible, than I had ever felt among the ruins of the Old World.”

Almost at the outset, Stephens reached his central conclusion:

“The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest once and forever all uncertainty in our minds as to the character of American antiquities and gave us the assurance that the objects we were in search of were not only interesting as the remains of an unknown people, but were works of art as well, proving, like newly discovered records, that the people who once occupied the American continents were not savages.”

Both Stephens and Catherwood, though without the academic knowledge of archeologists, had between them seen most of the paramount monuments of antiquity. They realized the exceptional nature of what lay before them. They knew they were about to reopen the door to an ancient world.

“Who were the people that built this city? In the ruined cities of Egypt, even in the long-lost Petra, the stranger knows the story of the people whose vestiges he finds around him. America, say historians, was peopled by savages; but savages never reared these structures, savages never carved these stones. When we asked the Indians who had made them, their dull answer was “Quien sabe?” (“Who knows?”)”

Stephens then encountered the first obstacle to his plans to clear Copan, survey it, describe it, make accurate drawings of its plazas, pyramids and temples. His name was Don Gregorio, a xenophobic chief of the nearby village who wanted the foreigners out. Aware that Don Gregorio controlled the labor supply in the area, Stephens had no idea how they would carry out his plan. Not until one Jose Maria Acevedo arrived in their camp and announced that he owned the land on which Copan stood. He had the documents to prove it. But he regarded it as useless, unproductive land, cluttered up with idols and broken down stone temples.

With Don Gregorio urging Don Jose Maria to expel the foreigners, and Stephens trying to negotiate access to the ruins, an idea occurred to the American: he would propose to buy the land. Stephens had got it into his head that if he could come into possession of the place, he could float the stelae and carved jaguars down the Rio Copan, all the way to New York. He would establish a museum of American antiquities.

Don Jose was willing to negotiate, but with Don Gregorio pouring apprehensions into his head, he was increasingly reluctant to conclude a deal. In a final gambit Stephens donned his long, blue ambassadorial coat with its gold buttons, stood as tall as he could, and made his offer. Don Jose Maria gave in. The selling price was $50.

Such negotiations became a pattern with Stephens after that. He offered to buy the ruins of nearby Quirigua, and Palenque as well.

Copan was the beginning. Once a city of white and red plazas, and site of the mysterious carved tree-stones, it had grown by the late Classic Period (599 A.D. to 909 A.D.) into one of the most powerful of the Mayan kingdoms. The “Temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairs” remains, according to Mayanist Linda Schele, “one of the premier monuments of the New World and a unique expression of the supernatural path of kings. Inscribed upon this stairway of carved risers is the longest Precolumbian text known in the New World, comprising over twenty-two hundred glyphs.”

Except for a few surviving codexes in Berlin and Madrid, nearly all Mayan documents were destroyed. During the early Colonial period Bishop Diego de Landa, in a fit of religious fervor, had them burned, and thus liquidated 1,600 years of Mayan history, for the Maya of the Classic Period were a literate people. It was an act he was punished for, and which he came greatly to regret. To compensate for it he wrote his own history of his times. And owing to his immense knowledge of the Mayan language, his book, Relation de las Cosas de Yucatan, became the key that helped decipher the glyphs that still adorned the temple walls, the Rosetta Stone that reopened the history of these people.

After Copan, Stephens and Catherwood trekked west to Palenque in Chiapas, up to Uxmal and then to Chichen-Itza. Through the agony of a thousand or more miles of arduous travel, illness and discomfort attending every inch of it, the two men never lost their enthusiasm for what they were about. They remained in Palenque for nearly a month and hardly knew a day without rain.

Palenque stunned Stephens and Catherwood with its heroic dimensions. Abandoned since the 9th century, visited only occasionally during the intervening centuries by the odd explorer, it hung like a pearl on the throat of the Tumbala Mountains.

Unlike Copan, which had been carved in stone, the medium at Palenque was stucco. Catherwood noticed the difference in the style, if not the substance, between the two cities. The carvers of the stelae in Copan had filled the surfaces of the stone, almost compulsively, as if they had an aversion to empty space. In Palenque empty space was integral to the work.

But more importantly, the glyphs—unintelligible as they were to the two men—were clearly similar, and from this Stephens drew his conclusion that all these works were accomplished by the same people, and that their civilizations spanned thousands of square miles.(Actually it encompassed more than 100,000.) Time and again, in Uxmal, Tulum, Chichen-Itza, this conclusion would be reaffirmed.

“What we had before our eyes was grand, curious and remarkable enough. Here were the remains of a cultivated polished and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident of the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished . . . . We lived in the ruined palaces . . .we went to their desolated temples and fallen stairs; and wherever we moved we saw the evidences of their taste, their skill in arts. . . . In the midst of desolation and ruin we looked back to the past, cleared away the gloomy forest, and fancied every building perfect, with its terraces and pyramids, its sculptured and painted ornaments, grand, lofty, and imposing, and overlooking an immense inhabited plain; we called back into life the strange people who gazed at us in sadness from the walls. . . . In the romance of the world’s history nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, over-turned, desolate, and lost. . .without even a name to distinguish it.”


Palenque withheld its secrets for many years. One was buried in the Temple of Inscriptions where Catherwood had set up his easel to copy the carvings on two large tablets. More than a century later, in 1952, Mexican archeologist Albert Ruz Lhullier discovered a stairway below the floor descending into the base of the pyramid. He encountered six Maya skeletons and, behind another tablet, a crypt with a skeleton inside dressed in jade and pearl jewelry. This was the first example found of the Maya use of pyramids as tombs, as done in Egypt.

Before heading north to Merida and the ruins of Uxmal and Chichen-Itza, Stephens followed the same procedure as at Copan and Quirigua: he tried to buy Palenque. The going price for the land that it occupied, with a certain deduction for all the clutter of stone palaces and pyramids, was $1,500. There was another obstacle, however, very unlike that he had met with in Honduras: a foreigner in Mexico could not purchase property unless married to a Mexican. Stephens badly wanted the ruins, and briefly romanced the Bravo sisters, two local beauties. In the end he departed, still single, and left his offer standing in the hands of a nearby American honorary consul.

None of these deals every came to anything, for various reasons: nationalism, politics, the turmoil of the region, the impracticability of removing such heavy artifacts, and Stephens’ own early death at the age of 47. In fact, the successful purchase of Copan was not for perpetuity but for the last three of a 99-year lease then held by the Acevedo family.

When Stephens and Catherwood reached Merida, they were immediately charmed by the place. “The streets were clean, and many people in them well dressed, animated, and cheerful in appearance; caleches [horse carriages] fancifully painted and curtained, having ladies in them handsomely dressed, without hats, and their hair ornamented with flowers, gave it an air of gaiety and beauty.”

Within a few days Stephens headed off the 50 miles to the “fabled ruins of Uxmal,” while Catherwood went to bed, sick with fever. Stephens returned filled with such enthusiasm for what he had seen that he could not keep Catherwood away. The next day, still fever-ridden Catherwood went, was thrilled, and set up his drawing materials. But he collapsed almost immediately, and Stephens decided the expedition was over.

The trip home involved a harrowing journey at sea, but they arrived safely in New York on July 31, 1840. The first volume of “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan” came out in 1841, after which the two men returned to Mexico for further explorations of Uxmal and Chichen-Itza. The second volume, was published in 1843.

These were Stephens’ most successful books. Victor von Hagen, his biographer described this work as “one of the notable books in American literature, not alone for the influence it would exert on American archaelogy; it was to give Americans their first real glimpse of ancient America.”

Before they had finished, Stephens and Catherwood had visited 44 Mayan sites. Stephens discovered one himself, Kabah, near Uxmal. There he found a notable stone arch, and evidence of a road system that joined many of the cities throughout the peninsular jungle, the white roads of crushed limestone, the “sacbe.”

He theorized correctly that these sites were all the product of the same culture, that of the Maya. This hypothesis was the first stone of the edifice of Mayan archeology and anthropology. At Chichen-Itza, which both Stephens and Catherwood declared “the greatest ruined city in the entire Maya realm,” they perceived that the Maya culture had been penetrated and influenced by the Toltecs, who had their capital at Tula, a high city in Central Mexico. These people had arrived at the end of the 10th century, and imposed their own iconology: chiefly the plumed serpent and the strange reclining figure, the chac-mool.

Only in his estimation of the antiquity of the cities was Stephens wrong. He thought they were built by the immediate ancestors of the people who lived there when the Spaniards arrived. He never conceived that the cities were far more than a thousand years old. He did not believe they could have endured that long in the jungle.

Stephens’ book enhanced his already high reputation in America and throughout the European world, and stimulated a widespread enthusiasm for stories, fictional and otherwise, with Hispanic-American themes. It paved the way for the great histories of William Hickling Prescott, The Conquest of Mexico and The Conquest of Peru.

But Stephens’ two volumes were the last he would write. At the end of the second, in a typical 19th-century flourish, he even bade farewell to his readers. He turned his mind to worldly pursuits. By 1847 he was a vice president of the Ocean Steam Navigating Company, which carried the mail between the United States and Europe. In that year he went to Germany to meet the man he held in higher esteem than any other, a traveller perhaps even greater than himself: Alexander von Humboldt.

The two men spent only an hour together, in Potsdam, and discussed among other things ancient ruins and the war between Mexico and the United States. The Prussian generals, Humboldt said, followed the course of the war closely, and were interested in the tactics used by Zachary Taylor. Stephens published an account of the meeting in Living Age Magazine. Humboldt gave him a letter of introduction to several people in Berlin, but Stephens was unable to make use of it. The letter, and the signature on it, Stephens wrote, were enough for him, a “momento of one of my most interesting incidents of travel.”

The final enterprise of Stephens’ life took him back to Central America, this time to Panama as the prime mover behind the first successful attempt to span the Isthmus, the Panama Rail Road Company. He spent two years supervising the laying of track for the trains that would shuttle tens of thousands of gold seekers bound for California and the ore of Sutter’s Mill. For long periods he lived in a hut virtually at the center of the pestilential isthmus. He contracted Chagas Disease. He was found one day in a coma beneath a giant ceiba tree, was put aboard ship and returned to New York, where he died, on Oct. 13, 1852 in his father’s house. He was 47. His death was front page news.

Stephens’ body was removed to the Marble Cemetery in lower Manhattan where for reasons never clearly explained it was put into the wrong tomb, and without proper marking. In effect, his remains were lost for nearly a hundred years. In 1947, just before Victor von Hagen’s book Maya Explorer: John Lloyd Stephens and the Lost Cities came out, the author and a group of admirers of the American Traveller returned to the cemetery, located where Stephens was buried, and had a plaque attached to the grave. It was ornamented by one of the Maya glyphs drawn by Catherwood. It read:

“Beneath this vault lie buried the remains of John Lloyd Stephens/ 1805—1852/Traveller and Author/Pioneer in the Study of the Mayan civilization of Central America. Projector and builder of the Panama Railroad.”


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