CHARTING A COURSE
If Alice Dixon Le Plongeon had one disappointment about the 37 years with her husband, it was that Augustus had died so misunderstood and so maligned by his contem-poraries. Their years of exploration and research together in Yucatan had produced volumes of text and hundreds of photographs, yet it seemed that most archaeologists and Maya scholars in established positions were against them.
When Augustus Le Plongeon died in 1908 at the age of 82, it was his belief in ancient Maya civilization as the mother culture of the world that stood out in people's minds. His pioneering excavations, architectural floor plans and cross-sections, and detailed photographic records, carried out during a period of indigenous uprisings in Yucatan, were largely forgotten, as were his earlier achievements in medicine and the natural sciences.
For her part, Alice's narratives of life in the wilds, analyses of Maya history after the Spanish Conquest, and epic metaphysical poems about Maya princes and queens were widely published. She was equally as prolific as Augustus, and obviously the more literary of the two. Nonetheless, Alice was seen by many as merely a woman and a wife following after her husband, echoing his thoughts.
When Augustus left her a widow at the age of 57, not having reaped the financial rewards that they expected from their discoveries, Alice did the only thing she could. She continued to write feverishly, hoping to finish their work before she, too, died. She must have known that her own time was short. Yellow fever and malaria had taken their toll from the day she first set foot in Yucatan as a young bride, led from England by the determined Frenchman who had already seen so much of the world. While she still was able, Alice was determined to do what she could to alter the undeserved reputation of her husband's work.
In a tribute to Augustus Le Plongeon, published in 1909 by the International Congress of Americanists, Alice empha-sized his character and the roots of his motivation. "This active traveller and ardent scholar never consented to write a word about his own life, but always maintained that a man's work was the only important thing for his fellow-beings." In this case, she concluded, his work alone was not enough, so she filled in details of his family background, education, and early experiences that she hoped would bolster the tarnished image of her departed husband.
Augustus Henry Julius Le Plongeon was born May 4, 1826 to French parents on the Island of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands off the northwest coast of France. According to Alice, his father, Francois Guillaume Le Plongeon, was a member of the Legion of Honor, and a Commodore in the French Navy; his mother, Frances, was the daughter of Le Gros du Roche, Governor of Mont Saint-Michele. His great uncle was Lord Jersey. It was an auspicious sounding beginning.
When Augustus was 11, he entered the military college at Caen. While there, he learned of his mother's death, a devastating blow to the young boy. Her "memory remained ever sacred to him," Alice wrote. In 1841 Augustus began his schooling at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, and at age 19 graduated "with full honors."
After graduation, Augustus and a friend purchased a yacht and set sail for South America, hoping to travel and see the sights in that exotic land. Their boat was wrecked just off the coast of Chile. Somehow the two companions managed to swim ashore and made their way to the coastal town of Valparaiso. Augustus decided to settle in Chile for a time and found work teaching in a local college. Reflecting the broad and general educational preparation of the time, he taught drawing, mathematics, and languages.
When news of the California gold rush reached Valparaiso, Le Plongeon decided to sail to San Francisco. Again, formidable storms during the voyage nearly cost him his life. But the ship was spared, and reached the Califor-nia coast, where Augustus soon found another use for his navigational skills.
In 1850 he filed his professional card with the Marys-ville Herald, offering his services as surveyor and engineer. He had just finished laying out the streets of the town then called Yubaville, using a ship's quadrant. The town lay at the confluence of the Yuba and Sacramento rivers, a potentially important spot for deep-draft ships for the gold rush and later for agricultural commerce. Le Plongeon's signed and dated plan of the town was accepted by the city fathers in February 1851. He was also requested to provide a survey and plan for Linda, another town being established further up the Yuba River.
As payment for his services as surveyor and city planner, Le Plongeon was given the deeds to about 12 plots of land in those infant gold rush towns. From a set of 5 choice lots near Landing Square in Marysville, he sold several 20-foot frontages and some larger pieces, making a profit of $30,000. Le Plongeon carefully set aside this and other payments he received as a land agent to finance future travels to South America.
Another key figure in the establishment of Marysville was Stephen J. Field, who like so many others hearing of the California Gold Rush, came with little money but great enthusiasm. Within three weeks of arriving with only $10 to his name, he had contracted to urchase 65 lots for over $16,000, and had been elected Marysville's chief civil magistrate. For several years Field and Le Plongeon worked in tandem on land transactions, becoming close friends. Field went on to become a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court with power enough to influence the President of Mexico when Le Plongeon called on his old friend 30 years later.
Alice Le Plongeon's brief sketch of Augustus described an illness and long convalescent trip during his time in Marysville. According to her account, Augustus "contracted a severe fever in the course of his official duties" in 1851. He traveled to Europe and England to recuperate, attending some cultural events while there, one of which may have altered the course of his life.
At the Great Exhibition at Sydenham Palace, Augustus was quite taken by a demonstration of a new photographic tech-nique using paper. The new method, created by the photo-grapher Fox Talbot, produced a negative image on paper, from which multiple positives could be printed on sensitized paper. Until this breakthrough multiple copies of a photograph were impossible. The daguerreotype process formed an image directly onto a metal plate, with no negative to make additional prints.
According to Alice, Augustus persuaded Talbot to teach him the new paper method, learning it with a fellow student referred to as "Lord Russell." When Russell expressed regret that the method had not proven a success in Egypt, Le Plongeon offered to experiment in similar climates in the western hemisphere and, if successful, to send modified formulas to Lord Russell.
The experiments, made on the Island of Saint-Thomas in the Virgin Islands, where Le Plongeon was guest of the Governor, were successful and he sent the promised formulas to England. Sometime later Augustus received an album of photographs from Egypt, proof that the adjustments had worked, and that the climatic impediments had been overcome.
Augustus continued his travels sailing to Veracruz, then on horseback across Mexico to Acapulco. He then may have signed aboard a ship to the orient, working as a navigator. Such a trip could easily have taken six months to a year. Alice noted that he visited Australia, China, and the Pacific islands. By the end of 1851 he had returned to California to make more land trans-actions. He was in San Francisco for the 1852 census, in which he was listed as Louis Plongien, occupation--gentleman, born in France.
In June 1854 Augustus became a charter member of a new fire-fighting company, the Marysville "Salamander Hook and Ladder Company," composed almost exclusively of persons with French names. Le Plongeon was never active with the company, for he left town before it was officially recognized by the city council.
By 1855 Le Plongeon had established a thriving photographic business in San Francisco. His expertise with the new paper process was becoming a commercial success, according to a notice published in the October 20 San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin. "We are pleased to learn that our friend Plongeon, who has his Gallery of Daguerri-types [sic] and Paper Pictures, at Shew's old stand in Clay Street, near Montgomery, has been obliged to employ addition-al assistants in consequence of a rush of business; and has secured the services of Joseph N. Silviera, long known as one of the first operators in the state." The studio's success was no surprise to Le Plongeon himself, whose talent for jumping into new territory and finding creative solutions fit right into the scheme of things in goldrush San Francisco.
In 1856 Augustus was elected to the three-year-old California Academy of Natural Sciences as a resident member. This was indicative of a new direction Augustus was beginning to take in pursuit of various professions. He dabbled in law with some success, however his humanitarian leanings drew him even more strongly to the practice of medicine.
Augustus may have acquired medical expertise by appren-ticing himself to a physician, as was standard practice at the time in the United States. Such an apprenticeship was customarily in two parts. The first was a reading of basic texts on medicine under the guidance of the doctor. The second was "riding with the doctor," during which the apprentice gained practical experience. After two or three years of the apprentice-ship, the tutor would give his student a certificate of completion and bestow the title "Doctor." In the mid 1860s, Augustus Le Plongeon began using the title on all correspondence and publications. He soon gained notoriety for successfully treating a variety of difficult ailments. And even his foes and rivals addressed him as Dr. Le Plongeon throughout the remainder of his life.