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Xantus (the aristocratic title de Vesey was an affectation, of which he had several variations) was born Xántus János in Csokonya, Hungary.
Trained as a lawyer, he served as an officer in the nationalist uprisings of 1848-1849 in the Hungarian Army. Captured and exiled to Prague, he was arrested again, and escaped to the United States via England in 1850. In the U.S. he pursued a variety of occupations, including bookseller, druggist, a teacher, and hospital steward in the U.S. Army. In the Army he met Dr. William Alexander Hammond, a collector for the noted zoologist Spencer Fullerton Baird. Working under Hammond as an assistant surgeon, he soon developed an interest in natural history and became a gifted collector himself. In 1860 he was stationed in Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of the California peninsula, where he collected natural history speciments for the United States National Museum. They still have a nice collection originating from him. He managed to use the support of Baird and Hammond (later Surgeon General of the United States Army), getting them to write letters of recommendation on his behalf. On the basis of these he was given a consular position in Mexico, a position he promptly lost after embarrassing the Department of State by recognising a local rebelling warlord. Soon after this he returned to Hungary.