Incidents of Travel to the Maya Ruins


John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood

On a dark night in October, 1839, a wealthy attorney from New York and an architect from England, set sail on an adventure that they could not have imagined. The attorney, John Lloyd Stephens, had made his wealth as an author profiting from a trip to Europe for “health reasons”. He had acquired a “persistent streptococci throat” while politicking for Andrew Jackson. His doctor recommended a trip to Europe. While in Europe, he sent articles on “incidents of travel’ back to his friend at the American Monthly magazine which were quite successful. The influx of immigrants to America flooded all means of transport back home, so Stephens extended his travels to Egypt, Arabia, the Holy Lands, Petra, Turkey, Russia, Poland and eventually England. While visiting Jerusalem, he met Frederick Catherwood, an English architect trying to make a living drawing the ruins of Rome and sketching the architecture of the Holy Lands. Stephens purchased a map of the Holy Lands drawn by Catherwood and was so impressed by it that he later looked up Catherwood in England. They became great friends.

Back in New York, Stephens compiled his notes and “Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land” was published in 1837. It was wildly successful and was followed up by “Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland” setting up Stephens financially.

Rumors of great cities in Central America were floating about and Stephens enlisted his friend Catherwood, who had relocated to New York, to join him for a trip to Central America. Stephens described his friend as, “… an experienced traveler and personal friend, who had passed more than ten years of his life in diligently studying the antiquities of the Old World; and whom, as one familiar with the remains of ancient architectural greatness… “

At that time, only three archaeological sites were known in Central America – Copan, Palenque, and Uxmal. No one connected the cities with any known culture and the name “Maya” was scarcely known. According to Victor Wolfgang von Hagen, who wrote an introduction for a re-printing of Stephen’s book, “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan”, “The acceptance of an indigenous ‘civilization’ demanded of an American living in 1839 a complete reorientation; to him an ‘Indian’ was one of those barbaric, half-naked tipi dwellers, a rude subhuman people who hunted with animal stealth.”

Before leaving, his old friend and now president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, appointed Stephens Ambassador to Central America. He accepted the post hoping it would aid him in his search for “lost civilizations”. Again from von Hagen, “Landing within the political and social chaos which was Central America, they found that it was far easier to find lost cities than to locate lost governments.”

So, in October, 1839, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood set sail for Belize on a momentous journey that would expose, for the first time, the wonders of the lost Mayan civilization to America.



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