- Historic Sites
Artist Of A Buried World
In the dense jungle lay the ruins of an imposing culture, unknown and unsuspected. But Frederick Catherwood, with his pencil and brush, made the silent stones speak
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
The surprise—or it should have been—was the text. Catherwood was not a writer, even though he had done an occasional article on Mediterranean archaeology. Yet the calm, judicious, even brilliant manner in which he summed up the Maya in terms of their architecture was indeed impressive. It must be understood that he had nothing, or next to nothing, to draw upon other than his own experience. The public, avid then as now for the sensational, had been fed on gibberish about the wandering tribes and floating Egyptians who were supposed to have peopled the ancient American world. Catherwood found Maya architecture entirely dissimilar to the Egyptian, or to anything else in the Old World; his conviction, contrary to most who were then writing on the subject, was that the Maya architecture was not of immemorial antiquity. “I do not think,” he said specifically of Uxmal, “we should be safe in ascribing to any of the monuments a greater age than from eight hundred to a thousand years …” It was a remarkable deduction, since the Maya dateglyphs had not then been deciphered. Catherwood placed Uxmal’s buildings at about 1044 A.D. The glyphs say that it was built between 987-1007 A.D.
Catherwood’s conclusions about the Maya ruins anticipated much subsequent scholarship. He argued that they were not “the work of unknown races; but that, as we now see them, they were occupied and possibly erected by the same Indian tribes [Maya] in possession of the country at the time of the Spanish conquest—that they are the production of an indigenous school of art, adapted to the natural circumstances of the country.” Finally, he maintained that “they present but very slight and accidental analogies with the works of any people or country in the Old World.”
If there is a Magna Charta of American archaeology, this declaration written in 1844 by Frederick Catherwood is it.
The remainder of Catherwood’s life was anticlimax. Stephens had helped form the Panama Railway Company and gone off to Panama to push it through and to acquire, among other things, the disease that would shortly kill him. Frederick Catherwood, civil engineer (he now dropped the “archt.”), set off for British Guiana to build South America’s first railway. One gathers from the official reports that the trip did neither him nor the rail line much good. All too often there appears in the official diary: ”… there was considerable disagreement with Mr. Catherwood.” To provide laborers Catherwood had to import Negroes from Jamaica. At this the colonists complained of the abuse of their women by the migratory workers, and Catherwood had to arrange for other ladies to be available along the route of the railway. In May, 1849 —bogged down in flies, floods, and floozies—he resigned or, as the official report had it, was relieved “for reasons of economy.”
In the autumn of 1849, Catherwood was approached by Stephens’ Panama Railway Company, perhaps to direct the “works” in the Isthmus, while Stephens himself went to Bogota to straighten out a contract with the Colombian government. Catherwood was willing, but the amount of money was a problem, “as it is absolutely necessary that I should be doing something and my children are growing up around me. My boy, who is as tall as myself, is a good classical scholar and arithmetician, so much so that I intend to bring him up as an engineer.” Meantime another idea had bitten him: California. “If I were to go out to Panama it would be with the view, after my year of service had expired, to try my fortune at San Francisco …” That was precisely what he did.
By 1851 he was established at Benicia, “The Queen City of the Bay,” then only a settlement of straggling huts. There was a scheme afoot to make Benicia the principal port in the Bay region, however—to wean away the shipping from nearby San Francisco by building a railway from Marysville to Benicia, cornering the major share of California land—and commerce.
As soon as the principal merchants in San Francisco learned of the scheme, the “war of ports” began, and by that time Frederick Catherwood was very much a part of it. “I am very actively employed here engineering for the P. M. S. S. Co. [Panama Mail Steam-Ship Company].” Later he was an engineer for the Marysville-Benicia Railroad Company. “I am very very well pleased with my position at present … and have become much attached to California,” so much so that he even urged Stephens to come out and enter California politics. “Why don’t you become a candidate for the US Senate … it is not too late and you would have an excellent chance of success …”
In 1852 Catherwood was again in England, presumably to settle his affairs and return to California since he had, contrary to his original intention to have nothing to do with the “diggings,” acquired shares in the Comstock Mine. Before leaving he learned that his old friend Stephens had died in New York City, and he arranged a new edition of Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America as a sort of memorial. As it happened, this was to be his own memorial as well.