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CENTRAL America and Yucatan, with their massive ruins of temples, palaces, and pyramids, have, for centuries, been regions of mystery. Travelers have not surveyed them with that accuracy which has been bestowed on other parts of the earth, and, though we know something concerning them, it is a question whether that which we do not know surpasses that which is known. Mr. Stephens, in his great and remarkable work on Central America, speaks with enthusiasm of the conversations he had held with an intelligent and hospitable padre, or Catholic priest, of Santa Cruz del Quiche, formerly of the village of Chajul, and of the exciting information he had received from him, concerning immense and marvelous antiquities in the surrounding country, which, till then, had remained entirely unknown to the world. The padre told him of vast ruins, in a deserted and desolate region, but four leagues from Vera Paz, more extensive than Quiche itself; and of another ruined city, on the opposite side of the great traversing range of the Cordilleras, of which no account had been given. But the most stimulating story of all was the existence of a living city, far on the other side of the great sierra, large and populous, occupied by Indians of the same character, and in precisely the same state as those of the country in general, before the discovery of the continent, and the desolating conquests of its invaders.
The padre averred that, in his younger days, he had climbed to the topmost ridge of the sierra, a height of ten or twelve thousand
extending to Yucatan ånd the Gulf of Mexico, had seen, with distinctness, in the remote distance, “ a large city, spread over a great space, with turrets white and glittering in the sun." His accounts of the prevalent Indian report was, that no white man had ever reached that city ; that the inhabitants, who spoke the Maya language, aware that a race of white strangers had conquered the whole country around them, had murdered every white man who had since attempted to penetrate their territory. He added, that they had no coin or other calculating medium ; no horses, mules, or domestic animals, except fowls, and “they kept the cocks under ground, to prevent their crowing being heard." The report of their slender resources for animal food, and of their perpetual apprehension of discovery, as indicated in this inadequate and childish expedient to prevent it, is, in most respects, contradicted in the account of the following adventurous expedition, which, if it may be relied on, obtained better information of the internal economy and condition of the people than could have been acquired by any Indians holding communication with places so very remote from the territory as Quiche or Chajul.
The effects of these extraordinary averments and recitals of the padre upon the mind of Mr. Stephens, together with the deliberate conclusions which he finally drew from them, are best expressed in his own language :
6. The interest awakened in us was the most thrilling I ever experienced. One look at that city was worth ten years of an everyday life. If he (the padre) is right, a place is left where Indians and a city exist, as Cortez and Alvarado found them ; there are living men who can solve the mystery that hangs over the ruined cities of America ; who can, perhaps, go to Copan, and read the inscriptions on its monuments. No subiect more attractive presents itself to any mind, and the deep impression in my mind will never be efficed.
“Can it be true ? Being now in my sober senses, I do verily believe there is much ground to suppose that what the padre told us is authentic. That the region referred to does not acknowledge the government of Guatemala, and has never been explored, and that no white man has ever pretended to have entered it, I am satisfied. From other sources we heard that a large ruined city was visible; and we were told of another person who had climbed to the top of the sierra, but, on account of the dense clouds rising upon it, he had not been able to see anything. At all events, the belief at the village of Chajul is general, and a curiosity is aroused that burns to be satisfied. We had a craving desire to reach the mysterious city. No man, if ever so willing to peril his life, could undertake the enterprise, with any hope of success, without hovering for one or two years on the borders of the country, studying the language and character of the adjoining Indians, and making acquaintance with some of the natives. Five hundred men could probably march directly to the city, and the invasion would be more justifiable than any made by Spaniards ; but the government is too much occupied with its own wars, and the knowledge could not be procured except at the price of blood. Two young men of good constitution, and who could afford to
phantom, in the wild scenes of a new and unexplored country, there are other objects of interest ; but, if real, besides the glorious excitement of such a novelty, they will have something to look back upon through life. As to the langers, they are always magnified, and, in general, peril is discovered soon enough for escape. But, in all probability, if any discovery is made, it will be mule by the padres. As for ourselves to attempt it alone, ignorant of the language, and with the mozos, who were a constant annoyance to us, was out of the question. The most we thought of was to climb to the top of the sierra, thence to look clown upon the mysterious city ; but we had difficulties enough in the road before us ; it would add ten days to a journey already almost appalling in the prospective; for days the sierra might be covered with clouds; in attempting too much we might lose all. Palenque was our great point, and we determined not to be diverted from the course. we had marked out." -- Vol. II., p. 193-196.
“Two young men of good constitution might succeed,” said Stephens. It is now known that two intrepid young men agreed to undertake the perilous and romantic enterprise, incited probably by this identical passage in Mr. Stephens' popular work--the one, Mr. Huertis, of Baltimore, an American of Spanish parents, from Cuba, the possessor of an ample fortune, and who had traveled in Egypt, Persia, and Syria, with the view of inspecting ancient monuments; the other, Mr. Hammond, a civil engineer from Canada, who had been engaged for some years on surveys in the United States.
Amply equipped with every desirable appointment, including daguerreotype apparatus, mathematical instruments, and fifty repeating rifles—the latter as precautionary in the event of an armed expedition becoming necessary—these gentlemen sailed from New Orleans, arriving at Balize, in the autumn of 1848. Here they procured horses and mules, and engaged a party of ten experienced Indians and Mestitzos. After pursuing a route through a wild, broken, and heavily-wooded region, for about 150 miles, on the Gulf of Amatique, they struck off more to the southwest, for Copan, where they arrived on the morning of Christmas-day, in time to partake of the substantial enjoyments, as well as to observe the peculiar religious ceremonies of the great Catholic festival in that secluded interior city.
Whilst loitering here to procure information and guides for their future journey to Santa Cruz del Quiche, they became acquainted with Senor Pedro Velasquez, of San Salvador, who described himself as a man of family and education, although a trader in indigo. His immediate destination, prior to his return to the capital, happening to be the same city, he kindly proffered to the two Americans the advantage derivable from his superior knowledge of the country, as well as other service in the form of negotiations. He was accordingly very gladly received as their friend and companion on the way. It is from a copy of a manuscript journal of this gentleman, that the translator has obtained what purports to be the results of this exploring expedition, in the untimely fate of Messrs. Huertis and Hammond, its unfortunate originators and conductors, and the discovery of those extraordinary living specimens of a race of beings, hitherto supposed either fabulous or extinct, and which are at once its melancholy trophies and its physiological attestors. For these statements Senor Velasquez must be held responsible, as the matter only admits of incidental corroboration.
In order, however, to avoid an anticipatory tresspass upon the natural sequence of the narrative, it may be proper to state, that, prior to his departure in their company from Copan, Senor Velasquez had received from his fellow-travelers no intimation whatever concerning the ulterior object of their journey, and had neither seen nor heard of those volumes describing the stupendous vestiges of ancient empire, in his native land, which had so strongly excited the emulous passion of discovery in their minds.
Frequently called by his mercantile speculations to perform long journeys from San Salvador, on the Pacific side of the Cordilleras, to Comyagua in the mid-interior, and thence to Truxillo, Omoa, and Ysabal, on the Bay and Gulf of Honduras, he had traversed a large portion of the country, and had often been surprised with sudden views of mouldering temples, pyramids, and cities of vast magnitude and marvelous mythology. As a man of unusual intelligence and scholastic acquirements, he had, doubtless, felt, as he states, a profound but hopeless curiosity concerning their origin and history. He had even seen and consecutively examined the numerous and ornate monuments of Copan ; but it was not until he had proceeded to the second stage of the journey from Copan to Quiche, that he was shown the engravings in the first volume of “Stephen's Central America,” in which they are so faithfully depicted. He recognized many of them as old acquaintances, others as new ones, which had escaped his more cursory inspection ; in all he could trace curious details, which, on the spot, he regretted the want of time to examine. He, moreover, knew the surly Don Gregorio, by whom Mr. Stephens had been treated so inhospitably, and several other persons in the vicinity of the ruins, whom he had named, and was delighted with the vraisemblance of his descriptions. The signor confesses that these circumstances -inspired him with unlimited confidence in that traveler's statements upon other subjects; and when Mr. Huertis read to him the further account of the information given to Mr. Stephens by the jolly and merry, but intelligent old padre of Quiche, respecting other ruined cities beyond the Sierra Madre, and especially of the living city of independent Candones, or unchristianized Indians, supposed to have been seen from the lofty summit of that mountain range, and was told by Messrs. Huertis and Hammond that the exploration of this city was the chief object of their perilous expedition, the senor adds, that his enthusiasm became enkindled to at least as high a fervor as theirs, and that, “ with more precipitancy than prudence, in a man of his maturer years and important business pursuits, he resolved to unite in the enterprise, to aid the heroic young men with his experience in travel and knowledge of the wild Indians of the region referred to, and to see the end of the adventure, result as it may."
He was confirmed in this resolution by severa, concurring facts, of which his companions were now told for the first time. He intimately knew, and had several times been the guest, of the worthy Cura of Quiche, from whom Mr. Stephens received assurances of the existence of the ruined city of the ancient Aztecs, as well as the living city of the Candones, in the unsubjugated territory beyond the mountains. He alleges that he was the more induced to yield credence to the padre's confident report of the latter, because his account of the former had already been verified, and become a matter of fact and of record. During the preceding summer, Senor Velasquez had himself joined a party of several foreigners and natives in exploring an ancient ruined city, of prodigious grandeur and extent, in the province of Vera Paz, but little more than 150 miles to the east of Guatemala (instead of nearly 200, as the padre had conjectured), which far surpassed in magnificence every other ruin as yet discovered, either in Central America or Mexico. It lay overgrown with huge timber in the midst of a dense forest, far remote from any settlement, and near the crater of a long-extinct volcano. On its perpendicular walls, 300 or 400 feet high, were aboriginal paintings of warlike and idolatrous processions, dances, and other ceremonies, exhibiting, like the architectural sculpture on the temples, a high state of advancement in the arts. And as he knew from personal observations that the good padre had proved veracious and accurate on this matter, the senor would not uncharitably doubt his veracity on a subject in which he again professed to speak from the evidence of his own eyesight.
The party, thus reassured, and more exhilarated than ever with the prospect of success, proceeded on their journey. It cannot be doubted that Messrs. Huertis and Hammond considered Velasquez an invaluable accession to their party, as a guide on whom they could rely, and acquainted with the dialects of many of the Indian tribes through which they would have to pass, as well as familiar with the principal stages and villages on their route, knowing both the places and persons from whence the best information, if any, concerning the paramount object of the 'ourney, could be obtained.
The senor's journal is fragmentary throughout, and relates to few incidents of travel between the capital of Vera Paz and Santa Cruz del Quiche. Under date of February 2d, 1849, within this period of travel, he notes : “ On the bank of a branch of the Salamo, attacked in the night by about thirty Indian robbers, several of whom had fire-arms. Senor Hammond, sitting within the light of the fire, was severely wounded through the left shoulder; they had followed us from the hacienda, six leagues, passed us to the north, and lay in ambush ; killed four, wounded three ; of the rest saw no more ; poor Juan, shot through the
The next memorandum is dated of the same month, 16th, when they had arrived at a place called San José, where Velasquez says: “Good beef and fowls; Senor Huertis much better;