Travels in Mexico and life among the Mexicans/Chapter 9




"Thou Italy of the Occident!
Land of flowers and summer climes,
Of holy priests and horrid crimes;
Land of the cactus and sweet cocoa;
Richer than all the Orient
In gold and glory, in want and woe,
In self-denial, in days misspent.
In truth and treason, in good and guilt,
In ivied ruins and altars low.
In battered walls and blood misspilt;
Glorious, gory Mexico!"






AS part and portion of the great republic of Mexico, the-distant province of Yucatan deserves more than the mere mention it usually gets from passing travellers; but, lying as it does on the way between two great countries whose centres are eagerly sought, it is generally passed by. Differing essentially from the dominant States in everything relating to soil, agriculture, aspect of surface, and even the character and manners of its people, it merits a volume by itself, instead of these few chapters. Passing in review the forty days passed in Yucatan, I confess myself fairly in love with its people. This was the sentiment with which I left its territory, and which time and subsequent experiences have only strengthened.

Without mentioning any other quality than their universal honesty, I declare this in itself enough to excite the admiration of any traveller. To be able to journey, as I did, over many leagues of country unarmed, to be able to leave one's portable property exposed wherever one stopped, without a thought of it till one's destination was reached, assured that it would arrive in safety, is enough to cause any man in his senses to hold these people in affectionate remembrance. On the eve of departure, then, I would extend to them the hand of friendship,—ay, of affection; with the assurance that one stranger, at least, will long remember their many amiable traits.

The steamer was signalled; like every one that had passed for two months, it was full of engineers for the great railroads of Mexico, all hurrying forward to the capital, that wonderful city in the mountain valley. It was not strange, then, that I should have felt impatient to join that eager throng, and to hasten onward, where the pulse of human activity was beating more strongly.

As has been observed, Yucatan possesses few natural attractions in the shape of scenery, and its coast is no better than the interior; low, flat, uninviting, save only where a clump of palms rises above the sands.

Leaving Progreso in the evening, the next morning finds us off Campeche, ten miles from shore. It is the misfortune of this rather famous port that it has no harbor,—that, in fact, no vessel of any considerable size can approach within five miles of land. It is hence difficult to say, in the morning, which of the walled towns glaring white on shore is Campeche; but as the sun gets around to the westward, in the afternoon, the veritable one stands out, like a city of marble, against hills of green. Square white buildings are then plainly visible, and cathedral towers; and other towns shine along the coast, which is high, and apparently dotted with gardens. According to the Mexican law, the steamer is obliged to remain at least twelve hours in or off a port, and this delay gives us a chance to take a peep at Campeche, though through another's spectacles. We learn that it is a finely built city, though in a hot and not over-healthy locality. The character of the surface of the province is similar to that of Yucatan, though rising higher, and everywhere may be found peculiar subterraneos, or caverns. The city, indeed, is built above some very extensive ones, once used as catacombs, in which have been found mummies and idols.

Below Campeche is the isolated town of Champoton, where occurred, in 1517, the bloodiest battle that preceded the advent of Cortes upon this coast, when the Indians attacked Cordova, and killed or wounded all of his party save one. Below this deserted country is the Laguna de Terminos, and the low, unhealthy coast region famous the world over as producing vast quantities of logwood. Carmen is the headquarters for the logwood-cutters, situated on an island at the mouth of the great lagoon of Terminos. The sculptured tablet, of which mention is made farther on, was shipped from Carmen, by the United States consul resident there, to the Smithsonian Institution. Leaving Campeche, the steamer moves slowly on to Frontera, at the mouth of the river Tabasco, which once bore, and ought

TLM D165 Plan of Palenque.jpg

1 Palace. 4 Temple of the Cross. 7 Aqueduct.
2 Temple of the Three Tablets. 5 Temples of the Sun. 8 Ruins.
3 Temple of the Beau Relief. 6 Ruined Pyramids. 9 Ruins.

to retain, the name of Grijalva, who discovered it in 1518,—where the green and muddy waters, laden with the branches and trunks of trees, proclaim a stream of great volume, draining an area covered with tropical vegetation. The anchorage is six miles off a low and densely-wooded coast, with two breaks in it where the river comes out to the sea. A small steamer comes out here, which takes freight and passengers to the coast town, Frontera, and also to San Juan Bautista, the capital city of Tabasco, eighteen leagues up the river, the fare to shore being five dollars, and to San Juan twelve.

Another point of historic interest now claims our attention, for here it was that Cortes encountered the first determined resistance to his arms, and in the town, which he subsequently captured, he obtained that treasure so precious to him and his army, Marina, the Tabascan princess. Cortes landed here, and, drawing his sword, took possession of the country in the name of his Majesty the King of Spain, and made three cuts in a great ceiba tree (which may yet be standing, for they live to a great age) in witness thereof, declaring himself ready to defend it, against any one who denied his Majesty's claim, with the sword and shield he then held. A terrible battle shortly after ensued, in which cavalry were first used on the soil of Mexico. The Indians fought with incredible bravery, until Cortes and his small body of horse appeared in their rear, when they were panic stricken, thinking horse and rider one fearful being, and fled in dismay. It was on this occasion that there appeared (according to the historian Gomara) the glorious apostle St. James, riding on a dappled horse. Honest old Bernal Diaz, whose narrative I am following, says he did not see this apparition. But he adds, "Although I, unworthy sinner that I am, was unfit to behold either of those holy apostles (St. Peter and St. James), upwards of four hundred of us were present; let their testimony be taken."

After the Indians had tendered their submission, they were shown the horses, and when struck by their neighing were told that these wonderful creatures were angry because they had fought against them. The innocent natives then craved their pardon, and offered them turkey-hens and roses to eat, as did the Indians of Peten some years later. By sailing up the river Tabasco, a point may be reached, in the season of high water, whence a journey of two days overland will bring one to those grandest of Mexican ruins, the group of Palenque; and it is but a few days' travel to Chiapas and the Pacific.

"Unlike Copan, yet buried, too, 'mid trees,
Upspringing there for sumless centuries,
Behold a royal city, vast and lone,
Lost to each race, to all the world unknown,
Like famed Pompeii, 'neath her lava bed.
Till chance unveiled the 'City of the Dead.'
Palenque![1] seat of kings! as o'er the plain,
Clothed with thick copse, the traveller toils with pain,
Climbs the rude mound the shadowy scene to trace,
He views in mute surprise thy desert grace.
At every step some palace meets his eye,
Some figure frowns, some temple courts the sky:
It seems as if that hour the verdurous earth.
By genii struck, had given these fabrics birth,
Save that old Time hath flung his darkening pall
On each tree-shaded tower and pictured wall."

The poet has not exaggerated the beauties of Palenque, nor has pen yet adequately described them: they are indescribable. The buildings are situated eight miles from the small village of Palenque, and, though Cortes must have passed quite near them on his march to Honduras, in 1524, neither he nor his garrulous companion, Diaz, makes mention of them, and it was not till 1750 that they were discovered.

In 1787 they were explored, by order of the king of Spain, by Captain Antonio del Rio, whose report was only finally published in London in 1822. In 1807 they were investigated by Captain Dupaix, at the instance of Charles IV. of Spain; but his laborious work was not given to the light till 1834-35, in Paris. It is to the American traveller, J. L. Stephens, that we owe the best account of their present appearance, this gentleman having visited them in 1839-40, when on his way, for the first time, to Yucatan.

In Palenque we find those mounds, or terraced hillocks, upon which the buildings are erected, high and of vast dimensions. The "Palace" is the grandest structure, and is 238 feet in length by 180 feet deep, while its height is but 25 feet. It stands on an artificial elevation of oblong shape, 40 feet high, 310 feet front, and 260 feet at each end. It was constructed of stone, with a mortar of lime and sand, and the whole front was covered with stucco, and painted in red, blue, yellow, black, and white. Another building, the Casa de Piedras, is situated in a

TLM D168 Palenque resrtored.jpg


similar position to the Casa del Adivino in Uxmal, on a pyramidal structure, 110 feet high on the slope; and is "remarkably rich in stucco, bas-reliefs, and tablets of hieroglyphics."

These hieroglyphics, says Stephens, "are the same (?) as were found at Copan and Quirigua. The intermediate country is now occupied by races of Indians speaking many different languages, and entirely unintelligible to each other; but there is room for the belief that the whole of this country was once occupied by the same race, speaking the same language, or at least having the same written characters."

It would not be out of place here to introduce the speculations of the French naturalist, Morelet, upon the ruins and the people who once occupied them: "The analogy can no longer be denied between these ruins and the monuments of Mexico, which tradition attributes to the Toltecs. These comparisons show the action and preponderance of a common race over the whole territory lying between Cape Catoche (Yucatan) and the Mexican table-land. . . . . We find that the Toltecs, in the middle of the seventh century, were in possession of Anahuac, where civilization probably developed itself. Later they abandoned this region and emigrated in a southeasterly direction,—that is to say, into the provinces of Oaxaca and Chiapas. It is easy enough, therefore, to arrive at the conclusion that Palenque was founded at this time (?), and was consequently contemporaneous with Mitla (in Oaxaca). Says Herrera: While the inhabitants of Mayapan (Yucatan) lived in peace and prosperity, there arrived from the south, from the heights of Lacandon, a large number of people, originally from Chiapas, who, after having wandered forty years in the wilderness, finally settled ten leagues from Mayapan, at the base of the mountains, where they built magnificent edifices and conformed to the customs of the country. . . . . If the undisputed analogy be considered which exists between the ancient monuments of Mexico and the ruins of Palenque, and between the latter and those of Yucatan, and if we consider also the geographical position of these ruins, spread over the line of Toltec emigration, and bearing evidence of antiquity, the more marked because they are less distant from the point of departure,—if all these be considered, it will doubtless be granted that these different works were from the hands of the same people who successively built Tula, Mitla, Palenque, Mayapan, and all the edifices now in ruins on this peninsula."

Perhaps it will seem to later investigators more in accordance with discoveries, recent and in the past, to ascribe to Palenque the honor of being the original starting-place of the Toltecs. We should then read, as cities built in the order named, Palenque, Mayapan, Mitla, Tula, &c.; and we should also infer a greater antiquity than the above-cited writer assumes, and hold that, though the first intimation of the Toltecs is as moving from the north southward, yet they may have primarily emigrated northward from Palenque, in ages past, now lost in obscurity, from which they only emerge in historic times as returning to their former home.

TLM D170 Stucco ornament.jpgSTUCCO ORNAMENT.

We are all, presumably, acquainted with the relation, by the learned Brasseur de Bourbourg, of the native tradition of Votan. This personage, accompanied by chiefs and followers, landed, many years before the opening of the Christian era, upon the shores of the Laguna de Terminos. He ascended the great Usumacinta River, a tributary of the Tabasco, and near one of its affluents laid the foundations of a large city, which became the metropolis of a mighty empire. It was called Nachan, the city of serpents, and was none other than the beautiful Palenque, whose ruins alone we now gaze upon.

Alas for the vanity of human speculation and the insecurity of tradition! Theories, as I have previously remarked somewhere, are almost as various as the writers and investigators who have studied these ruins. There seems, however, to be a general belief that this region was the seat of a vast and influential theocratic empire. Upon the walls are sculptures which speak to us in an unknown language, hieroglyphics, and the chiselled types of a people long since departed. Regarding these, again, a writer of the early part of this century, Galindo, says: "The physiognomies of the human figure in alto-relievo indicate that they represent a race not differing from the modern Indians; they were, perhaps, taller than the latter, who are of a middle, or rather small stature, compared with Europeans. There are also found among the ruins stones for grinding maize, shaped exactly like those employed to-day by the Central American and Mexican Indians. They consist of a stone slab (metatl) with three feet, all made from one piece, and a stout stone roller, with which the women crush the maize on the slab. Though the Maya language is not spoken in all its purity in this neighborhood, I am of opinion that it was derived from the ancient people that left these ruins, and that it is one of the ancient languages of America. It is still used by most of the Indians, and even by the other inhabitants of the eastern part of Tabasco, Peten, and Yucatan. Books are printed in Maya (the language of Yucatan) and the clergy preach and confess the Indians in the same language."

These observations are thrown out, not to impede the progress of the reader, but to stimulate thought upon a subject which is constantly demanding and receiving increased attention from European, as well as from American scholars. In a ruined structure known as "Casa Number Two"—it is needless to say that this is not the name bestowed by its builders—is a portion of the famous sculpture known as the "Palenque Tablet," containing the figure of the cross, about which archaeologists have wrangled long and bitterly. A curious history pertains to this slab, which, so far as is known, is as follows. It was described and figured by Del Rio in 1787, and subsequently by all who visited the ruins,—Dupaix, Waldeck, Stephens, Charnay. In 1842, a portion of the sculptured slab was sent to the United States, where it now finds a resting-place in the National Museum at Washington. This portion is that represented in the right of the engraving, as containing the carven glyphs, and situated back of the human figure making the offering to the bird on the cross (see restored representation of the Palenque Cross, taken from the Report). To Professor Rau, of the Smithsonian Institution,[2] we are indebted for the restoration of the sculpture as it must have originally appeared in the "Sanctuary of the Cross," at Palenque. So that, through his diligent labors, though one portion of this valuable sculpture was torn by vandal hands from its place and sent to the United States, and another lies buried beneath the mould of the Tabascan forest, while but one third remains affixed in its original position in the wall, an exact picture of this great work as a whole is now placed before the readers of this volume. The description of it by Stephens is perhaps as good as any. "The principal subject of this tablet is the cross. It is surmounted by a strange bird, and loaded with indescribable ornaments. The two figures are evidently those of important personages. They are well drawn, and in symmetry of proportion are perhaps equal to many that are carved on the walls of the temples of Egypt. . . . Both are looking towards the cross, and one seems in the act of making an offering, perhaps of a child; all speculations on the subject are of course entitled to little regard, but perhaps it would not be wrong to ascribe to these personages a sacerdotal character. The hieroglyphics doubtless explain all. Near them are other hieroglyphics, which remind us of the Egyptian mode for recording the name, history, office, or character of the persons represented. This tablet of the cross has given rise to more learned speculation than perhaps any others found at Palenque."

We will not go into these speculations regarding the pre-or post-Columbian introduction of the cross into America, further than to mention that every evidence tends to prove the former; although we may not, perhaps, subscribe to the statement of a certain author, that it was originally brought here by St. Thomas, who is said to have preached to the Mexican heathen away back in the by-gones.

Professor Rau published an interesting comparison between the glyphs sculptured on the Tablet of the Cross and the symbols of the celebrated "Maya alphabet" of Landa, one of the first bishops of Yucatan. He found many points of contact

TLM D173 Tablet of the cross restored.jpg



between the two, and such differences as would naturally arise between the writing of a language at epochs perhaps thousands of years apart. Regarding the stucco ornaments, which are characteristic of Palenque, Stephens says: "The roof (of the Temple of the Cross) shows two slopes, the lower one of which was richly ornamented with stucco figures, plants, and flowers, but mostly ruined. Among them were the fragments of a beautiful head and of two bodies, in justness of proportion and symmetry approaching the Greek models." The building containing this treasure, the Tablet, is on a pyramid 134 feet high on the

TLM D175 Temple of the cross.jpg


slope, from the top of which a view extends, over a vast forest, to the Laguna de Terminos and the Gulf of Mexico.

The country southwest of Yucatan, that portion of Guatemala west of the British colony of Belize, south of Campeche, and east of Chiapas and Tabasco, is an almost unexplored region. Here the aboriginal Indians roam with all the freedom of their ancestors before Spanish dominion. Somewhere in this wild region is situated the "mysterious city" described by Stephens and Morelet, said to have walls of silver which glisten so that they can be seen one hundred miles away, and to be still TLM D176 Statue from Palenque.jpgSTATUE FROM PALENQUE. occupied by the descendants of its original builders. The ruins of former races may be traced throughout all Southern Mexico, through Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco, and Yucatan, until they culminate in the latter State in the wonderful structures that are the amazement of the present generation; but all are silent cities,—all their inhabitants departed, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years ago.

But here is said to be a veritable aboriginal city, not only preserving its own people, but retaining all the ancient customs and rites of their progenitors.

This is a region more worthy of investigation than the heart of Africa. To find the key to lost arts and manufactures, to find a people still preserving the rites of sacrifice,—this were enough to incite hundreds to exploration.

Unfortunately, those who go in never return! It is easy enough, apparently, to penetrate to that city, but no one who has once been there has ever been known to reach the coast again.

On the borders of that region is the wonderful Lake Peten, with its lovely town of Flores, on an island, in which the simple inhabitants set up an effigy of a horse of the Spanish conquerors, and deified it. Now what are the facts about that city? So far as we can learn, it was first made known to people outside of Mexico through the celebrated TLM D177 Statue from Copan.jpgSTATUE FROM COPAN.[3] archaeologist, Stephens. The cura of Quiche, an Indian town in Guatemala, told him that he had seen it from the ridge of high mountains visible from that very place. The difficulties in the way appalled even an intrepid traveller like Stephens, and he shrank from undertaking its investigation. That he firmly believed this story is evident to any one reading the pages of his books. Later on, he sums up the result of his explorations, and says: "In fact, I conceive it to be not impossible that within this secluded region may exist at this day, unknown to white men, a living, aboriginal city, occupied by relics of the ancient race, who still worship in the temples of their fathers." This was forty years ago. A few years later, a more adventurous traveller than Stephens, Monsieur Arthur Morelet, entered this region by the river Usumacinta, and skirted the border of that supposed centre of ancient civilization. Being alone, his adventures are of a more fascinating character than those of Stephens, who seldom departed from certain lines of travel. He plunged at once into the dense forests that surround the territory of the Lacandones, travelling from the Gulf coast at Laguna de Terminos to Lake Peten, thence to Guatemala (the capital), thence to the Gulf of Honduras, and home via Havana. He spent several years in that country, and evidently believed in the existence of the "mysterious city."

In an introduction to the English translation of the book written by the above-mentioned traveller, Mr. E. G. Squier thus speaks of this region, "lying between Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatan, and the republic of Guatemala, and comprising a considerable portion of each of these States, which, if not entirely blank, is only conjecturally filled up with mountains, lakes, and rivers. It is almost as unknown as the interior of Africa itself. We only know that it is traversed by nameless ranges of mountains, among which the great river Usumacinta gathers its waters from a thousand tributaries, before pouring them, in a mighty flood, into the Laguna de Terminos and the Gulf of Mexico. . . . . Within its depths, far off on some unknown tributary of the Usumacinta, the popular tradition of Guatemala and Chiapas places that great aboriginal city, with its white walls shining like silver in the sun, which the cura of Quiché affirmed he had seen with his own eyes from the tops of the mountains of Quezaltenango."

But did the endeavors to find this sacred stronghold cease with Morelet? By no means. If we are to believe a Spanish memoir, written by Don Pedro Velasquez, of Guatemala, the stories circulated by Stephens stimulated two young men of Baltimore to set out on an expedition for its discovery. Passing over the uneventful period of their voyage, we find them at last on the borders of the valley containing the object of their search. The city in all its glory of glistening walls and magnificent statuary shone before them; they entered its precincts, after a skirmish with the Indians, and saw its mysteries. Endeavoring afterwards to escape, one of them was sacrificed upon the high altar of the sun, and the other so badly wounded that he died in the forests of Guatemala. Only Don Velasquez and a few trusty guides escaped to tell the story of their perilous adventures. This was thirty years ago, since which time, so far as we can learn, no successful attempt has been made.[4]

Imagine what a stimulant to an earnest explorer the possible discovery of this wonderful city offers! It would be well worth a year of one's life even to look upon its walls, and another year would be a cheap purchase of a glimpse of its interior and people! It took such a strong hold upon the writer, that he narrowly missed going on the search alone, when, in 1881, he found himself on the borders of that country, in Yucatan and in Southern Mexico. Six years ago he was in correspondence with a well-known scientist in relation to an investigation of the adjacent country, and later he made a proposition to enter that region, and to devote several years to a study of the people inhabiting it.

It is his firm conviction that in no other way can be obtained the clew to the hieroglyphs that adorn the walls of those ruins in Yucatan and Guatemala. In no other way can we hope to obtain a knowledge of that strange people,—of their language, of their ancient arts and systems of government.

Unfortunately, scientific authority did not coincide with the views expressed, or rather could not furnish the necessary funds for the purpose, and the writer went towards South America, where he remained nearly three years, engaged in ornithological labors. When he again made a proposition for an extended tropical trip, he was asked if he would accept the position of naturalist to an Arctic exploring expedition; this was declined, and later filled acceptably by the gallant young Newcomb, of Salem, whose adventures have been published, and are well known.

Our scientific institutions seem bent upon wasting their energies by dashing their heads against the icy barriers about the Pole. Why not turn their attention to the tropics, to that portion of our country where American civilization had its birth?

  1. Pronounced Pa-lén-kay.
  2. "The Palenque Tablet,"—Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge,—by Charles Rau. Washington, 1879.
  3. A ruined city of Central America, on the Copan River, in Honduras. The ruins extend along the river for nearly two miles, and include a temple 624 feet long, pyramidal structures, and colossal carven idols and altar stones.
  4. We are not unacquainted with the recent alleged discovery, by M. Charnay, of ruins in the neighborhood of the Usumacinta, where he found an English traveller already in possession, and to which ruins he gave the name of "Lorillard City." But this, though an important discovery, was not in any sense an occupied city, nor did it add materially to our knowledge of those cities which lie buried in numbers in the immense forests of Tabasco and Guatemala.