When John Lloyd Stephens arrived in Central America for the first time in 1839, hardly anyone in the English-speaking world had ever heard about the Maya or their ancient cities buried under a millennium’s worth of tropical jungle. John Lloyd Stephens himself, however, was already well-known.
Born in Shrewbury, New Jersey in 1805, he had retired from his career as a lawyer in 1834 and gone on a two-year journey to Europe and the Mediterranean. The travelogues he had published after his return to the U.S. — Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land and Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland — had become instant bestsellers and earned him the nickname “The American Traveler.”
Reading earlier descriptions of the Mayan ruins in Palenque, Mexico ignited a keen interest in Stephens and he decided to explore the region himself. When U.S. president Van Buren offered to send him on a diplomatic mission to Central America, he accepted immediately. Accompanied by his friend Frederick Catherwood, an English architect he had met three years earlier in London who shared his interest in exploring Central America, his journey began in October 1839 and led him to various Mayan sites in present-day Honduras, Guatemala, Chiapas, and the Yucatan.
The conditions Stephens and Catherwood worked under were anything but ideal. Guided only by rudimentary and inaccurate maps, they had to fight their way through dense tropical jungle to reach the sites, and once there, the heat and the mosquitoes turned their lives into living hell. Suffering from tropical diseases and close to physical collapse, the duo finally returned to the U.S. in June 1840.
Their passion for the ancient Maya, however, was still not satisfied and in 1842 they returned to the Yucatan for another seven months in the field. Just like on their first trip, diseases and physical exhaustion eventually forced them to end their explorations and return to the U.S.
Stephens published two books about their journey to Central America: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatan in 1841 and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan in 1843, which describe 44 Mayan sites. Both volumes are illustrated by Catherwood’s drawings of the sites they had explored. The publications brought Central America and its fascinating history to the attention of the English-speaking world and set off a wave of enthusiastic adventurers who continued Stephens and Catherwood’s exploration of the Maya world.
After his Central American adventures, Stephens became involved in the transportation business. He worked for the Ocean Steam Navigation Company and the Hudson River Railroad Company before he accepted a position as vice-president of the Panama Railroad Company in 1849.
The Panama Railroad was to become the first commercial link between the Pacific and the Atlantic across the isthmus of Panama, and Stephens played a crucial role in its planning, financing, and promotion. He was responsible for negotiating contracts with the government of New Granada — present-day Colombia — and spent two years in Panama supervising the surveys and preliminary work.
John Lloyd Stephens died in New York City on October 13, 1852, apparently from a tropical disease he had contracted in Panama. For his groundbreaking work in Central America, however, he will always be remembered as the Father of Mayan Archaeology.