Uxmal-on-Hudson: Mayan Ruins on Cruger's Island in the 19th Century

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The ruins of Uxmal presented themselves to me as a home...I had found the wrecks of cities scattered more numerously than I expected, but they were all so shattered that no voice of instruction issued from them; here they still stood, tottering and crumbling, but living memorials, more worthy than ever of investigation and study...perhaps the only existing vestiges that could transmit to posterity the image of an American city.

--John Llyod Stephens, from Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843)

In 1839, President Martin Van Buren appointed John Lloyd Stephens to the post of Special Ambassador to Central America. Together with his colleague, the draftsman and artist Frederick Catherwood, the pair made two trips to Yucatan, documenting the ruins of more than 40 Mayan cities. Contrary to the prevailing belief that the pyramids and the ornately carved stelae were created by 'Old World' immigrants (Egyptians or Phoenicians for example), Stephens believed these to be the work of ancestors of the indigenous people of the region. Stephens' books on this topic were wildly popular with a public fascinated by this evidence of these lost cities in the New World. Stephens and Catherwood also painstakingly shipped to New York a rich collection of the most interesting artifacts they could remove, and dreamed of housing these in a grand 'Museum of American Antiquities.'

A devastating fire in 1842 destroyed this dream, along with their collection of artifacts and most of Catherwood's drawings and paintings. A few objects, mostly from Uxmal, had been delayed in shipping. These Stephens gave to his friend and patron John Church Cruger, who lived with his family on the island that bears his name.

Cruger, not immune to the trend toward the picturesque architecture of his day, built fake fieldstone ruins on the tiny island beside his property to dramatically display the ancient stone artifacts. Stories survive of Cruger's habit of rowing guests around the island in the moonlight to show these objects to their best advantage. Here they remained into the next century, surely baffling anyone who chanced upon them unaware.

By 1919 Cruger's daughter Cornelia was the only surviving member of her family. She sold these artifacts to the American Museum of Natural History for the sum of $18,000, where they remain on permanent exhibit in the Mexican & Central American Hall. Some of the fieldstone towers, minus the arches, can still be seen by those exploring the area by kayak or canoe.

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