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Cities of Stone
Page 6

  After negotiating with the lease-holder of the land for permission to work at the ruins, Stephens began to explore the city and clear its principal monuments so that Catherwood could draw them.

  "We could not see ten yards before us, and never knew what we would stumble upon next. At one time we stopped to cut away branches and vines, which concealed the face of a monument, and dig around to bring to light a fragment, a sculptured corner of which protruded from the earth. I leaned over with breathless anxiety while the Indians worked, and an eye, an ear, a foot, or a hand was disentombed; and when the machete rang against the chiseled stone, I pushed the Indians away and cleared out the loose earth with my hands."

  It is a longstanding and popular myth, perpetrated by Stephens himself, that the ruins of Copan were purchased for fifty dollars. He clearly states, "I paid fifty dollars for CopanCopan." However, Stephens was not present for the actual drafting and signing of the contract, for it is Catherwood's signature that appears on the document. The contract stipulates that for a period of three years (the amount of time remaining on the lease) one Jose Maria Acebedo, lease-holder, granted permission to the "Senor Ministro de Norte de America ciudadano John L. Stephens, pa. que saque los retratos in geso de las piedras labradas que hay en este Pais." Further on in the contract it is once more stated that this permit is "solamente para que saquer los dibujos de las mencionadas Piedras." If Stephens thought that he had purchased the piedras labradas of Copan he was mistaken. He had merely purchased the right to draw them.

  Stephens remained at Copan for nearly two weeks, supervising the clearing of the site. But his diplomatic duties called, and he wished to discharge them as quickly as possible so that the party could continue their explorations. On November 26th he set out for Guatemala, where be hoped to find representatives of the Central American government, and left Catherwood to the work of surveying and drawing the city of Copan. Much of Stephens' Incidents of Travel in Central America is devoted to his unsuccessful search for a government to which he could present his diplomatic credentials. Although the book's fame today rests on its account of Maya ruins, this was not the sole reason for its success. Stephens was a keen and sympathetic observer, and his unaffected and at times humorous description of the land, its customs, and its civil war make agreeable and fascinating reading, even now.

  Central America was in turmoil. The confederation of Central American states, formed in 1822, had dissolved and the country was convulsed by civil war. Travel was dangerous, and ragged bands of ill-disciplined soldiers roamed the countryside, murdering and terrorizing those who opposed them. The forces of Rafael Carrera and Francisco Morazon were engaged in a series of fierce battles, Carrera's guerilla forces finally expelling Morazon from Guatemala, where Carrerea held absolute sway. (He was to remain president of Guatemala until his death in 1865.) Yet neither Carrera nor Morazon were associated with a political entity that could honestly be said to represent the Central American government.

  By Christmas it had become obvious to Stephens that the seat of government, if one existed at all, was not to be found in Guatemala. After his pre-arranged reunion with Catherwood in Guatemala City, he was off once again on his search for the elusive Central American government. By the end of March he had traveled through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador and returned to Guatemala, where he once again rejoined Catherwood. There was no federal government of Central America. "I was peffectly useless for all the purposes of my mission, and made a formal return to the authorities of Washington, in effect, 'after diligent search, no government found.'" The expedition then left Guatemala City, anxious to reach Palenque before the rainy season made the roads impassable.

  Their journey was an arduous one, and led across the rugged peaks of the Guatemalan highlands and through the thick, impenetrable jungle of the Peten. Along the way the party stopped to explore the ruins of Santa Cruz del Quiche and, further on, Tonina, near Ocosingo in Guatemala. They arrived at Palenque on the eleventh of May, where they learned that the Walker-Caddy expedition had not been "speared by Indians" as Stephens had heard in Guatemala, but had indeed arrived safely. It had taken the American party six weeks to cover the 250 miles from Guatemala City.


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