American Traveler: The life and adventures of John Ledyard - the man who dreamed of walking the world.
ISBN 0 465 09405 8.
John Ledyard was born in Groton, Connecticut in November 1751. Aged 20, he joined the recently opened Dartmouth college in New Hampshire, the "last university in the colonies to receive a royal charter". Blocked in his attempt to make a career as a missionary, Ledyard decided to embark on a seven year ramble, and in 1773, joined a ship that sailed to Gibraltar, North Africa and the Caribbean.
In March 1775 he sailed to England and joined the marines. After a year at Plymouth he was a corporal in the group that joined the Resolution as it prepared to leave on Cook’s Third Voyage. Of the 112 men on board there were six others from America. When he returned to Plymouth in 1780 he was promoted sergeant and, in 1781 sent with his company on a frigate to North America. There he "ran" to Connecticut and wrote his only book "A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage", printed in 1783. Zug explains how it contained many errors and straight plagiarism.
Ledyard tried to form a trading venture to buy furs from the NW coast to sell to China, but when it fell through, he sailed to Europe to try again. First in Spain and then in France, where he met Thomas Jefferson. After more frustration he decided to cross the American continent but Jefferson persuaded him to go by land to Kamchatka and cross to Nootka Sound. Denied permission to cross Russia by Empress Catherine, he tried London where he failed to join an expedition commanded by James Colnett.
In 1786 he walked across the Low Countries, crossed from Denmark to Sweden, and travelled through Lapland to Finland and thence to Russia. In August 1787 he arrived at the Siberian capital of Irkutsk where, in a museum, he saw a piece of Hawaiian bark cloth left by the Resolution in Kamchatka in 1779. By September he was in Yakutsk, only 500 miles from the Pacific. Catherine heard of his defiant journey and ordered his removal for fear he would interfere with her own plans for the fur trade.
Back in London in May 1788 Ledyard met Joseph Banks and volunteered to explore Africa on behalf of the recently formed Africa Association. He travelled overland to Marseilles and then by boat to Alexandria and thence Cairo. Exhausted from his many travels, he fell ill and took so much medicine to cure himself that he burst a blood vessel and died in January 1789.
Zug’s coverage of Cook’s voyage is particularly pleasing with useful quotes from several journals, not just Ledyard. Ledyard wrote many letters later in life and Zug uses them to illuminate Ledyard’s character and approach to life. Zug gives an extensive list of his own sources, with one of the best lists for Cook enthusiasts! He adds that "Ledyard’s most profound legacy was that he forged a new, American archetype: the heroic explorer." After reading this excellent book I understand why.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 41, volume 28, number 2 (2005).