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 John Lloyd Stephens  (1805 - 1852)

About: John Lloyd Stephens


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Lived/Active: New York/New Jersey / Panama      Known for: illustrator-South America

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A noted author, traveler and artist, John Stephens also played an important role in the development of the Panama Railroad. He made two trips to the Maya region of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula between 1839 and 1842, and his descriptions and drawings of Mayan ruins helped stimulate interest in preservation of the sites. During the first, he explored a handful of "lost" Maya cities, and in 1841, accompanied by artist Frederick Catherwood and the young doctor and amateur ornithologist Samuel Cabot, Stephens returned to the Yucatan peninsula and surveyed forty-four previously unknown Maya sites, among them the world-renowned ruins of Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Kabah, and Tulum. Stephens' account of this journey established him as the founder of Maya archaeology.

Born at Shrewsbury, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Nov. 28, 1805, he was the son of Benjamin Stephens, a wealthy New York City merchant. His mother was a daughter of Judge Lloyd, of Monmouth county, New Jersey. The future traveler was brought up and educated in the city of New York. In his early life, however, not much pointed to the role he would later play in regards to international travel exploration. He received his classical education at the schools of a Mr. Boyle and Mr. Joseph Nelson, a blind teacher. He then entered Columbia College at the early age of 13. He entered low in his class, but left at its head. He remained four years in college, where he was a general favorite with his fellows.

On leaving Columbia College he decided to study law and worked as a clerk for Daniel Lord, a noted lawyer of that time. He eventually studied at Trapping Reeve's Law School in Litchfield Connecticut and graduated in 1824. In 1827 he moved to Albany New York to be admitted as a lawyer. New York was in the midst of severe political and cultural changes, and Stephens found himself entering politics. By 1828 (he was 23) he was more interested in politics than in his Wall Street law practice.

He pursued the practice of the law for about eight years; but he never felt or exhibited much ardor or zeal in the pursuit of this profession. During that period he united himself to the Democratic Party, and became a sort of pet speaker at the Tammancy Hall Democratic organization. He advocated the doctrine of free trade, and was strongly opposed to all monopolies. Constant speeches took a toll on his voice and his doctor suggested he take time off. Stephens was taken with a curiosity of the ancient cities of Greece and the Levant. When his physician happened to hint at the idea of a rest and a voyage, he seized upon the idea immediately.

Tired of his legal career and, using health as an excuse, he began a two-year voyage in 1834 to Europe and the Mediterranean. Stephens embarked in the autumn of 1834, in the packet 'Charlemagne', and landing on the coast of England, went up to London, and from there crossed to France. He visited Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Russia, returning by the way of Poland and Germany to France. On his return to France from the North of Europe, when his family expected to hear of his imminent embarkation for home, he suddenly took passage on board a steamer at Marseilles for Egypt, by the way of Malta. He landed at Alexandria, visited Cairo, and ascended the Nile as far as Thebes.

His first published works were letters of his observations of the Levant to the editor of American Monthly Magazine in 1835. He visited the pyramids of Egypt and the Temples at Karnak where other explorers had written their names. Ironically, artist Frederick Catherwood, the man who he would meet and travel with in the future, was one of the names found on this wall as Catherwood had visited the structures years earlier when he drew them for another expedition.

Stephens concluded his tour of Egypt and returned to New York in 1836. His book, called Incidents of Travel in Arabia Petrae, received a favorable review from none less than Edgar Allen Poe. Within two years it had sold more than 21,000 copies and had earned Stephens enough money to finance his future Mayan expeditions. This first book was followed, in 1838, by "Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland."

Latin America was to be his next focus. Long before there were tourists clambering up the pyramids of Mexico, there was John Lloyd Stephens. The lawyer-turned-explorer was an outspoken supporter of Van Buren, who was to reward him with a diplomatic post in Central America, which gave him a means of supporting his expeditions.

It is thought that John Russell Bartlett, who later founded a book store and publishing company with Charles Welfod, was the first to expose Stephens to the Maya (though the term itself was unknown at that time) by showing him a book by Jean-Frederic Waldek on the Yucatan. Bartlett also showed Stephens other books on the region that Stephens borrowed and spent days reading on this fascinating subject. A critical moment came when William Leggett, the American Minister to Central America, died. Stephens successfully applied to the President Van Buren for the vacant position. On August 13 1839 he received instructions to go to Central America to 'find their government' (if one even existed) and establish trade relations with that country. By September of 1839 Stephens had a contract drawn up for Frederic Catherwood to accompany him on his diplomatic mission, and then continue on to Chiapas and Yucatan to draw the ruins.

His title on the confidential mission was Special Ambassador to Central America, and his purpose was negotiating a trade treaty with the country. Stephens was responsible for ultimately negotiating contracts with the government of New Granada (later Columbia) in Bogota. On his return to the United States he prepared a third work, entitled, "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan'.

Beginning in 1839, Stephens and Frederic Catherwood made a series of discoveries, among them the lost Maya city of Copán in Honduras, and published accounts and illustrations of these places in a two-volume set of books. It can also be argued that the level of interest in the Maya would not be what it is today if not for the work of these two men.

Other books more "modern" than Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, (1843) have more accurate data and interpretations of the glyphs and symbols found at the sites, and other publications have color photos of the sites involved with the buildings restored. It is, however, inspiring in reading and seeing the artwork of Stephens and Catherwood to imagine the feeling of being the first man in several hundred years to see these buildings and glyphs and have no idea where they originated. They had arrived after a month at sea, and could only reach the sites (whose locations were only rumored at in the first place) by having men hack their way through the jungles of Central America with machetes. They had to contend with heat stroke, mosquitoes and parasites such as niguas, a tropical flea.

Already an accomplished writer, Stephens was one of the first white men to explore over forty of the Mayan ruins before they became known to the rest of the world. He and Catherwood were the first "modern" men to uncover these cities and record what they found. Their obvious awe and reverence in describing and drawing what they saw is evident in the book. Also in the text is Stephens' reasoning for believing that the Mayan cities he discovered were related to buildings in Egypt, Greece and Rome.

For their first expedition, the boarded, on October 3rd, 1839, the British brig Mary Ann and reached Belize after a month at sea. From Belize they boarded a steam ship and headed for the port of Izabal. Their first trek was by Mule to the ruins of Copan. Some accounts show that Stephens purchased the ruins for 50 dollars, while others say he simply paid 50 dollars to the owner for the rights to draw the ruins. Given the value of fifty dollars in 1839 (Catherwood was only paid $200 for his time spent accompanying Stephens on the journey) it seems a bit steep an amount to be paid simply for visiting the site. Stephens also attempted to purchase the ruins of Quirigua. This deal fell through because he would not marry a Mexican woman in order to buy the land as was required by law. Also taken into account was his known ultimate goal of eventually returning some of the artifacts back to New York, all seem to point to the story of his purchase of Copan to be accurate. By November 17, 1839 work to explore and record Copan began. In each city visited, Stephens hired help would establish a camp, usually located in the ruins themselves, and others would clear the jungle away from the statues and monuments so Catherwood could draw them.

After thirteen days of exploring and drawing Copan, Stephens decided to attend to some of his diplomatic duties and visited Guatemala City where he met with the leader of one of the warring faction, Rafael Carrera. He then traveled through El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica on a twelve hundred-mile trek in a fruitless search for an established government to Central America.

After this tour of the area Stephens sent word back home indicating "After a diligent search, no government found." Considering his official duties at an end, he considered himself free to explore the area on his own time. The first city they reached was Palanque, where Stephens and Catherwood revealed the city for the camera lucidia, but they were oblivious to the Tomb of Hunab Pacal beneath their feet in the Temple of the Inscriptions. With the help of the American Consul Charles Russell, Stephens was able to negotiate the purchase of the ruins of Palenque. Russell was married to a Mexican woman and was therefore eligible to purchase land on behalf of Stephens.

Once Catherwood had recovered from a jungle sickness, they moved on to Merida on the brig Gabrielacho, on their way to Uxmal. In New York Stephens often dined at a Spanish hotel where he became friends with Don Simon Peon, who was the proprietor of Uxmal, well known and respected throughout the area surrounding Uxmal and Merida. They explored Uxmal and in observing some of the wooden timbers used as overhead door lintels, he concluded that the wood was not local, but from the lake of Peten. This meant that the wood for these buildings had to be transported over 300 miles.

Finally, when Catherwood was again taken ill by sickness and fever, Stephens decided to end the voyage and headed back to New York where they arrived on July 31, 1840 after a tense few weeks at sea where their ship, The Alexandre, was becalmed. The ship finally caught a breeze and the ship met up with the Helen Maria, when the explorers were transferred and headed the rest of the way back to New York.
This ended their first journey to Yucatan.

On October 9th in 1840 Stephens and Catherwood, disappointed with their being forced to leave Yucatan early the year before, boarded the ship Tennessee, and headed for the port of Sisal, the same port they landed at previously. Word of the book based on their first visit had traveled as far as their destination, now booming with other travelers credited to these men, so in gratitude they were passed through customs and inspection without a second glance. As was the case the previous October, Mexico was in the midst of their festival of Corpus Christi, so after they made their way to Merida they enjoyed the local celebration and took advantage of the time to learn more about the local culture. Stephens tells of a bullfight in which the men despite their weapons could not defeat the bull. Men were thrown from their horses or dashed upon the ground by the enraged bull and the crown that usually cheered the fighters began to taunt the matadors and cheer for the bull. Stephens uses the first portion of his book to give some information and background on the Spanish efforts to conquer the Yucatan in the 16th century, and the efforts of the native Indians in repelling them for as long as they could.

Stephens and Catherwood started off again for Merida, where, joined by a doctor friend of Stephens named John Cabot from Boston, they experienced a bit of the local culture. They were well received in Merida as Dr. Cabot was able to perform a quick operation where he cured some of the locals of a disease called Strabismus or Biscos by the locals, a condition where the eye appears crossed unless the muscle causing the eye to turn inward is cut. Dr. Cabot performed this procedure on several of the afflicted locals. Between this and the production of daguerreotype portraits for young ladies as small business venture, they were quite "famous" in Merida by this point. Having had their arrival announced in the papers, then with the well-received portraits and finally with Dr. Cabot's cure for Biscos, they stayed an extra day before finally heading out on the morning of Thursday November 12th, 1840.

There were no dependable maps of the Yucatan, so Stephens, Catherwood and their team started off towards Uxmal again, but stopped off along the way at Mayapan after hearing of this "unspoiled" city that was still in ruin. They encountered many small villages in their tours. Some where they could not speak with the locals, and others where they had a guide to accompany them who could at least translate to Spanish, then they could translate that to English. They were also fascinated to find the large underground cenote that supplied the city of Telchaquillo with its water.

Their first stop along the way back to Uxmal was Mayapan ("Mayan banner") the capital of the Mayan area, where Stephens recounts some of the history of this city. After Mayapan they returned to Uxmal where they were forced out by the sickness of Dr. Cabot almost a year earlier. Unsatisfied with his description of the ruins in his first book, Stephens again describes the ruins he finds in beautiful detail. In the midst of his diggings he reports a constant attack by thousands of insects he calls Garrapatas, a small burrowing and biting insect that get into the cloths and the skin and drive a man insane with scratching. Uxmal served as a base while they ventured out to some of the surrounding ruins.

Suffice it to say they had quite an adventure as they visited various cities. Originally expecting only a few sparse cities, they soon became overwhelmed with rumors of sites as they spoke to the local Indians and made every attempt to visit as many sites as they could. In some cases the sites were nothing more than ruined mounds claimed by the jungle and not worth their time to uncover or examine further, but other cities revealed a wealth of pictorial and historical information concerning the Maya. When they then visited the cave of Maxcanu, sometimes called El Laberinto or "The Labrinth", his guides would not follow them into the cave out of superstitious fear.

They left their temporary home of Uxmal on New Year's day 1841, and headed out. By Jan 8th they had made their way as far as Kabah. Their return voyage began on Tuesday May 18th 1841 when they set sail from the port of Sisal for Havana, which ended their second journey to Yucatan,

One site Stephens visited was the imposing fortress church of Santa Elena, located in the Puuc hills of Yucatán between Uxmal and the bustling city of Ticul, a distinctive regional landmark. Once dubbed the "Monte Cassino of Yucatan", the church and its precincts occupy a commanding site atop an imposing mound of pre-Columbian origin in the center of the village. To approach the church one must climb a long flight of steps _ the pathway used since ancient times for religious processions _ as witnessed by John Stephens during his famous visit in 1843, is still followed today.

Returning from his Yucatan travels, Stephens turned his focus to transportation. In 1847, the subject of ocean steam navigation, in which England held the monopoly, greatly attracted the public attention. It was said, America could not compete with her in navigating the Ocean with steam. She had neither the capital, nor could she build vessels and machinery of sufficient strength and power. Stephens became deeply interested in the project, and became a director of The Ocean Steam Navigation Company.

Stephens was also involved with the Hudson River Railroad, and in 1849 became one of the associates of the Panama Railroad Company, and one of its most zealous advocates. About 1st July 1849, the Company was organized, and Stephens was chosen its Vice-President. The last seven years of his life were devoted to the Panama Railroad. Along with Henry Chauncey and William H. Aspinwall, Stephens played a crucial role in its planning, financing and promotion, the first commercial link between the Atlantic and Pacific that traversed the Isthmus of Panama.

In the ensuing autumn he visited the Isthmus, and Panama, for the purpose of inspecting the route; from Panama he went to Bogota, the capital of New Granada. On the journey on mule-back to Bogota he met with a very severe accident when his mule stumbled and fell. This accident may have helped to impair his health, or at least to make him more susceptible of disease. He never recovered entirely from its effects.

He returned home to the United States by the way of Carthagena. On his way back he stopped at the Island of Jamaica, and made a flying circuit of that beautiful island. He was struck with its natural beauties, and the moral and social aspects growing out of its present anomalous condition, viz., the abolition of slavery, and made notes of incidents with a view to future publication. On his return to New York he assumed the duties of President of the Panama Railroad Company.

The two following winters of 1850-1 and 1851-2 he visited the Isthmus and personally supervised the work and progress of the road. On his return in the spring of 1852, he developed what is thought to have been a disease of the liver. From Bogota he was carried in a chair constructed on purpose, supported on pillows, and carried on the shoulders of men to the steamer on the Carthagena River. He returned to the United States, and after an illness of about four months died at forty-seven.


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John Stephens is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Painted in Latin America

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