John Lloyd Stephens was an American explorer, writer, and diplomat. Stephens was a pivotal figure in the rediscovery of Maya civilization throughout Middle America and in the planning of the Panama railroad.
Stephens read with interest early accounts of ruined cities of Mesoamerica by such writers and explorers as Alexander von Humboldt and Juan Galindo.
In 1839, President Martin Van Buren commissioned Stephens as Special Ambassador to Central America. While there, the government of the Federal Republic of Central America fell apart, in a civil war. He later published an account of the events he witnessed in Central America, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán.
Stephens and his traveling companion, architect and draftsman Frederick Catherwood first came across Maya ruins at Copán, having landed in British Honduras (now Belize). They were astonished at their findings and spent two weeks mapping the site. They surmised that it must have been built by some long-forgotten people, as they could not imagine it was the native Mayans. Stephens was actually able to buy the city of Copan for a sum of $50 and had dreams of floating it down the river and into museums in the United States.