Hungarian: Csíktaplóczai (Vese) Xántus János
At a Glance:
Explorer, collector, attempted diplomat, pathological liar
Bird names: 1
Western North America
Xantus’s Hummingbird (Basilinna xantusii)
Xantus’s Murrelet (Synthliboramphus hypoleucus): split into Scripps’s and Guadeloupe Murrelets in 2012, but familiar to many under old name
The annals of explorers are filled with many larger than life figures, many of whose stories seem too full of daring exploits to be true. In fact, many of these accounts were at least somewhat exaggerated, the truth stretched a little to make for a better yarn. But this genre was a happy home for many a liar, and Xántus János, aka John Xantus, was one of the most prolific of them all.
Xantus (1824-1895) was born in Hungary as Csíktaplóczai Xántus János. At some point he decided to add the aristocratic name de Vesey to his name, and after serving as an officer in a series of uprisings against the Austrian Empire landed him in prison repeatedly, he escaped to the friendlier shores of the US. Adopting an Anglicized form of his name, the former lawyer joined the army as an assistant surgeon, eventually working under William Alexander Hammond. In fairness to Xantus, medicine as a discipline was still professionalizing in the mid 19th century, so this career trajectory doesn’t necessarily imply he lied about any qualifications, and the lack of formal training likely didn’t make him any worse of a surgeon than his diploma-holding colleagues.
Under Hammond, Xantus’s interest in natural history was sparked. He learned how to collect and prepare bird specimens while in Kansas, and after his transfer to California, continued to correspond with Spencer Fullerton Baird and Hammond while supplying them with a steady flow of specimens. He also wrote about his adventures in California and Mexico, especially for readers in homeland. There was one hiccup in that though: most of the incidents in his main work were fragrantly plagiarized from other authors, describing in great detail travels and encounters that other people had had elsewhere in Mexico and transplanting them to his post in Baja.
Xantus made plenty of enemies while in North America– almost every biography notes that he was a habitual liar and “quarrelsome man”– but it apparently took time for the extent of his fabrications to be known. His most egregious confabulations were in his travelogues, Xantus János levelei Éjszakamerikából and Utazás Kalifornia déli részeiben, which were written in Hungarian. It seems he banked on the fact that few people who could prove him wrong spoke that language, so he felt no compunction (well, even less than usual) in filling his narrative with the ruins of a lost civilization, describing pueblos and irrigation canals that nobody could find later.
While the facts Xantus presents are of dubious provenance, the attitudes on display give a more accurate image of the man. He doesn’t write in as much detail about the people of Mexico as other writers of the day; he spends most of his energy on detailed descriptions of plants and animals, building up an image of the region as untouched wilderness. When he does discuss the people, though, it is often on negative terms. He describes Creole culture as intellectually devoid, dehumanizing them as he casts them as incapable of having an interior world like his own:
“Seeing all this, and personally experiencing the exceptional hospitality of the Creoles to strangers, it would seem that their life is the most attractive and happy in the world. It may be so for the natives, but the North American and European who has learned to live a productive and intellectually satisfying life, would soon be bored by this life style and quickly realize that tropical life is not for him. . . . It is not life but merely vegetation”Utazás Kalifornia déli részeiben, p 149.
His attitudes towards Indigenous people is characteristic of the day, swinging between the trope of the “noble savage”, and descriptions of them as wretched and barely human:
“I do not recall ever seeing more miserable looking creatures; their legs and thighs were shapeless, short and thick; their faces and other parts of their body were completely naked and covered with tiny segments of peeling skin like fish scales. . . . One of them talked incessantly, but his speech sounded more like the bark of a sheep dog than a human voice. Both of them just stared, for they were incapable of expressing the joy they must have felt when we left them without harming them or their horses.”Utazás Kalifornia déli részeiben, p 111.
Xantus had a short-lived career as a diplomat as he tried to find ways to stay in Mexico. It’s unsurprising that he ended up as a consul in Manzanillo, Colima, in part because of some string-pulling by Baird and other influential voices in Washington. Xantus may have had ulterior motives in becoming involved in Mexican affairs on behalf of the US government: he believed that Baja California could industrialize and become an economic center, but only under American control. He saw Mexican culture and government as fundamentally incompatible with productivity, and as such advocated that the US invade. Regardless of whether he took the position to achieve these colonialist dreams, though, he didn’t have much of a chance to pursue them: within months, he attempted to negotiate peace with a rebel warlord in the area, and during this, recognized his authority. This ran counter to US policy, so he was relieved of his post.
After this debacle, Xantus returned to Hungary for the rest of his career, taking advantage of an amnesty policy for those who had fought in the Hungarian War of Independence. Sources are much harder to come by for the remainder of his life: he seems to have settled down as much as someone like him could, becoming a curator of ethnography at the National Museum in Budapest. He undertook one other major trip, collecting in Asia in 1868-1870, but to his dismay many of the specimens ended up in Vienna. No descriptions of his loose relationship with the truth turn up in this period; however, it’s unclear if his latter career has been subjected to the same scrutiny as his time in North America.
Xantus seems to have been a talented naturalist, but his record is marred by his constant need to make himself ever more grandiose, and by his contempt for the people he encountered in Mexico. It is hard to sort through his career, sifting out the truth from the prose he stole from others and the creations of his imagination. He’s not the only person in the history of ornithology to try to make his own legend more impressive. But one thing seems true: he’s probably the most prolific liar to appear in this collection of biographies.
Laylander, Don. 2014. The beginnings of prehistoric archaeology in Baja California. Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 50. pp. 1-32. [link]
Matthews, John. 1993. Little favors from my government: United States consuls in Mexico, 1821-1865. Dissertation. [link]
Venkovits, Balázs. 2013. Revisiting the legacy of János Xántus: an inter-American approach. Proceedings of the 11th Conference of the Hungarian Society for the Study of English. pp. 495-510. [link]