JOHN LLOYD STEPHENS AND FREDERICK CATHERWOOD: A MAYA LEGACY NOT FORGOTTEN
In preparation for the writing of my second book, Kingdoms of Stone, in the proposed three part series on the origins, rise, and decline of Classic Maya civilization it was inevitable that I decided to come into closer contact with two men whose names are synonymous with the very beginnings of all modern Maya scholarship. While their names continue to be known, and one’s books and the other’s drawings can easily be found still, much about their actual lives was lost or forgotten with each man’s premature and untimely death in the 1850’s. John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood still stand as giants in the early history of American archeology as men without whose dedication to an idea and perseverance in the face of incredible obstacles the revealing of the spectacular Maya culture for several generations in all likelihood would have been delayed.
Their two trips to Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula in the early 1840’s came at a time when violent revolutions, either in-progress or about to happen; virulent tropical diseases for which there were no preventions or treatments; and the near total absence of communications or any other meaningful infrastructure, made travel to such a location not merely an adventure (or Incidents of Travel, as Stephens titled his books) but a truly life-threatening experience. When one reads of Catherwood standing in mud, with his left arm hanging limp from his side from constant dampness-induced rheumatism, while he is executing one of his amazing, photo-like images, with a right hand gloved to prevent mosquitoes from biting it while he worked, even in the tropical heat, the reader is almost overwhelmed with admiration for such dedication. Nor does one fail to appreciate how Stephens, who was in Central America on a vague, nearly hopeless diplomatic mission for the U.S. government, time and again faced death by one murderous revolutionary faction or another while bouncing around the war torn nation of the then disintegrating new Republic of Central America in a vain search to present his papers to no one who wanted to receive them. In the midst of all this, both men’s primary aim to visit the ruins of first Copan, and then Palenque, which lay on the opposite side of the war-torn peninsula, kept driving them forward for eight months against the incredible odds facing them.
JOHN LLOYD STEPHENS: TRAVELER, WRITER, DIPLOMAT, ARCHEOLOGIST
John Lloyd Stephens was one of those amazing men who seemed to spring forth in the middle of the Nineteenth Century in so many fields of study whose accomplishments seem almost impossible to comprehend when we look back on how much they achieved in one lifetime—and one frequently shortened in some fashion at that. There were writers and adventurers like Melville; scientists willing to face ridicule and hardships for an idea such as Darwin; daring explorers like Cook and Burton; visionaries like Brigham Young; geographers such as von Humboldt; and countless others who dominated the thinking of their day and gave us a legacy that changed our world. In his own way, Stephens was the equal of any of these other great names, even if history has short-changed his reputation, at least beyond his seminal contribution to the unveiling of the lost Maya Civilization.
Born into a well-to-do New York family, Stephens was an only child whose mother died when he was an infant. His father raised him and educated him to become a lawyer and join the family real estate business. But the young Stephens had a curious mind for the unknown and a wanderlust for adventure that put him on a different path as soon as his formal education was completed. A trip to the western frontier not ye beyond the Mississippi when he was still a student gave him a thirst for travel and interest in native peoples. At the first opportunity he set off for Europe, then on to Egypt and the Middle East, where he became one of the first westerners to enter and describe the hidden city of Petra, now in Jordan. From there he went on to Jerusalem and then decided to make his way back to London through Rumania, Poland, and eastern Europe, which at that time was a little traveled destination for Americans of any stripe.
A copious note taker and journal keeper, Stephens was also a keen observer of character and had a knack for both meeting and earning the trust of strangers from many walks of life, often men of dubious reputation or intentions. Although he never married, he was drawn to attractive young women and also had a way of earning their trust—or compassion—throughout his life. He would always seek out the most remote destination, if it possessed some worthwhile ancient building or mystery, and would then manage to secure a visit by employing whatever means necessary, from outright bribery, to stealth, to even bluster and intimidation when all else failed. He was one of those men who seemed at home in any situation, never let language become a barrier to his communication, and always seemed to find the one person he needed at the critical moment to insure his success. In short, he was a risk taker par excellance who relied on luck as much as anything else, and it rarely failed him.
When he returned to New York, he quickly worked on his detailed journals and published his first book of Incidents of Travel. Much to his surprise, it was an immediate financial and critical success. He was soon acclaimed as a uniquely gifted travel writer, whose reserved prose (itself unusual for that genre at the time) read more like a novel with its many colorful locales and characters than the more run-of-the-mill descriptive books of its type generally offered. The newspaper critic Edgar Allan Poe became one of his earliest and longtime supporters. After a brief stint at re-entering the field of law at his father’s insistence, he decided to give that up as too dull and parlay the success of his two books into something different.
He was invited to join the literary circles then springing up all over New York City, as well as more than one scientific and geographic society. When a post as diplomatic representative to the newly recognized government of the Republic of Central America became open, Stephens decided to use his new contacts to apply. Not surprisingly, he immediately got the appointment, since all of his predecessors had died either on route to or shortly after arriving in their station in Guatemala City, which at that time might as well have been on the far side of the moon in terms of the difficulties involved in getting and remaining there.
His experiences in the Middle East had ignited a thirst for prehistoric studies that would remain with him his entire life. One of his reasons for seeking the appointment to Central America was to go in search of ruins there others had vaguely described or alluded to in their travels. Instinctively, Stephens felt there was something worth investigating in those mountains and forests tucked between the two great civilizations of the Aztecs and Incas, which writers and travelers had been obsessed with for generations. William H. Prescott was then in the process of writing his seminal works on those two empires, and Stephens soon became a correspondent and acquaintance of the famous armchair historian, who also admired Stephens’ work and adventure skills. In late 1839 Stephens prepared himself for his next adventure, which included seeking out the true government of the new republic he was being sent to in the midst of a revolution to re-negotiate a trade agreement for his government, if possible. That being completed, he would be free to travel at his own expense—and risk—to seek out the mysterious stone cities others had briefly described.
FREDERICK CATHERWOOD: ARCHITECT, ENGINEER, ARTIST, ARCHAEOLOGIST
During his travels in the Middle East, Stephens had used an excellent map of Jerusalem produced by an English architectural draftsman named Frederick Catherwood. He was also familiar with the man’s drawings of some of the main monuments of the Nile Valley from that man’s earlier trip there as an employee of a man engaged in large scale business interests in Egypt. When that job ended, Catherwood returned to his wife and growing family in London in search of another opportunity to earn a respectable living—a search that would consume Catherwood’s entire life it seemed. He soon fell in with an entrepreneur who convinced him to turn his many sketches of the Nile Valley, and Jerusalem in particular, into large panoramas.
These panoramas were circular, connected paintings on a grand scale which could fill an exhibition hall. Viewers would pay to come in, stand on a platform in the center of the room, and then take a guided tour of the city of Jerusalem, for example, as gaslights lit up each panel in turn as the viewer’s eyes made the circuit. These panoramas were the movie theaters of their day, and if well done were generally quite profitable. Catherwood’s eye for architectural detail and perspective, along with his amazing skill as a draftsman and artist soon made his panorama of Jerusalem a major attraction. He painted and owned the canvases, while his partner ran the operation and rented the exhibition hall. As his success grew, he soon decided to take his “show on the road” to New York City, where like elsewhere the desire to ‘visit’ Jerusalem for those who had no other means to ever see it was equally promising.
Almost inevitably it seemed, since both men probably moved in overlapping circles of interest, particularly ancient history, Stephens and Catherwood met sometime in 1839. With his partner to run the panorama, it took Stephens little work to convince Catherwood to accompany him into the jungles of Central America to search for lost cities there. The two men soon struck a deal by which Catherwood would receive the amount of one thousand dollars, paid in his absence in monthly amounts directly to his family in London, in exchange for joining Stephens and undertaking to record in proper fashion for the first time any remains they encountered, once his diplomatic mission was completed.
The most common interpretations of the origins of American prehistoric civilizations at the time were that they must have been the result of contact with some old world pre-existing civilization, most likely Egypt. Catherwood, however, had seen the ruins of Egypt personally and firmly believed these so-called connections—such as pyramid building—had little or no connections to the architectural styles described in Mexico and elsewhere. Stephens’ thoughts ran along these same lines as well. The two men would devote the bulk of the rest of their lives attempting to prove to a skeptical general, as well as scholarly, public that the ancient civilizations of the Americas were the result of indigenous peoples, who needed no influence from across an ocean to raise the great cities of stone they had once built.
UNWRAPPING THE MYSTERY OF THE MAYA
Once the two landed in Belize in Nov. 1839, they set out immediately for Guatemala City, then the disputed capitol of the government Stephens had come to find. On the way they would take a side trip to the reported site of a place called Copan, which Stephens had heard rumors about. Their first day at the ruins defied any description or expectation either man might have entertained about what others had warned them would be a “wild goose chase”, which would likely cost both men their very lives. As they began to clear away the jungle for Catherwood’s first sketches, which would eventually become iconic images in themselves (including the cover of Kingdoms of Stone, by the way) it was quickly apparent that here was a mystery beyond anything they had contemplated. Who had built these highly advanced buildings with a clear ‘city’ plan, or executed the fantastically carved stone images, which appeared to also exhibit a form of ‘hieroglyphic’ writing? Both men were so overwhelmed that Stephens decided to enter into negotiations to buy the site outright from its seemingly disinterested owner.
A brief negotiation resulted in him acquiring one of the great sites of American antiquity for the sum of fifty dollars. (Unfortunately, Stephens would never get to return to “his” ruins to remove some of the stones to ship back to New York as he planned, and his claim for the site was eventually ruled illegal by the Honduran government.) Reports of another large, ruined city called Quirigua a few miles to the north would lead Catherwood there for more amazing discoveries and sketches while Stephens went off to Guatemala City, and eventually back south along the Pacific Coast to San Salvador in his fruitless search for a government to present his diplomatic papers to. That government, as well as Stephens and Catherwood, found themselves in the midst of a bloody conflict that soon led to the breaking apart of the Republic of Central America into its constituent parts as we know them today while the two men were in the country in 1840. Denied any chance to complete his diplomatic mission, Stephens closed up the ‘embassy’ house in Guatemala City after the bloody battle in the plaza that decided the fate of the republic there in early 1840. He and Catherwood finally managed to safely reunite after many adventures for both men and set off for the west coast of Chiapas, still part of Mexico, in search of the better known but poorly described ruins of another ancient city there, Palenque.
Palenque proved to be as equally challenging to map and interpret as had been Copan, mainly due to the fact that they were now deep into the rainy season, where torrential downpours descended in the afternoons and evenings, usually followed by swarms of mosquitoes. By this time, both men had contracted the malaria that would plague them the rest of their lives, and Catherwood suffered frequent bouts of fever for the last months of their journey. Their short stay produced the first useful map of the important ruins, as well as the sketches done under the worst of circumstances, which would eventually make the site one of the most visited prehistoric ruins in the Americas. Their declining health forced them to leave sooner than they wanted; but one more surprise awaited them before their journey came to a conclusion.
They headed up the coast of Yucatan to the city of Merida, the capitol city, where an important local man Stephens had met earlier before leaving New York lived. The man owned a site called Uxmal about forty miles back toward the coast in the direction the two men needed to go to catch a ship bound for home. They had only a few days to get there and explore the city, which required no clearing away of jungle as had the others, since this had already been done by the owner to create a cornfield. The amazing plaster decorations of the uniquely styled buildings created a new mystery as to the age and origins of the differences, despite the many architectural and decorative similarities they had already noticed. In fact, the entire question of dating the ruins would be one that would dominate both men’s thinking and speculation for most of the rest of their lives. No doubt, as they boarded the Spanish brig that would take them to Havanna to catch a ship for New York, both men were already laying the plans for a return trip, which would bring them back to the unique and mysterious environment of the upper Yucatan in less than two more years. On this second visit, which would result in an even more successful two-volume work by Stephens, they would describe, draw, and even photograph more than forty previously unknown ruins, including Chichen Itza, Tullum, Labnah, and others—many of which have entirely disappeared since, except for the two men’s work.
STEPHENS AND CATHERWOOD: A LEGACY THAT CANNOT BE ERASED WITH THEIR NAMES
Stephens’ second book, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, was even more successful than his earlier work. The profits of his book soon made him a fairly wealthy man (as well as almost single-handedly creating the large Harper and Bros. publishing empire), and books of both trips went through many editions up to the final one during the Civil War. However, after the second expedition the two men’s lives quickly began to significantly diverge. Catherwood continued to search for the financial independence that had eluded him most of his life. His great panoramas and the many artifacts he and Stephens had brought back to start a new museum of American prehistory in New York with were lost in a fire in 1847, which virtually wiped out Catherwood’s hopes.
He sold his talents as a railroad architect and engineer to multiple failed projects in South America before ending up in the Nevada silver speculation, where he became chief engineer and director of a modestly successful mine there, which allowed him to return to New York and set himself up as a building architect. He designed a few houses and even public building and edited a new edition of Stephens’ book, until his mine failed and he found himself desperate for cash and out of work once more. He returned to London to complete a messy and public divorce, which further sullied his reputation and cost him financially. Even though he won the case for “alienation of affection” against his cousin, he received no money. Without a job or family, he decided to return to New York and resume his architecture career. On the way, his ship the SS Arctic was involved in what became the Titanic disaster of its day off the coast of Newfoundland. Among the many important and notable passengers lost in the ship’s sinking was Frederic Catherwood, whom only one newspaper briefly just happened to describe as “the co-discoverer of the Maya civilization.”
Ironically, in 1854, the same year as his untimely death, Catherwoods first and only book comparing the monuments of the Nile Valley with those of Central America came out, highlighting his many drawings from Egypt and those he stilled owned exclusively that had not been published in one of Stephens’ books earlier. The book was modestly successful and in it he espoused and graphically detailed all the reasons why the Egyptian monuments bore only superficial and not causative similarities to those in the Americas. Toward the end he argued for what Stephens had always hinted at but failed to ever come out firmly in favor of. His clearly presented statement that the high cultures of the Americas were solely the results of indigenous people of an earlier time, whose descendants still inhabited those same lands has often been cited as “the Magna Carta” of American Archeology.
Stephens parlayed both his fame and fortune into becoming one of the founders and directors of a new enterprise to build a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama to shorten the time then needed to get from the Atlantic coast to the goldfields of California. He went to map out the railroad’s route, and after overcoming incredible hardships and near bankruptcies the railway was eventually completed and actually showed a profit for a time. The completion of the Trans-Continental railway in 1868 eventually put it out of business, although it continued to operate locally for decades and actually became the basic route of the Panama Canal years later. However, this project and his previous years in the tropics took their inevitable toll on the health of Stephens. Not long after the railway was completed he was found unconscious under a large ceiba tree along the route. He was sent back to his home in New York in a near comatose state, from which he never recovered. He died late in 1852 at his home at the age of 48 of what was believed to be a parasitic liver infection. It was a remarkably young age for a man who had accomplished so much in one lifetime.
It is not known if Stephens and Catherwood met again after one brief encounter in South America, when they were both working on railroads. Apparently, Catherwood was in New York at the time of Stephens’ death and it is likely he might have visited his old friend at the time, although no written records of it exist. In point of fact, in spite of his amazing journal keeping, Stephens was not a prolific letter writer or, as were so many important people of that time. Neither he nor Catherwood left any significant correspondence or trove of papers for later historians to ponder over. In fact, Stephens’ actual tomb was misidentified until the twentieth century when one of his earliest biographers relocated it and had a plaque erected there to commemorate a life that had by then fallen into near anonymity. Stephens was an only child and a bachelor who left no heirs to keep his memory alive. Catherwood was not a self-promoter during his lifetime, and was one of those talented people who continually seemed to live on the edge of both fame and fortune, which always seemed to forever elude them. Together, however, these two giants of American archeology, exploration, art and journal writing, and so many other endeavors, left generations of American scholars with enough raw data to inspire and impact prehistoric studies in general, and the amazing Maya Civilization in particular, for the nearly two hundred years—and no doubt well beyond—since they first revealed these amazing peoples and their spectacular achievements to an unsuspecting but grateful world.
STEPHENS AND CATHERWOOD AND KINGDOMS OF STONE
In my new novel, Kingdoms of Stone, I have chosen to employ a new technique for the books about prehistoric America this author has written in the past. The novel deals with the final years of the Classic period of Maya Civilization, more specifically with actual events recorded in the years AD 749-50. It is set in and the action and characters move between the three sites of Copan, Palenque, and Uxmal. If this sounds somewhat familiar from what is written above it is no coincidence. Every third chapter in the book is based directly upon content and conversations described in Stephens’ published journal of 1841, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. The main fictional Mayan characters are based upon their equivalents of the diplomat Stephens describes himself as in 1839-40, and the events move along similar geographic boundaries as well. There are two ‘historical presents’ used to move the story through somewhat similar events and political conditions, even if they are really a thousand years apart in real time. In both cases, we are looking at revolution and war, leading to the ending of one era in Central America and the beginning of a new one. But then, this is the way the Maya often viewed Time, in which everything is a cycle of sorts, and events and dates are forever repeated in a great, interconnected and measureable circle.
For a more complete view and explanation of the novel the reader is urged to look at the subsequent article appearing on this blog describing the publication of this new book, along with a special offer for those who wish to read it who may not have already enjoyed the first book in the series. That book deals with the rise of Maya Civilization and is titled Place of the Misty Sky. It, like all the books offered at special, autographed price through this website, is also available on all Amazon and Kindle ebook platforms. The Preface to Kingdoms of Stone is printed at the conclusion of the next dated blog entry for the interest of anyone interested in taking a look at what I believe is a unique and exciting second entry into the story of Maya Civilization from a writer who has studied it for years and has visited most of the sites described in the narratives.
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