Tulane University’s John Geddings Gray Memorial Archaeological Expedition to Middle America, 1928

Charting the Gulf: Tri-Centennial Connection at the Latin American Library

With the following selections we commemorate the 90th anniversary of Tulane University’s 1928 John Geddings Gray Memorial Expedition to southern Mexico and the northern countries of Central America.  This was the fourth archeological expedition to Latin America launched by Tulane University in a series of similar expeditions, which had begun earlier in the 1920s.  Led by Franz Blom then Director of the Department of Middle American Research (today known as the Middle American Research Institute, MARI), the Geddings Gray expedition was considered its most ambitious and dangerous to date.  The first Tulane expedition, launched in 1925, traveled through southern Mexico and the Maya area from west to east; the results of which were published under the title, “Tribes and Temples.”  The goal of the fourth expedition was to traverse the Maya area (southern Mexico, Yucatán, Belize, and Guatemala) from south to north recording the ruins of ancient Maya culture, but it also aimed to gather information about the geography, natural resources, and indigenous people currently living in the region.  A full report on the Geddings Gray expedition was never published.  These four expeditions engendered a strong and enduring connection in terms of academic research focus and scholarship between Tulane University, New Orleans, southern Mexico, and Central America that continues to this day.


Members of the 1928 expedition (left to right): Ciraco Aguilar, F. Webster McBryde, Frans Blom, Dr. E.A. Brechtel, and Louis Kanter, gelatin silver print, 1928. Image Archive, The Latin American Library


Explorer’s Club certificate of approval, 1928. John Geddings Gray Memorial Expedition Collection, The Latin American Library


Above, an image of the official certificate of approval from the Explorer’s Club allowing Tulane’s John Geddings Gray Memorial Expedition to carry Flag 14.  Founded in 1904, the Explorer’s Club is an international multidisciplinary professional society that promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air, and space and is dedicated to preserving the instinct to explore.

Webster McBryde was a Tulane student, Class of 1930, who served as photographer and artist for the John Geddings Gray expedition.  Below is a fanciful pictorial map drawn by McBryde to show the route of the fourth expedition.


John Geddings Gray Memorial Expedition – 1928 (1930), by F. Webster McBryde. Map Collection, The Latin American Library


His map is interesting in that it strives to include daily experiences and encounters that add a colorful experiential dimension to the cartographic record.  The route taken by the explorers begins with the departure from New Orleans by ship across the Gulf of Mexico to Tampico and thence to Veracruz, Mexico that he illustrated with a tiny sketch of a ship.  Likewise, McBryde embellishes the chart of the jungle route with a mule train, shown in the image of one of his photographs below.  He also includes a picture of a Lacandon Maya man hunting with bow and arrow and sketches the extraction of gum from a Sapodilla tree, both events chronicled in the diaries of other expedition members.  Two pages from Director Frans Blom’s diary are reproduced below.  They describe the explorers’ encounter with Maya communities in Quintana Roo fighting to remain independent from Mexico despite influenza epidemics, hurricane disasters, and the invasion of chicleros – men who extract gum from the native trees for export used in the manufacture of chewing gum.


Expedition mule train, gelatin silver print, 1928. Photograph by F. Webster McBryde. John Geddings Gray Memorial Expedition Collection, The Latin American Library


Pages 498 and 499 of the typed copy of Franz Blom’s expedition diary, July 25, 1928. Franz Blom Papers, The Latin American Library