"The Man Who Bought a City"
By Mildred Boyd
July 2004 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 20, Number 11

    It 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 William Hickling Prescott was even then in the process of unearthing them, but his Histories would not be published for another four years and Stephens remained unaware of their existence.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.

Read About Mexico