John Lloyd Stephens

Gentleman Explorer and Re-Discoverer of the Ancient Maya



There is no figure in the long history of exploration and scholarship of the ancient Mayan civilization that evokes as much respect, admiration, even affection as diplomat, writer and explorer, John Lloyd Stephens. The respect and admiration follow from his Stephen's accomplishments and physical courage; the affection from his open and generous nature, remarkably free of the genteel racism and condescension of his age.

In 1839, Stephens and his colleague, artist Frederick Catherwood, were the first modern westerners to view the magnificent remnants of the once great Mayan world. Armed with only a rough map etching, and not a very accurate one at that, he braved disease, lack of water, heat, mosquitoes and ticks in the dense Yucatan jungle to find a lost civilization.

At their time of discovery, the sites, abandoned for centuries, were deeply shrouded by the jungle. Everything was so heavily covered in rubble and earth that there was no way the explorers could know how grand the ruined cities were.

When Stephens returned from his no-name land of mystery with extraordinary stories of glorious lost temples and Catherwood's exquisite images, he fired the imagination of western society and became a celebrity author.

Stephens and Catherwood would return again in 1841 for a second trip which formed the basis of their second book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843). These would be all the world had for more than half a century as the subsequent War of the Castes in 1850 would lead to the shutting down of the borders for almost 60 years.

John Lloyd Stephens was born in New Jersey, graduated as a lawyer from Columbia University and took a two year sabbatical in Europe and the Mediterranean to recover from a health problem. His published accounts of travel to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Poland, Germany, France and later Egypt earned him the title “the American Traveler.”

In his first book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán (1841), Stephens recounts their discovery of 44 Mayan cities. Their first sighting in the Yucatan was Mayapan, which is 47 miles southeast of Merida which was where Stephens, Frederick and their physician, Cabot, started out from.

Founded in 1007 by the great Mayan ruler, Kulkulkan, Mayapan became the epicenter of power of the Mayan world after the fall of Chichen Itza. Stephens noted in his journals “For ages, these ruins went unnoticed.”

Stephens was first-and alone-among his contemporaries in his belief that the Mayan civilization was autochthonous and not the result of cultural transmission from the Old World. Most of his contemporaries believed that no Amerindian culture could possibly achieve the degree of sophistication so evident in the Mayan sites, even in their advanced state of ruin.

He would also make an important declaration that the Mayan empire was a sophisticated civilization. He wrote “America, say historians, was peopled by savages; but savages never reared these structures, savages never carved these stones.”

Stephens and Catherwood explored nonstop for 14 months and created what may well have been the first travel guide to the Yucatan. At times, they would log the number of hours it took to travel from village to village and the pace of their horses so that future explorers would have a guide.

During their travels, they regularly came down with fevers. Stephens once described a sick Catherwood at work, veiled with a net and rough gloves. Finally illness got the better of them and they left Uxmal without looking back as “all interest we had felt in the place was gone…”, wrote Stephens.

All in all, Stephens traveled thousands of miles, found big sites and lesser known ones, slept in the pyramids, explored the cenotes and heard the stories of hundreds of Mayan villagers.

After his travel, Stephens became the director of a steamship company, Ocean Steam navigation and later, vice-president of the Panama Railroad Company. He spent two years in Panama supervising the surveys which laid the groundwork for the future Panama Canal. He died in New York City in 1852 from a tropical disease which afflicted him during his time in Panama.

The names John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood will always be remembered for their epic journeys. Their accounts would be all the world had of this mysterious advanced civilization for a half a century until another intrepid traveler opened the next chapter in the history of the Mayans.

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