Ledyard: in search of the first American explorer.
Harcourt Books, Orlando, Florida, USA.
Gifford has presented us with a very comprehensive and most interesting biography of a most interesting and intriguing man. John Ledyard sailed with James Cook but he achieved more than that. For example, as Gifford points out, he is mentioned in Herman Melville's classic "Moby Dick" when Ishmael compares himself and his fellow sailors to "Ledyard, the great New England Traveller".
Ledyard was the sort of person who attracts adjectives and descriptions - larger-than-life, con-man, chameleon, charmer, rebel, charismatic, idealist, ladies' man, mercenary and loner. When considered altogether a person emerges who warrants having his story told but, when you have read it, you are left wondering how much was true, how much Ledyard himself made up and how much has developed over the years.
John Ledyard was born in Groton, Connecticut in 1751, the oldest child of John and Abigail Ledyard. When Ledyard was ten his father died at sea and Ledyard was sent to live with a domineering grandfather in Hartford while his mother remarried in 1765. This unsettled childhood probably helped form Ledyard's independent and rebellious streak.
In 1772, it was arranged for Ledyard to attend John Wheelock's Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, with a view to becoming a missionary to the Indians. Ledyard went there in 1772 but in 1773 he rebelled and ran away. He actually paddled away down the Connecticut River in a canoe, an act celebrated and re-enacted by students at the college to this day.
Ledyard's family had emigrated from Bristol and, in March 1774, he sailed from New York to Falmouth to seek out family connections. He was either unable to make contact or he was not able to furnish proof of his identity so it came to nothing. Being out of money (a situation that reappears continually through his life), Ledyard enlisted in the Marines at Plymouth on 15 July 1775.
He becomes of interest to Cook scholars when, one year later, Ledyard joined Cook's Third Voyage as marine corporal on Resolution. Ledyard attracted attention when he was sent as envoy to the Russians on Unalaska in October 1778. He could rightly claim to have already had experience dealing with Native Americans. Close to the end of the voyage, Ledyard was raised to sergeant.
Ledyard remained in the marines and waited vainly for promotion or recognition. He was in a difficult position, having been born in North America where his family was still located and siding with independence while he, himself, was serving the British. Ledyard, refused to fight Americans so was confined to barracks in Britain. However, he sailed to America in 1782 and deserted onto Long Island before crossing to Hartford to live with his uncle, Thomas Seymour. It was at times like these that several of Ledyard's traits emerge. That he could so easily switch allegiances shows his chameleon and mercenary side while his ability to explain such switches highlights his being something of a con-man with charisma.
His next act, which brought him fame, was to write an account of Cook's third voyage "A Journal of Captain Cook's Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean and in quest of a North-West Passage" that was published in Hartford in 1783. He basically plagiarised an anonymous account (usually attributed to Rickman) published in London in 1781 adding a few original descriptions here and there.
Like several others who had sailed on the third voyage, Ledyard realised the commercial possibilities of the sea otter fur trade on the Northwest Coast of America and tried unsuccessfully to interest traders and merchants in New York and Philadelphia in backing a venture. In 1784 he went to Paris where he became friends with Thomas Jefferson, the newly appointed American ambassador to France. Jefferson then suggested that Ledyard could walk to Kamchatka across Russia and Siberia and from there he could sail to Nootka on the American Northwest. Ledyard took up this somewhat incredible idea.
Jefferson wrote to Lafayette on 9 February 1786 saying:
He had a "spirit of enterprize... He has genius, an education better than the common, and a talent for useful and interesting observation. I believe him to be an honest man, and a man of truth. To all this he adds just as much singularity of character, and of that particular kind too, as was necessary to make him undertake the journey he proposes.
Ledyard set off on his great trek with a little financial backing from Sir Joseph Banks, whom he had managed to persuade to back him. He walked via Copenhagen and reached Stockholm in late January 1787. He then supposedly walked right round the Gulf of Bothnia as mild weather meant it was not ice covered and could not be traversed on foot. Ledyard arrived penniless as ever in St Petersburg in March 1787. Three months later, Ledyard set off east by stage coach and mail courier, accompanying William Braun, a Scottish surgeon who was returning to Joseph Billings's expedition with supplies. Ledyard knew Billings having sailed on Cook's Third Voyage with him.
Ledyard was well received and entertained in Irkutsk, though he was representing himself by now as Colonel Ledyard. The local governor, General Yakobi, arranged for Ledyard to continue eastwards and gave him a letter of introduction to Gregory Marklovsky, the commandant at Yakutsk. When Ledyard reached Yakutsk he had been overtaken by winter and Marklovsky explained it would be impossible to reach Okhotsk. He invited him to stay with him and, in early November, Billings arrived to winter over in Yakutsk.
In late 1787, Russia went to war with Turkey and foreigners travelling about the country were regarded with suspicion so Ledyard was arrested in February 1788 and escorted back to Moscow. After questioning, he was sent to Mahilyow in Belarus and taken to the Polish border where he was expelled from Russia and ordered never to return.
Ledyard made his way to London and once more sought out Joseph Banks. A new expedition was mooted by Banks and the African Association to explore overland routes from Alexandria in Egypt to the Niger. Ledyard was offered the task and he departed on 30 June 1788. He reached Cairo in August. However, he died in Cairo in November 1788 aged only 37, either from dysentery or an excessive dose of tartar emetic intended as a cure.
On 24 July 1790, The Times reproduced a piece that had previously appeared in the "Proceedings of the Association for promoting the Discovery of the interior Parts of Africa". It shows Ledyard's ability to inspire and generate confidence:
He came to see the writer of these memoirs. Before I had learnt from the note the name and business of my visitor, I was struck with the manliness of his person, the breadth of his chest, the openness of his countenance, and the inquietude of his eye. I opened a map of Africa before him, and tracing a line from Cairo to Sennar, and from thence westward... I asked him, when he would set out? "Tomorrow morning was his answer."
Gifford tells Ledyard's story well and captures the remarkableness of the man. As well as the positives, he also recounts the negative points such as Ledyard's readiness to accept hospitality and financial support, not always with thanks, and then to openly criticise those people who have helped him. Gifford credits Ledyard with having ideas and observations that he passed on in letters he sent from Russia to Jefferson. Knowing Ledyard's personality it is easy to be suspicious though that he appropriated some if not all of those ideas and passed them off as his own.
One small gripe with Gifford centres on the passages involving himself, which add nothing to the book. In these, he provides descriptions of having sailed in the Endeavour replica and crossing Siberia by train. Other than that, this is an excellent book providing much information about one of Cook's colleagues. You finish knowing much about Ledyard and wanting to meet him to find out how much was true. One can only hope that it causes people to research and write the stories of all the other men who sailed with Cook and whose lives remain largely unknown.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 37, volume 30, number 3 (2007).