John Lloyd Stephens was born in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, in 1805. His father was a wealthy merchant named Benjamin Stephens. John was raised in New York City, where he graduated from Columbia University. After graduating from law school Stephens opened his first office on Wall Street. Stephens loved travel, and soon he explored Egypt, Greece, the Holy Land, Russia, and Poland. At the conclusion of these expeditions he published two highly successful books that detailed his explorations.
Stephens would learn about the ancient ruins of Palenque in 1822. However, he did not decide to investigate its existence until 1839. At this time, most scholars believed that the Native Americans had never progressed beyond savagery. Stephens knew that scholars would never accept the fact the civilizations of the highest order had once flourished in the Western Hemisphere. He would need to go to Central America to find proof positive. Stephens decided to invite Frederick Catherwood. Catherwood had studied drawing at the Royal Academy. He was an architect, artist, and an authority on antiquities. He was especially good at drawing exact reproductions of sculpture and architecture.
Just prior to leaving for Central America Stephens was appointed United States ambassador to Central America. This was a position that he had applied for. Civil war had erupted in the region and Stephens believed that his diplomatic passport would afford him some immunity from the dangers. He and Cather- wood took a boat to Belize, and began making slow progress toward their first goal, the ruins of Copan. Stephens described the journey as requiring extreme physical exertion. He said, that each step had to be earned, because the jungle was so thick that it was almost impenetrable.
Finally, the group descended into the village of Camotan. It was here that they met a man named Don Gregorio. At first Don Gregorio, did not want them in his village. Then finally, he agreed to guide them. There was no path, instead they were forced to carve their way with machetes. Then suddenly they found themselves in the middle of wonders that exceeded their imagination. There were gigantic sculptured monoliths, alters, carved masks, animals, and humans, hieroglyphic writing, and huge pyramid like structures. Gradually, the outlines of the city began to appear out of the wilderness. The city covered almost 12 acres. It contained a huge acropolis, five plazas, and several living areas. Near the center of the acropolis was a massive pyramid. Adjacent to the northeast corner of the acropolis stood one the Mayan cultures most amazing architectural achievements, “Temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway. Every stone used to construct the steps was carved with hieroglyphics. In all, over 2,450 individual glyphs were used. This is the single largest Maya written inscription ever found. Eventually, John Lloyd Stephens bought the site from Don Gregorio for $50.
Then in 1840, they set out in search of Palenque. In Palenque they found a terraced pyramid covered in thick vegetation that they called the Great Palace. After Palenque they traveled through the Yucatan Peninsula and visited the Mayan ruins of Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Izamal, and Ake. As soon as Stephens returned to New York he began work on his book “Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan.” It was an account of their visits to 44 ancient cities. The book was an immediate best seller.