1902 Encyclopedia > John Lloyd Stephens

John Lloyd Stephens
American traveller
(1805-82)




JOHN LLOYD STEPHENS (1805-1852), traveller, was born 28th November 1805, at Shrewsbury, N.J., United States. Having been admitted to the bar, he practised his profession for about eight years in New York city. In 1834, the state of his health rendering it advisable that he should travel, he visited Europe, and for two years made a tour through many countries of that continent, extending his travels to Egypt and Syria. On his return to New York he published (under the name of "George" Stephens) in 1837 Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land. This work was followed next year by the publication, also in two volumes, of Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland. In 1839 Stephens arranged with Frederick Catherwood of London, who had accompanied him on some of his travels, and illustrated the above-mentioned publications, that they should make an exploration together in Central America, with a view to discovering and examining ancient art said to exist in the dense forests of that tropical region. Stephens, meantime, was appointed United States minister to Central America. The joint travels of Stephens and F. Catherwood occupied some eight months in 1839 and 1840. As the result of these researches Stephens published in 1841 Incidents of Travels in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. In the autumn of 1841 the two travellers made a second exploration of Yucatan, the fruits of which were gathered up in a work published by Stephens in 1843,—Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. This work describes the most extensive travels executed till that date by a stranger in the peninsula, and, as the author claims, "contains account of visits to forty-four ruined cities or places in which remains or vestiges of ancient populations were found." It fixed the sites of many prehistoric cities and supplied correct delineations of their existing monuments. This publication enjoyed a wide popularity, and made such an impression on Prescott the historian that he urged Stephens to prosecute his researches of American antiquities in Peru. Stephens was, however, disinclined to so distant an expedition. He became a director of the newly-formed American Ocean Steam Navigation Company, which established the first American line of trans-Atlantic steamships. He visited Panama to reconnoitre the ground with a view to the construction of a railway across the isthmus, and, first as vice-president and then as president of the Panama Railway Company, spent the greater part of two years in superintending the project. His health was, however, entirely undermined by his long and incautious exposure to the deadly climate of Central America, and he died at New York on the 10th October 1852.

Stephens made no pretensions to the title of a scientific traveller. He had, however, a natural curiosity after all kinds of human knowledge, shrewd and accurate powers of observation, and a more than common measure of perseverance, tact, and resource.






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