This article is from the November 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
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John Lloyd Stevens, Traveler Extraordinaire

by Maryanne Wilson

Maryanne Wilson is a dedicated Mexicophile, spending as much time as possible exploring and seeking out the places and people which make Mexico so special. Maryanne is a collector of Mexican folk art and also enjoys reading contemporary Mexican literature.

In a time-worn cemetery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan you will find the final resting place of John Lloyd Stevens. A bronze plaque on the gate of the cemetery identifies him simply as "the archaeologist." No doubt casual passers-by would have no idea who Stephens was or what he accomplished in the field of Mayan archaeology. I initially came across the name of John Lloyd Stevens several years ago on my first visit to Chicen Itza. My friends and I overnighted at the site (we stayed at the Villa Archaeolgica) and attended the son et lumiere display one evening.

My interest was immediately piqued, and I set off on a voyage of discovery. On returning home, I read all of Stephens’ published books, biographies of him, and books written by others about his travels. My expedition began at the New York Historical Society, where I researched everything in the collection about or by Stephens. Simply handling this material was tremendously exciting for me. I also visited the Old Marble Cemetery where I had to bribe the caretaker to let me in to pay my respects and to take a few pictures. I then immersed myself in his life and writings about incredible adventures in the land of the Maya.

First, let me give you just a bit of background on Stephens. He was born in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, in 1805, was brought up in Greenwich Village (not Boston), attended Columbia College, and then went on to law school in Connecticut, graduating in the class of 1823. Those are the bare, dry facts. It is only as you get to know the man through his writings that you come to appreciate his soaring intellect, restlessness, unfulfilled spirit of adventure and wicked sense of humor.

After finishing his education, and not really feeling a call for law, Stephens decided to do a little traveling. In September of 1824 he set off with his cousin on a first grand tour — to visit his aunt in Carmi in Illinois Territory. As many of you know, once the travel bug bites, there is no cure. That first taste of adventure, combined with his doctor’s orders to take a sea voyage (to assist in recovery from a persistent throat infection), led to two extended trips abroad (1835 and 1836) to Europe, Greece, Russia, Turkey, Italy, Jerusalem and Arabia Petraea. His letters home were published in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine, which earned him fame as a noted traveler and author. He later published two books on his travels to those distant places. His first book was reviewed by none other than the then-unknown Edgar Allen Poe.

During his travels, Stephens began to hear tales which sounded too fantastic to be true — of great stone cities lost in the jungles and forests of Central America — of palaces and pyramids, of temples and terraces. He was given books and other writings by notable figures of earlier times — archaeologists, priests, missionaries and soldiers of the Spanish crown. They wrote of virtually inaccessible cities of stone lying in ruin — desolate, forgotten and ignored by all. It is interesting to note that, at the time, the considered opinion of scholars was that these lost cities had been built and inhabited by the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Stephens’ research led him to contemplate a journey to these legendary places. It was fortuitous that living in New York City was Frederick Catherwood, the noted British artist, architect and illustrator, whom he had met in London. He made an offer to Catherwood to accompany him on a journey of exploration to these legendary lost cities of Central America. Catherwood agreed immediately. Stephens, through his political ties and fame as an explorer, applied successfully to President Martin van Buren to be appointed Minister to Central America. This title offered Stephens and Catherwood welcome and safe passage in those unknown climes.

At seven o’clock in the morning of the third of October, 1839, Stephens and Catherwood sailed for Belize on the British brig, MaryAnn. They arrived one month later. Traveling by horse and mule, with Indian laborers clearing the way with machetes, they reached Copan in Honduras. Their very first sight was of half-buried fragments and columns sculpted in bold relief. Stephens declared that these "...works of art...prove that the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages." They spent some time at Copan...measuring, tracing designs, with Catherwood making drawings of all they saw around them. In early December, 1839, their travels took them to Guatemala City, and then on to Tikal and other then-unknown ruins in the area.

At last, at the end of April, 1840, Stephens and Calderwood arrived in Mexico. They had once again hacked their way through overgrown jungles, and then with horses and mules in tow, forged the Rio Lagertero across to Chiapas. They camped on the banks of the river, and on the first of May started the four-day journey to the village of Palenque, stopping at various haciendas en route. The heat was oppressive, and once more, they had to chop their way through woods of impenetrable overgrowth. Their mules could barely clamber up and down, and they were forced to "...disencumber ourselves of sword, spurs, and all useless trappings." At a certain point, they had to be carried on the backs of their Indian laborers in chairs made on the spot of branches and leaves. By the way, these stalwart Indian laborers were paid the grand sum of 18 cents a day!

Finally they arrived at the village of Palenque and were assigned a house by the local alcalde. This house was earthen-floored, contained three reed beds, a leaky thatch roof, and had a granary inhabited by mice "...which scratched, nibbled, squeaked, and sprinkled dust upon us the whole night." They were also subjected to unending rain, thunder and lightning. Stephens wrote of being attacked at night by cucuyos (fireflies) "...of extraordinary size and brillancy," by garrapatas (ticks), and were plagued by bats whizzing overhead "...noisy and sinister." They resorted to sewing their sheets into sacks and would crawl into them at night to avoid being bitten.

They left this abode to make the eight-mile journey to the lost city, an enterprise which involved the procuring of hard-to-find supplies....live turkeys and chickens, eggs, rice, beans, plantains, sugar, chocolate and lard. Stephens also tried to get a woman, "...not for embellishment, but to make tortillas." Stephens and Catherwood spent ten days at Palenque. They erected scaffolding for Catherwood to get up-close views of the reliefs which they measured and counted. Catherwood produced a series of extraordinary drawings, sometimes with the assistance of a camera lucida. They marveled at all they saw around them, and Stephens was thrilled at being "...in a building standing before the Europeans knew of the existence of this continent." They were enchanted by the beauty of El Palacio, with its rich ornamentation and spirited figures in bas-relief.

Stephens wrote of the daunting task of hacking through areas of overgrown trees and shrubs, heaps of rubbish, fallen lintels, and blocked entryways. Stephens and Catherwood spent ten days at the ruins, all the while suffering from lack of sleep, heat exhaustion, mildewed clothing, and the never-ending buzzing and biting of insects. Stephens’ feet were swollen and inflamed. Catherwood was wan, gaunt, lame and also suffered from insect bites. Every day they spent there was wetter, more uncomfortable and increasingly dangerous to their health.

On Saturday, the first of June, 1840, Stephens and Calderwood "...like rats leaving a sinking ship, broke up and left the ruins." This is by no means the end of the journeys of these intrepid explorers. I leave it up to you, dear reader, to seek out the rest of their story. In doing so, perhaps like me, you will think back to your journeys to the places that our adventurers visited. How did you get there? By plane, and then possibly then by bus or car? Where did you stay? At a small hotel or charming posada? Where did you eat...at an atmospheric little café on the zócalo? Well, the next time you’re sitting and slowly sipping a margarita — take a moment to compare your travel experiences with those of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. And raise your glass in silent homage.