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Cities of Stone
Page 5

  Stephens' "favorable offer" was quite straightforward. Catherwood was "...to accompany the said Stephens on a tour through the provinces of Central America, and also the provinces of Chiapas and Yucatan, and ...exercise his skills as an artist, and make drawings of the ruins of Palenque, Uxmal, Copan, and other ruined cities, places, scenes and monuments as may be considered desireable by said Stephens...." In return for the exclusive use of these materials "said Stephens" was to pay Catherwood fifteen hundred dollars, plus expenses. A copy of this contract, in Stephens' hand and couched in his finest legalese, is in the J. L. Stephens papers at the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley. It is signed by both Stephens and Catherwood, and in Catherwood's hand is added the date, September 9th, 1839, and the postscript, "Received two hundred dollars on account of the above sum.-- F. C."

  It remained only for fate-- and Stephens' political connections-- to supply him with the diplomatic cachet which he felt would facilitate his operations. Frederick Catherwood relates: "Our preparations were scarcely completed when Mr. Legget, who was on the point of setting out as U.S. Minister to that country [Central America], died very suddenly, and upon application for it, Mr. Stephens immediately received the appointment. We had some misgivings lest it should interfere with our antiquarian pursuits, but Mr. Stephens contrived... to combine the chase after Government with a successful hunt for ruined cities."

  William Legget was a New York newspaper publisher, formerly part owner of the New York Evening Post with William Cullen Bryant. He had been appointed by President Martin Van Buren to succeed Charles de Witt (who had recently died of malaria contracted in Guatemala, and who had himself succeeded James Shannon, who had also died in office) in negotiating a trade agreement with the government of Central America. Stephens was at once chosen to fill this ill-starred vacancy. On hearing of Stephens' appointment, one of de Witt's relatives had sent him a letter: "May you be more fortunate than any of your predecessors." On October 3rd, 1839, the British vessel Mary Ann set sail from Manhattan, bound for Central America. She carried only two passengers: John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood.

  The Mary Ann arrived at Belize, the capitol of England's only Central American colony,Belize harbor, 1838 on October 30th. There the party remained for two days, enjoying the diplomatic hospitality of Colonel Alexander MacDonald, Her Majesty's Superintendent of the Colony of British Honduras. They were shown about the city by Patrick Walker, Keeper of the Public Records, Clerk of the Courts, Judge of the Supreme Court-- "Holding...," Stephens wrote, "such a list of offices as would make the greatest pluralist among us feel insignificant."

  When the object of Stephens' and Catherwood's visit became known, MacDonald quickly dispatched an expedition of his own to Palenque. He appointed Walker as its commander and Lieutenant John Caddy to serve as its artist. A certain competitiveness pervaded the British party, the Belize Advertizer reporting that the American expedition "has roused the jealousy of our Settlement." The Walker-Caddy expedition reached Palenque on January 30th, 1840, three-and-one-half months before Stephens and Catherwood. By the time Walker's official report reached England, however, Stephens' Central America had appeared in New York and London. Overshadowed by Stephens' "far more complete" work, it remained buried in the archives of the Colonial Office until 1967, when it was published in David Pendergast's Palenque: The Walker-Caddy Expedition to the Ancient Maya City, 1839-1840.

  By the 13th of November the American party had reached the ruins of Copan, in the Motagua River valley of Honduras on the banks of the Rio Copan. The brief notices on the site by Galindo and the fanciful description of Domingo Juarros in his Statistical and Commercial History of Guatemala were tantalizingly incomplete, and caused the explorers to arrive at the city "with the hope rather than the expectation of finding wonders." They were not disappointed. Sculptured stelae dotted the site, and the remains of monumental structures of worked stone were everywhere, all covered by the thick, strangling tropical jungle. "The city was desolate...," wrote Stephens. "It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came...."


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