Man Who Bought a City"
By Mildred Boyd
July 2004 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 20, Number 11
wasn’t much of a city, really. The mysterious people who built
it had disappeared centuries ago and only monkeys, snakes, rodents and
brightly plumaged birds or the occasional hunting cat or wild pig roamed
the empty streets. The creeping jungle had long reclaimed what remained
of magnificent buildings plundered for centuries of ready cut stones
to build farmers’ homes, fences and outbuildings. And the price,
fifty U.S. dollars, was pretty steep considering that, not too long
before, the Dutch had purchased the entire island of Manhattan for a
handful of glass beads.
Still, there is no indication that John Lloyd
Stephens ever regretted his bargain. He was, in fact so pleased with
it that he later tried to buy another ruined city but his negotiations
to purchase Palenque were never completed. Stephens, educated in law,
had long abandoned any pretense of legal practice for his true love,
antiquarianism. He had already roamed the ancient cities of the Europe
and the Middle East and written two travel books about his adventures
before he discovered the existence of equally ancient and, more importantly,
mostly unexplored sites virtually on his own doorstep.
In view of the enormous amount of documentation
left by the conquistadors, this may seem strange but, in 1839, all those
letters, journals and reports had long laid forgotten in the imperial
archives of Madrid and Vienna. William Hickling Prescott was even then
in the process of unearthing them, but his Histories would
not be published for another four years and Stephens remained unaware
of their existence.
From the moment he accidentally ran across Colonel
Galindo’s dry military report with its glancing mention of ancient
buildings in Yucatan, Stephens was hooked. When further research unearthed
a reference to mysterious structures in the region of Copan, Honduras,
he immediately started packing. The sudden death of the U.S. Attaché
in Central America afforded the opportunity to go, not only with impressive
credentials, but at government expense. The appointment in his pocket
and his friend, artist Frederick Catherwood, in tow he set off.
Their immediate arrest on crossing the Honduran
border was the first clue that they had managed to arrive in the middle
of a small war involving three equally hostile forces, all more interested
in pillage than diplomatic niceties. There was a period of comic opera
skirmishing and many a tense moment with the whole party held at gunpoint
before Stephens finally found a government to accept his credentials
and could embark on his real mission; the search for Copan.
It was not easy. The jungle was well nigh impenetrable;
thorny plants tore at their flesh, their mules were often mired to their
bellies in swamps swarming with fever-bearing mosquitos and the stifling
heat made them faint. They fought on "...with the hope," Stephens
later confessed in his account of the adventure, Incidents of Travel
in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, "rather than the
expectation, of finding wonders."
But wonders there were, and what wonders! Stephens
and Catherwood stood in awe as their machete-wielding guide cleared
the first of many stelae found on the site. The intricately-carved figure
of a man, elaborately clothed and jeweled and wearing a towering head
dress stood almost 13 feet tall.
"The city was desolate," Stephens
wrote. "It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of
the ocean....her lost people to be traced only by some fancied resemblance
in the construction of the vessel, and, perhaps, never to be known at
all." But this thought did not stop him from hiring more men to
work clearing the jungle or Catherwood from setting up his drawing board
to document each exciting find.
A bewildering array of palaces, temples, pyramids,
ball courts and monuments slowly emerged from their cloaking greenery.
Most intriguing were the glyphs, small pictorial rectangles arranged
in rows and columns that were obviously some strange form of writing
and covered most flat surfaces, including the backs of the stelae and
the risers of sweeping stairways.
The science of archaeology was still in its
infancy and Stephens, like all early excavators, has been faulted for
enthusiastically destroying more that he saved. Catherwood’s name,
on the other hand, is blessed by Mayan scholars. His drawings of the
ruins and monuments, while they may not be great art, captured every
tiny detail with such amazing clarity and precision that they are, in
many cases, the only remaining record of artifacts since destroyed or
stolen and hieroglyphic inscriptions eroded into illegibility by nearly
two more centuries of exposure to the elements.
In the midst of this frenzy one of the workmen
stepped forward to announce that he, Don Jose Maria, was the
actual owner of this heretofore worthless bit of jungle. Startled that
anyone should claim his ruin, Stephens dismissed him peremptorily. Don
Jose went away but, after brooding over the insult to his dignity,
was soon back, more importunate than before. Stephens, realizing his
mistake, tried to mollify the man by flaunting his credentials as plenipotentiary
and, finally, offering to buy the land.
That anyone should exchange real money for something
so obviously without value only increased Don Jose’s
suspicions and stubbornness. "He seemed," Stephens reported,
"to doubt which one of us was out of his senses." As a last
resort, and for one of the few times on the entire mission, Stephens
donned his fancy Attaché’s uniform coat. That garment may
have been somewhat the worse for having been packed away for months
and probably looked a little strange worn over checked work shirt and
mud stained trousers, but the splendor of the large brass buttons and
lavish gold braid was overwhelming. Don Jose took one look
and capitulated. John Lloyd Stephens had bought himself a city and pre
Columbian archaeology was born!
Stephens’ book, lavishly illustrated with
Catherwood’s marvelous engravings, appeared in 1841, dispelling
forever the popular belief that the New World had been populated only
by packs of howling savages.