Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan

John Lloyd Stephens was born November 28, 1805, in the township of Shrewsbury, New Jersey, the second son of Benjamin Stephens, a successful New Jersey merchant, and Clemence Lloyd, daughter of an eminent local judge. in 1865 the family moved to New York City and there Stephens received an education in the Classics at two privately-tutored schools.

At the early age of 13 he enrolled at Columbia College, graduating at the top of his class four years later in 1822. After working as a student-at-law for a year, he joined the Law School at Litchfield, Connecticut. He entered practice after finishing, and returned to New York.

After 8 years working as a lawyer set out to travel through Europe in 1834, and went on to Egypt and the Levant, returning home in 1836. On returning home he wrote several popular books about his travels and explorations.

As a young man, he became very interested early accounts of ruined cities of Central America by earlier writers and explorers.

In 1839, President Martin Van Buren commissioned Stephens as Special Ambassador to Central America. While there, the government of the Federal Republic of Central America fell apart in civil war. His Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán gives a vivid description of some of those events which Stephens witnessed.

Stephens and his traveling companion, architect and draftsman Frederick Catherwood first came across Maya ruins at Copán, having landed in British Honduras (present-day Belize). They were astonished at their findings and spent a couple weeks mapping the site. They surmised that this must have been built by some long forgotten people as they couldn’t imagine the native Mayans as having lived in the city.

Stephens was actually able to buy the city of Copan for a sum of $50 and had dreams of floating it down the river and into museums in The United States. They went on to Palenque, Uxmal, and according to Stephens, visited a total of 44 sites. Stephens and Catherwood reached Palenque in April 1840 and left in early June. They documented the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Foliated Cross.

Of even greater importance, their book provided descriptions of several ancient Maya sites, along with illustrations by Catherwood. These were greatly superior in both amount and accuracy of depiction to the small amount of information on ancient Mesoamerica previously published.

Stephens continued his investigations of Maya ruins with a return trip to Yucatán which produced a further book. His books served to inspire Edgar Allan Poe, who also reviewed three of his travel books for the New York Review and Graham’s Magazine.

Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan

By JOHN L. STEPHENS, author of “Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petra and the Holy Land,” et cetera; 2 vols. royal octavo, illustrated by numerous engravings. Harper & Brothers, 82 Cliff street, New York.

The following account of this popular work, from the Poughkeepsie Telegraph, is so full of interest that we cannot deny ourselves the pleasure of giving it a place in our columns.

Probably no work was ever issued from the press in this country, for the appearance of which the general reading public, as well as literary and scientific men, looked with such anxiety and interest, as this. The reputation of the author as a bold and successful traveller, an erudite observer of men and things, and scrupulous in observing the strictest truth in narrative, caused a universal exclamation of satisfaction throughout the Union when it was announced that President VAN BUREN had appointed him to a special confidential mission to Central America.

A Catherwood illustration

A Catherwood illustration

The few glimpses with which we had been favored by Spanish and other foreign authors and travellers, or ruins of cities, some known, and others reported to be scattered over that region of our continent included in or contiguous to the theatre of the first Spanish conquest affected by Cortez, had in some degree awakened the attention of the public here to the importance of a more thorough investigation of this interesting subject; and hence Mr. Stephens’ appointment was hailed as an assurance that whatever individual enterprise and perseverance could effect in the exploration of those wild, dangerous, and even mysterious regions, would be effected by him. Still greater was the public satisfaction when it was announced that Mr. Catherwood, the distinguished artist and scholar, would accompany Mr. Stephens, to make drawings of such subjects as in their judgments would be of public interest. Much was expected from the well known experience, talents and fidelity of these travellers; but the book before us, the record of their arduous journeyings and labors, far exceeds the highest expectations of the public. These volumes contain 73 engravings, a majority of them executed on steel, some on wood and others on stone, chiefly illustrative of the antiquities of the country. Numerous other drawings of modern cities, towns and other objects of interest, were made by Mr. Catherwood; and it was the design of the author to introduce several of them into his book, but it was found to be inexpedient on account of the great space necessarily occupied by illustrations of the antiquities.

We have taken up the pen, not to write a critical review of the work, nor to comment at large upon the opinions advanced by our travellers respecting the origin, antiquity and probable causes of the desertion and final destruction of the ancient cities discovered and described, but merely to direct the attention of those of our readers who have not already purchased the book, to a work of inestimable value, and to advise them to lose no time in partaking of the rich intellectual banquet with which we have been so delighted.
Mr. Stephens’ style in narrative is peculiar, and exceedingly agreeable. He slips his arm through that of the reader and quietly conducts him through all his wanderings. If he falls into a ditch, wearily climbs a mountain, or reposes beneath the shade of the palmeto, we tumble in with him, and we slumber sweetly by his side. This peculiarity of style throws a freshness and beauty about the otherwise dry details of diplomacy and official records, and twines a garland of attractive flowers around the hoary head of antiquity.

We propose now to direct the reader’s attention only to the most important portions of the work, namely, the descriptions of antiquities; but shall hereafter make extracts from the (more strictly speaking) “incidents of travel.” It may be proper here to say, that Messrs. Stephens and Catherwood left New York on the third of October 1839, and in thirty days reached Balize, situated on the Bay of Honduras, where by invitation they took up their residence for a few days at the English Government house. From thence they proceeded to Yzabal in a steamboat, placed by the authorities in the charge of Mr. Stephens. From Yzabal they proceeded across the great Mico mountain, over which lies the road to Guatemala. After encountering many hardships in travel and dangers on account of the politically convulsed condition of the country, they reached Copan, a small village situate upon the Montagua, one of the noblest rivers in Central America.

In the immediate vicinity of this village are the ruins of the ancient city of Copan, but so completely is it embowered in shrubbery, vines, and majestic forest trees, that few persons even in the neighborhood, had seen the “idols” or monuments which our travellers have brought to light. Indeed, the very existence of these ruins had been, until the discoveries made by Messrs. S. & C. entirely unknown beyond the confines of Central America, except from the dim light thrown upon them nearly a century and a half ago by Fuentes, a Spaniard, who wrote the chronicles of the kingdom of Guatemala; and even there they were in many places either considered fabulous or were altogether unheard of. From a careful survey of the ruins they are convinced that the city extended at least two miles along one side of the river, and probably crossed it. How far back into the dense forest it extended, they could not determine. Finding the monuments extant far more numerous and imposing than they had even imagined, they resolved to make as thorough an exploration as possible, and drawings of whatever was of interest. That they might proceed safely, Mr. Stephens resolved to purchase the tract of land (about 8,000 acres) on which the city stands, (or rather lies,) of the owner, to whom it was entirely unproductive property. After considerable negotiation he effected a purchase of the whole city! “The reader is perhaps curious to know,” says Mr. S., “how old cities sell in Central America. Like other articles of trade, they are regulated by the quantity in market, and the demand; but, not being staple articles, like cotton and indigo, they were held at fancy prices, and at the time were dull of sale. I paid fifty dollars for Copan. There was never any difficulty about the price. I offered that sum, for which Don Joze Maria (the owner) thought me only a foot; if I had offered more he would probably have considered me something worse.”

They hired some Indians and set about an exploration of the ruins. “It was,” says Mr. Stephens, “my first essay in engineering. Our surveying apparatus was not very extensive. We had a good surveying compass, and the rest consisted of a reel of tape which Mr. Catherwood had used in a survey of the ruins of Thebes and Jerusalem. My part of the business was very scientific. I had to direct the Indians in cutting straight lines through the woods, make Breuno and Francisco stick their hats on poles to make the stations, and measure up to them. The second day we were thoroughly in the spirit of it.”

They found no remains of palaces or private dwellings (as at Palenque) at copan, but temples, and idols or monuments, made up the bulk of the ruins. Doubtless the dwellings were of more perishable materials, and like those that surrounded the still magnificent temples and monuments of Egypt, have crumbled into dust. Hence no idea can be formed of the extent of the city when in its glory – it might have been as extensive as Babylon, Nineveh or Thebes, and the ruins that are left to us may cover but a small portion of the area of the perfect city.

Front View of an Idol at Copan

Front View of an Idol at Copan

One edifice which they suppose to have been a temple, is thus described. “The front or river wall extends on a right line north and south, six hundred and twenty-four feet, and it is from sixty to ninety feet in height. It is made of cut stones from three to six feet in length, and a foot and a half in breadth. In many places the stones have been thrown down by bushes growing out of the crevices; and in one place there is a small opening, from which that ruins are sometimes called by the Indians, Las Ventanas, or the windows. The other three sides consist of ranges of steps and pyramidal structures, rising from thirty to one hundred and forty feet in height on the slope. The whole line of survey is two thousand, eight hundred and sixty-six feet, which, though gigantic and extraordinary for a rained structure of the aborgines, that the reader’s imagination may not mislead him, I consider it necessary to say, it is not so large as the base of the pyramid of Ghizeh.”

The most remarkable feature in the ruins of Copan, consists of the “idols” or monuments, before each of which stands an altar. Our engraving represents the front of one of these idols. The altar is left out, as it would hide the lower part of the idol. These were chiefly contained within a terraced wall, a short distance from the Temple, with which it was probably connected; and it is supposed that these idols were representations of deities worshiped and sacrificed unto by the inhabitants of copan; or of kings or heroes apotheosized, and to whom sacrifices were made. As the same peculiarities marked each of these idols we will quote the description of only the one represented in the engraving. “It stands at the foot of a wall rising in steps to the height of thirty or forty feet, originally much higher, but the rest fallen and in ruins. Its face is to the north, its height eleven feet nine inches, the breadth of its sides three feet, and the pedestal seven feet square. Before it, at the distance of twelve feet is a colossal altar. It is of good workmanship, and has been painted red, though scarcely any vestige of the paint remains, and the surface is time-worn. It appears to represent the portrait of a King or hero, perhaps erected into a deity. It is judged to be a portrait from certain marks of individuality in the features, also observable in most of the others; and its sex is ascertained by the beard, as in the Egyptian monuments, though this has a mustachie, which is not found in Egyptian portraits.

The back of this idol, again, presents an entirely different subject, consisting of tablets, each containing two figures oddly grouped together ill formed, in some cases with hideous heads, while in others the natural countenance preserved. The ornaments, diadems and dresses are interesting, but what these personages are doing or suffering, it is impossible to make out. This statue had suffered so much from t

Lithograph of Stela at Copan, Published in 1844 by Frederick Catherwood

Lithograph of Stela at Copan, Published in 1844 by Frederick Catherwood

he action of time and weather, that it was not always easy to make out the characters, the light being in all cases very bad, and coming through irregular openings among branches of trees.

This is a description of but one of the many idols which they discovered in that now desolate city, and Mr. Stephens remarks: – “Of the moral effects of the monuments themselves, standing as they do in the depths of a tropical forest, silent and solemn, strange in design, excellent in sculpture, rich in ornament, differing from the works of any other people, their uses and purposes, their whole history entirely unknown, with hieroglyphics explaining all, but perfectly unintelligible, I shall not pretend to convey any idea. Often the imagination was pained in gazing at them. The tone which pervades the ruins is that of deep solemnity. An imaginative mind might be infected with superstitious feelings.

The form of sculptre most frequently met with was a death’s head, sometimes the principal ornament, and sometimes only accessory; while some of them on the outer wall, adding gloom to the mystery of the place, keeping before the eyes of the living, death and the grave, presenting the idea of a holy city – the Mecca or Jerusalem of an unknown people.”

The stone of which all these altars and statues are made, is a soft grit stone from the quarries before referred to.  At the quarries we observed many blocks with hard flint-stones distributed through them which had been rejected by the workmen after they had been quarried out. The back of this monument had contained two. Between the second and third tablets the flint has been picked out and the sculpture is blurred; the other, in the last row but one from the bottom, remains untouched. An inference from this is, that the sculptor had no instruments with which he could cut so hard a stone, and, consequently, that iron was unknown. We had, of course, directed our searches and inquiries particularly to this point, but did not find any pieces of iron or other metal, nor couldwe hear of any ever having been found there.”

The ruins of other cities even more perfect and more extensive than Copan, were visited by the author and his companion, and they were told of others deep buried in the interminable forest of Yucatan. While perusing the pages of this work and witnessing the representations of the vestiges of former civilization where now all is demi-savage and desolate, the question naturally occurs to the mind of the reader. When and by whom were these cities built? The traces of civilization in that country, and the greatly advanced state of society within the dominions of Montezuma, of Mexico and of the Inesa of Peru, when first visited by the Spaniards, have given rise to many speculations respecting the origin of this people. The analogy of language, of costume, customs, arts, etc. have been brought forward as arguments in support of various theories. As some of these monuments are said to bear resemblance to those built by an unknown people in Siberia, it is conjectured that at the epocha of the great revolutions of Asia when the Hiongnux of the Huns first commenced their movements toward Europe, the progenitors of the builders of these American cities were a highly civilized people who fled from the banks of the Irish or Baikal across Bherings Straits to avoid being brought under the yoke of the savage hordes who came from the plateaus of Central Asia.

Some have conjectured that they are descended from the ancient Egyptians; and in Mr. Delafield’s work an attempt is made to trace the Toltecs back to Cush, the grandson of Noah, and first of the Emiopic race. Others suppose them to have descended from the dispersed tribes of Judah; others that their progenitors were a colony from Carthage, thrown upon our continent by accident, after having been driven by a tempest beyond the pillars of Hercules; and some have advanced the opinion that America is the fabled Atlantis of the ancient Greek writers, and that these cities are the remains of the ten splendid kingdoms that flourished upon that beautiful island or group of islands and acknowledged allegiance to Neptune, the god of ocean, as the supreme sovereign and ruler.

Main temple at Tulum, by Catherwood

Main temple at Tulum, by Catherwood

Again, some refer their origin to the Celtic nations of Europe, and derived from Cyclopean stock. Dupaix a French writer, advances the opinion that these cities and the people who built them were structures and inhabitants of antediluvian periods; while Horne, an ingenious writer, gravely asserts as a fact not to be disputed, that Facfour, king of Southern China, fled hither by way of Bhering Straits with hundreds of thousands of his people to escape the yoke of the Great Mogul, Kublai, Khan. Opposed to all these various opinions Messrs. Stephens & Catherwood expresses their belief that the erection of these ruined cities are of comparatively modern date; that some of them were raised to the ground by the Spaniards under Cortez and his immediate successors; that the face of people who built them is not extinct, but that, like our own Indians, they have retired to those immense forests where the foot of a white man has never trod, where they may still be “carving their idols” and erecting their temples for worship as did their fathers before them. Nor do they believe that this people and their arts are derived from the nations of the Old world, but that they exhibit the far more interesting spectacle “of a people skilled in architecture, sculpture and drawing, and beyond doubt, other more perishable arts, and possessing the cultivation and refinement attendant upon these not derived from the Old world, but originating and growing up here, without models or masters, having a distinct separate, independent existence; like the plants and the fruits of the soil, indigenous.”

Our space will not permit us to give the reasons which our travelers advance in support of this opinion, but we refer the reader to the work itself – a work which in this particular especially, is of intense interest and awakens in the mind of the reader speculative thoughts which can hardly be grasped and reduced to form by the liveliest imagination.

Mr. Stephens has conceived a noble design, to which every American should respond with the voice of encouragement. It is to remove these monuments of a lost people to this country, and establish a museum of American antiquities, sufficiently attractive to draw to it Mr. Catlin’s Indian Gallery of Paintings, now in Europe. It was with this view that he purchased Copan and negotiated for the purchase of other cities, and this design we earnestly hope may yet be fully carried out. Two of the monuments are probably now on their way to this city; and Mr. S. has received some plaster of Paris casts of others from a young man by the name of Pawling whom he employed for the purpose and left at Palenque. The disordered state of the country, the suspicious feelings which characterize the functionaries of the government, such as it is, and the cupidity of the land owners may for a time frustrate the author’s plans, but he expresses a belief that he may yet be successful. We hope he will, ere some European government or stock company shall complete what he has so nobly begun, for those ruins belong to us – they are the property of the people of this continent – the historical landmarks of the aborigines of our country.

Collection: African American Newspapers
Publication: The Colored American
Date: August 14, 1841
Title: INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan

Tags: , ,

Stay Connected

Connect with Accessible Archives on Twitter or Facebook to stay up to date on news and blog posts or subscribe to our email feed.