John Lloyd Stephens

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John Lloyd Stephens
Incidents of Travel in Central America portrait.png
John Lloyd Stephens portrait published in 1854
Born November 28, 1805
Shrewsbury, New Jersey
Died October 13, 1852(1852-10-13) (aged 46)
New York
Nationality American
Fields Exploration
Known for Travels in Mexico and Central America
early visits and descriptions of Maya sites

John Lloyd Stephens (November 28, 1805 – October 13, 1852) was an American explorer, writer, and diplomat. Stephens was a pivotal figure in the rediscovery of Maya civilization throughout Middle America and in the planning of the Panama railroad.

Early life[edit]

John Lloyd Stephens was born November 28, 1805, in the township of Shrewsbury, New Jersey.[1] He was the second son of Benjamin Stephens, a successful New Jersey merchant, and Clemence Lloyd, daughter of an eminent local judge.[2] The following year the family moved to New York City. There Stephens received an education in the Classics at two privately tutored schools. At the early age of 13 he enrolled at Columbia College, graduating at the top of his class four years later in 1822.[3]

After working as a student-at-law for a year, he joined the Law School at Litchfield, Connecticut. He entered practice after finishing, and returned to New York.

After 8 years, he embarked on a journey through Europe in 1834, and went on to Egypt and the Levant, returning home in 1836. Stephens wrote several popular books about his travels and explorations.


He was recommended for the post of Ambassador to the Netherlands in 1839, but politics prevented him from securing the post (the one actually chosen for the job was Harmanus Bleecker).

In 1846 he would be chosen as delegate from New York city to the State Convention of New York to revise the Constitution. He was responsible for the introduction and the adoption of a Conciliation Court at the convention.

Mesoamerican studies[edit]

Stephens read with interest early accounts of ruined cities of Mesoamerica by such writers and explorers as Alexander von Humboldt and Juan Galindo.

In 1839, President Martin Van Buren commissioned Stephens as Special Ambassador to Central America. While there, the government of the Federal Republic of Central America fell apart in civil war. His Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán gives a vivid description of some of those events which Stephens witnessed. Stephens and his traveling companion, architect and draftsman Frederick Catherwood first came across Maya ruins at Copán, having landed in British Honduras (present-day Belize). They were astonished at their findings and spent a couple weeks mapping the site. They surmised that this must have been built by some long forgotten people as they couldn't imagine the native Mayans as having lived in the city. Stephens was actually able to buy the city of Copan for a sum of $50 and had dreams of floating it down the river and into museums in The United States. They went on to Palenque, Uxmal, and according to Stephens, visited a total of 44 sites. Stephens and Catherwood reached Palenque in April 1840 and left in early June. They documented the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Foliated Cross.[4] Of even greater importance, their book provided descriptions of several ancient Maya sites, along with illustrations by Catherwood.[5] These were greatly superior in both amount and accuracy of depiction to the small amount of information on ancient Mesoamerica previously published.

Stephens continued his investigations of Maya ruins with a return trip to Yucatán which produced a further book.

His books served to inspire Edgar Allan Poe,[6] who also reviewed three of his travel books for the New York Review and Graham's Magazine.

Stephens said that the Mayans built the Mayan cities instead of positing that Old World people built them like others had done.[7]

Panama railroad[edit]

At the time England enjoyed a monopoly over the ocean navigation to and from the United States. Stephens obtained a charter from the state of New York, and incorporated the Ocean Steam Navigation Company. The company acquired two steam ships, the Washington and the Hermann which made journeys to Europe.

When the Panama Railroad Company was founded in 1849, Stephens was chosen to be Vice President. He visited Panama and New Granada to make arrangements for the laying of the railroad. On his way to Bogotá, the capital of New Granada, he fell off his mule and was severely injured. He was never to recover from the effects of the accident. He returned to the United States, and was appointed President of the railroad company. He spent the next three years personally supervising the progress of the railroad. However, he suffered from a disease of the liver, and died after four months of illness at the age of forty-six. He is buried in the New York City Marble Cemetery.

Stephens is the subject of a biography Maya Explorer by Victor Wolfgang von Hagen, first published in 1947.


  • Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land (1837)
  • Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia and Poland (1838)
  • Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, Vols. 1 & 2 (1841) (Reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-108-01730-5)
  • Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, Vols. 1 & 2 (1843)


  1. ^ Person Detail: John Lloyd Stephens, New York State Literary Tree. Accessed December 4, 2007.
  2. ^ Harris 2006, p.1; Hawks 1853, pp.64–65.
  3. ^ Harris 2006, p.1
  4. ^ McNally (n.d.)
  5. ^ Solbert, Oscar N.; Newhall, Beaumont; Card, James G., eds. (November 1953). "Early Photography in Yucatan" (PDF). Image, Journal of Photography of George Eastman House (Rochester, N.Y.: International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House Inc.) 2 (5): 28–29. Retrieved 26 June 2014. 
  6. ^ Harris 2006, p.2.
  7. ^ L. Sprague de Camp (2012). Lost Continents. Courier Corporation. p. 105. ISBN 0486147924. Retrieved May 17, 2014. 


CABAÑAS, MIGUEL A. (2008) "Chapter One: Putting the World in Order: John Lloyd Stephens’s Narration of America." The Cultural “Other” in Nineteenth-Century Travel Narratives: How the United States and Latin America Described Each Other. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Harris, Peter (2006). "Cities of Stone: Stephens & Catherwood in Yucatan, 1839-1842". Co-Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Photoarts Journal (Summer 2006). Retrieved 2007-01-05. 
Hawks, Francis L. (1853). "The Late John L. Stephens" (digitized online by Making of America project, Cornell University). Putnam's Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art (New York: G. P. Putnam & Co.) 1 (1): 64–68. OCLC 50092694. Retrieved 2007-01-05. 
McNally, Shelagh (n.d.). "The First Explorers". The Revelations of Palenque. Mundo Maya online. Archived from the original on 2007-06-17. Retrieved 2007-01-05. 
Pérez Luna, Julio Alfonso (2002). "John Lloyd Stephens. Los indígenas y la sociedad mexicana en su obra" (PDF). In Manuel Ferrer Muñoz (ed.). La imagen del México decimonónico de los visitantes extranjeros: ¿un estado-nación o un mosaico plurinacional? (PDF online facsimile). Serie Doctrina Jurídica, no. 56. México D.F.: Instituto de Investigaciones de Jurídica, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. pp. 195–216. ISBN 968-36-9318-0. OCLC 50761138.  (Spanish)
Stephens, John L. (1841). Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. in 2 vols. Frederick Catherwood (illus.). New York: Harper & Brothers. OCLC 863468. 

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