Catherwood made visits to Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine and made drawings and watercolors of the ancient remains there.
In 1836 he met travel writer John Lloyd Stephens in London. They read the account of the ruins of Copan published by Juan Galindo, and decided to try to visit Central America themselves and produce a more detailed and better illustrated account. The expedition came together in 1839 and continued through the following year, visiting and doccumenting dozens of ruins, many for the first time.
The expedition resulted in the book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, published in 1841, with text by Stephens and engravings based on the drawings of Catherwood.
Stephens and Catherwood returned to Yucatan to make further explorations, resulting in "Incidents of Travel in Yucatan'' in 1843.
The following year Catherwood published Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, with color lithographs from watercolors he made at various ruins.
A large number of his original drawings and paintings were destroyed when the building where he was exibiting them in New York City caught fire, but a number survive in museums and private collections, often showing more detail than the published engravings.
With the California Gold Rush Catherwood moved to San Francisco, California to open up a store to supply miners and prospecters, which he considered a more likely way to make money than chasing after the gold himself.
Frederick Catherwood died in a ship wreck.