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John Lloyd Stephens, Jacksonian Democrat, travel writer and would-be ambassador to Central America, proved that the ancient civilizations of the New World were every bit as impressive as those of Egypt or Greece.

In October 1839, 35-year-old John Lloyd Stephens boarded the British ship Mary Ann in New York and headed for Belize, on the edge of Central America. Stephens did not plan to stay on the edge; the New Jersey native was intent on making his way into the inner—and long lost—worlds of Guatemala and Mexico.

Though not a household name today, Stephens is deemed the “Father of Mayan Studies” in the archaeological world. He was a gifted writer, as celebrated in his day as his contemporaries Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. Stephens was also a lawyer and pro-Jackson Democrat deeply involved in party politics in the early 1830s. But preaching from one-too-many stumps the glories of Old Hickory’s policies got the better of him. A severe throat infection forced Stephens to bed, and his doctor prescribed a journey abroad as a cure.

Stephens first made his way to the Old World. He wrote about his travels, and his books about Egypt and Greece were best sellers. Poe praised them, calling Stephens the finest travel writer of their time. The books made him money, enough to plan another trip, this time to Central America. A bookseller had shown Stephens the newly published Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la province d’Yucatan by Jean-Frédéric Waldeck. It was a great read, though highly inaccurate. Yet the book showed that America had its own ancient monuments that, Stephens hoped, would rival those of Greece and Egypt.

Shortly before Stephens’ departure, William Leggett, the U.S. minister to the Republic of Central America, died. Stephens wrote to President Martin Van Buren and was appointed as Leggett’s replacement. He didn’t do it for the money; he thought the diplomatic passport and official uniform of an American minister would gain the respect of the locals and get him quicker access to the ancient Mayan cities.

Still, Stephens was now working for the president of the United States, so before heading to any ruins, he headed in search of a government. His official charge was to close down the residence of the U.S. ministry in the Federal Republic of Central America, which had collapsed into civil war as the states of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica sought their independence. For weeks he walked around Guatemala and El Salvador, flashing his passport to whoever stopped him: illiterate soldiers, inebriated captains, angry colonels. However, no one had time to worry over a “gringo’s” concerns about finding a seat of government. His passport was useless; Stephens usually yelled his way through road stops (one time this ruse landed him in jail for a night). The official minister’s uniform stayed in his luggage; he never had occasion to put it on.

To show the world his discoveries, Stephens needed someone who could draw. And no one drew like Frederick Catherwood. Born in London in 1799, the artist brushed shoulders with the best of the 19th century, enjoying friendships with John Keats, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. Yet Catherwood struggled financially all his life, and he’s been lost in the history books, a vague figure of his time. When he died in a shipwreck in 1854, his name did not even make the list of the dead.

Catherwood was a trained architect who first explored and drew the uncovered civilizations of Rome, Greece and Egypt. Stephens had made his way through Egypt with a map drawn by Catherwood, and was much impressed by his work. They met briefly in London and, after Stephens’ first travel book was released, they met again in New York at an exhibit of Catherwood’s drawings.

When Stephens broached the artist with the idea of traveling to the Yucatán, it took little persuading. Then Stephens, ever the lawyer, drew up the papers: The contract stipulated that Catherwood would go with Stephens to Central America, and make sketches of whatever Stephens wanted him to draw. Catherwood could not publish any account of the journey, thus no royalties were shared. Finally, Stephens had exclusive rights to his drawings. Catherwood received an advance of $200 drawn from a final payment of $1,500 ($25 a week was to be paid to his family in New York).

Catherwood was an artist, not a businessman. He agreed to all the points in the contract.

By Stephens’ accounts, they traveled well together in Central America. Stephens speaks highly of Catherwood’s work ethic, drawing for hours before a stele or temple. Catherwood must have been a patient artist: To see the meticulous details of his drawings, you’d think he had wrought them in a comfortable New York studio, a cup of coffee to one side. Far from it.

Catherwood worked under jungle canopies that let in no light. The air of northern Guatemala thickens with mosquitoes, gnats and humidity. Sit in one place too long and you have to scrape the spread of ticks off your arms and neck before they latch their hooks into you. Garrapatas, black ants each the size of a thumbnail, walk in packs of a hundred thousand, covering a stretch of jungle floor like carpeting. And the heat—a heat beyond any human understanding. It was in this world that Catherwood drew, sometimes crouched in a foot of mud and wearing thick gloves for protection.

While the British artist drew, Stephens meandered about the ruins and took notes in his journal. “In our daily walks we often stopped to gaze at [a stele], and the more we gazed the more it grew upon us.” Stephens “drew” with words what Catherwood evoked in images. “At a distance of two hundred feet stands the stele…it is eleven feet eight inches high…we supposed it to be the figure of a woman.” Here Stephens begins his work as an archaeologist: He’s measured the giant statue. He’s studied it. He’s made small suppositions. And he’s not shot at it with his revolver.

Which was not the case in Egypt just a few years before. With surprising candor, the American writer recounts a day he target-practiced on a statue of Isis: A pigeon sat on Isis’ head. Stephens shot the pigeon and shattered the goddess’ left eye. That same day at the Temple of Dendera he chiseled away at an ancient stone hawk. In a few minutes he had, according to his own confession, “demolished the work of a year.”

Yet it is this candor that makes his travel books come alive, still today for the modern reader. Rather than speaking of the foreign worlds in an objective, omniscient manner, Stephens is a character in his books. His flaws make him real. Now, in Mayan country, he is not shooting ancient statues. He is absorbing them, taking meticulous notes, developing the notes at night by firelight. He’s looking at Catherwood’s drawings, while Mr. C. (as Stephens nicknamed him) lies in a tent and tears at his skin and aches for sleep.

Stephens published Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan and 1843. The Central American books meander. They take the reader through Belize, Guatemala, El Incidents of Travel in Yucatan in two volumes in 1841 in two volumes in Salvador, Nicaragua and back to Guatemala. They are the writings of a dandy, a fellow stumbling through others’ cultures. The Yucatán books are more focused, serious and have as their goal a profound desire to understand Mayan culture.

Stephens is an example of the literary “unreliable narrator.” He shares things about himself that he does not realize he has revealed. When a black priest refuses him hospitality, Stephens writes, “I felt a strong impulse to lay the butt of a pistol over his head.” When it comes to the indigenous people, the reader recalls that Stephens was pro-Jackson as his insults fly off the page: They are “fanatic Indians” who look at him with “stupid faces.”

Yet it was this same man who first challenged the commonly accepted belief that the ruins of Central America were similar to the pyramids of ancient Egypt because the Quichés, the oldest people of Guatemala, had descended long ago from one of the lost tribes of Israel. Stephens finds this theory tepid. He had studied the pyramids of Egypt, built by the Hebrew slaves. They were nothing like the ruins before him now.

Though open-minded about the ancient past, he’s not so kind to the living Mayans around him. “So little impression did any of our attendants make upon me, that I have entirely forgotten every one of them. Indeed, this was the case throughout the journey…here the people had no character, and nothing in which we took any interest except their backs.”

Yet halfway through the second volume, one detects a change in Stephens’ voice. He’s seen local priests riding on Indians’ backs: One overweight curate climbs a chair that the Indian straps to his shoulders, chest and forehead with bark rope. While the boy lugs him about, the priest eats fruit, spitting the mango peels down from on high. When Stephens tries it during a steep ascent, he admits: “We felt a sense of degradation at being carried on a man’s shoulders….To feel [an Indian] trembling under one’s own body, hear his hard breathing, see the sweat rolling down him…made this a mode of travelling which nothing but constitutional laziness and insensibility could endure.”

By this time Stephens and Catherwood have traveled through a bloody civil war. The writer has suffered dysentery during half his stay. He’s lost luggage to robberies and donkeys to cliffs. Then they find the ruins of Palenque, near present-day Chiapas, Mexico. Stephens has come across one of the most significant Mayan sites known to modern man. The jungle opens, and there stand the temples. Giant edifices, as large as what he had seen in Egypt, but too many differences separate these from the stones near the Nile. He studies the stones, making few, if any, presumptions: “A fertile imagination might find many explanations for these strange figures, but no satisfactory interpretation presents itself to my mind.”

There are hieroglyphs, entire walls chiseled most carefully. Jaguar faces. Lines and dots in an obvious pattern—numbers, a language? There are murals of men and women, perhaps conversing, sometimes undoubtedly killing. Some images appear to be blood rites, which Stephens has read about in old books written by Spanish priests. While walking around the stele and temples and facades, he keeps the Israel-Maya theory in his head, but he is slowly, carefully, dismantling it, for he knows these faces on the stone walls. They still live in this jungle. He’s slept in their huts. And their heritage is worth remembering:

Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished, entirely unknown….Wherever we moved we saw the evidences of their taste, their skill in the arts, their wealth and power….Nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate, and lost; discovered by accident, overgrown with trees for miles around, and without even a name to distinguish it. Apart from everything else, it was a mourning witness to the world’s mutations.

In the end of the first collection, Stephens states clearly his theory: The builders of the ruins “did not come from the far-off lands, but they are, like the plants and fruit of the soil, indigenous.” Later, in the Yucatán collection, he will write that the ruins were made by “the same great race which, changed, miserable, and degraded, still clings around their ruins.”

Stephens has, in a limited manner, become an advocate. A bit of the Jacksonian temperament has sloughed away. No longer are the Indians a block of “stupid faces”; he now sees them as individuals. And he has become more humble: A little Mayan boy builds him and Catherwood a roaring fire from a tuft of cotton. Stephens had tried to start the fire with gunpowder, which shot the wood all through the cave. He watches in one village as a father leaves his home to work in a milpa—a cornfield—many days’ travel away, how the family mourns his leaving for a fortnight, how the father weeps.

And Stephens attends their funerals. Something that, as an outsider, he certainly didn’t need to do. Yet attending the burial of the dead brings him a bit closer to the Mayans’ lives.

The Indians passed ropes under the body; the husband himself supported the head, and so it was lowered into the grave. The figure was tall, and the face was that of a woman about twenty three or twenty four years old. The expression was painful, indicating that in the final struggle the spirit had been reluctant to leave its mortal tenement….The husband brushed a handful of earth over the face; the Indians filled up the grave, and all went away. No romance hangs over such a burial scene, but it was not unnatural to follow in imagination the widowed Indian to his desolate hut.

Many of the funerals are for children, where a jester—more like a stand-up comic—entertains the adults throughout the night. The communal laughter rises around the body on the table. They explain to Stephens that a child has no sins, so he goes directly to God. Thus they celebrate. “All this may seem unfeeling, but we must not judge others by rules known only to ourselves.” This is far from the “stupid” Indian comment of before; Stephens has taken a step into anthropology.

Stephens and Catherwood were on their second trip to the Yucatán when they learned of apprehensions of war between the United States and England over territory in the Pacific Northwest. Texas and the whole valley of the Mississippi were in arms to carry an expansionist war to Mexico. Difficult news from the States, but after charting 44 ancient Mayan cities, Stephens was ready to return home.

He brought the Mayan world back with him in his journals and made it come alive for generations of readers. While Stephens was not the first explorer to marvel at the ruins whose secrets had been so well guarded by the tropical jungle, his insightful narratives and Catherwood’s remarkable illustrations for the first time put the ancient civilizations of the New World on par with those of the Old World.

Always enterprising, in 1847 Stephens became the vice president and director of the Ocean Steam Navigation Company, which established a route between New York and Bremen, Germany. He then directed the Panama Railway Company, which laid track across the Isthmus of Panama and blazed the trail for the Panama Canal. His return to Central America aggravated the malaria he had contracted during his first trip there, forcing Stephens to go back home to New York where he died in 1852 at the age of 47.

Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science, and Art remembered that Stephens

used laughingly to say that he travelled over all Guatemala looking for the government to which he was accredited, and which he never could find; while his journeyings enabled him to discover something which would probably prove more interesting to his countrymen than any diplomatic correspondence. And it was more interesting, not merely to his countrymen, but to the learned of Europe also. His travels in Central America and Yucatan are unquestionably the richest contribution ever made by any one man to the subject of American Antiquities.

He left behind four volumes of some of the finest writing to come out of 19th-century American literature. Popular in their day, and making Stephens a celebrity of his time, they are mostly forgotten now, lucky to be found in used bookstores and antiquary shops. Yet to read his writings today is to enter that old jungle with new eyes, as though we were walking into it for the first time.


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here