Of all the explorers and travelers I have written about, few are as fascinating and as little-known today as the American adventurer John Ledyard. He lived from 1751 to 1789, during the seminal years of American history; and his travels across the globe (especially in Russia and Siberia) mark him out as a man who deserves far more recognition than he has received from posterity. In fact, as I was researching his life in preparation for this article, I could hardly believe that his name had sunk into such undeserved oblivion. Let us give him his due now.
Who was this man? An acquaintance described him in this way:
To those who have never seen Mr. Ledyard, it may not, perhaps, be uninteresting to know, that his person, though scarcely exceeding the middle size, was remarkably expressive of activity and strength; and that his manners, though unpolished, were neither uncivil nor unpleasing. Little attentive to difference of rank, he seemed to consider all men as his equals, and as such he respected them. His genius, though uncultivated and irregular, was original and comprehensive. Ardent in his wishes, yet calm in his deliberations; daring in his purposes, but guarded in his measures; impatient of control, yet capable of strong endurance; adventurous beyond the conception of ordinary men, yet wary and considerate, and attentive to all precautions, he appeared to be formed by Nature for achievements of hardihood and peril.
He was born in Groton, Connecticut; his grandfather was a native of Bristol, England, and had come to America as a merchant. His father was involved in maritime commerce in the West Indies, but died young at the age of thirty-five. This left the weight of the household responsibilities to fall on his mother, a woman of strong character and conviction. Ledyard’s biographer Jared Sparks tells us, in his Life and Travels of John Ledyard, that his mother rose to the challenge:
It may be supposed, that misfortune did not weaken her parental solicitude, nor make her neglectful of her high trust. The education of her children was the absorbing object of her thoughts and exertions. Her eldest son was now of an age to receive impressions that would become deeply wrought into his mind, and give a decided bias to his future character. In the marked features of his eventful life, eccentric and extraordinary as it was, full of temptations, crosses and sufferings, may often be traced lineaments of virtues, and good impulses, justly referred to such a source, to the early cares and counsels of a judicious, sensible, and pious mother. [p.22]
Not having many options, Ledyard enrolled in Dartmouth College in the spring of 1772. The college had been recently been founded with the intention of educating and converting local Indian tribes. Ledyard thus prepared himself for missionary work. He did not like the work; the poverty and general wretchedness of the Seneca and Oneida tribes deeply disturbed him. In a letter to his benefactor Dr. Eleazer Wheelock, he wrote:
I am distressed to know what to do; the present poverty of these people cries aloud for the charity of God’s people; two years ago their corn was cut off by the frost, last year destroyed by the vermin, and worms threaten the destruction of one half of the present crop. Many of them for a month past have eat but once a day, and yet continue to work. From week to week I am obliged to go eeling with the Indians at Oneida Lake for my subsistence. I have feasted and starved with them, as their luck depends on wind and weather. If it should be asked, why they do not support me, the answer is ready, they cannot support themselves. They are now half-starved.
Some of them have no more than two quarts of corn. I fear my appearing in such a servile, beggarly manner, will very much disserve the design in view; but I must desist, must go down to the lake for eels this day, and return to-morrow to hill the corn and potatoes. Flour and milk with a few eels have been my living. Such diet, with my hard labour abroad, doth not satisfy nature…My poor people are almost starved to death. I am grieved to the heart for them. There is one family, consisting of four, I must support after my fashion, till squashes come on, or they must perish. They have had nothing these ten days, but what I have given them…[p.32]
He soon grew to despise missionary work. Yet his experiences with the Indians did ignite a latent passion for native cultures and foreign travel: and this was the theme that would dominate his life. His restlessness and active nature unsuited him for school discipline, and his chafed under the restrictions placed on him. He took to traveling on his own, and in 1773 he left college for good. At this point he decided to plunge head-first into a life of travel. His biographer admirably explains this decision in this way:
[P]overty stared him in the face; and at the age of twenty two he found himself a solitary wanderer, dependent on the bounty of his friends, without employment or prospects, having tried various pursuits and failed of success in all. Neither his pride, nor his sense of duty, would suffer him to remain in this condition one moment longer, than till he could devise a method of escape from it; yet the peculiar frame of his mind and temper was such, that nothing would have been more idle, either in himself or any other person, than to think of chaining him down to any of the dull courses of life, to which the great mass of mankind are contented to resort, as the means of acquiring a fortune, gaining a competence, or driving want from the door.
That he must provide for himself by his own efforts was a proposition too forcibly impressed upon him to be denied; but there seemed not a single propensity of his nature, which inclined him to direct these efforts in the same manner as other people, or to attain common ends by common means. Poverty and privation were trifles of no weight with him, compared with the irksome necessity of walking in the same path that all the world walked in, and doing things as all the world had done them before. He thought this a very tame pursuit, unworthy of a rational man, whose soul should be fired with a nobler ambition. [p.59]
He enlisted as a merchant seaman on a cruise bound for Gibraltar and the Caribbean. This further whetted his appetite; but on a later voyage he deserted in England and was impressed into military duty with the British Navy. This was a common practice at the time; naval duty was not popular (due to privation and strict discipline), and recruiters had to fill the rolls however they could. Nevertheless this experience Ledyard made the best of; he eventually had the chance to join the crew of the most noted explorer of the day, Captain James Cook, from 1776 to 1780.
This epic cruise with Cook took Ledyard all over the Polynesian regions of the Pacific, the Aleutian Coast, Alaska, and Hawaii. In adventures too detailed to recount fully here, Ledyard was one of the first (if not the first) Americans to make detailed observations on the Alaskan coast. In Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands), he was awestruck by the lush beauty of the islands, and attempted several expeditions inland. He even attempted to summit Mauna Loa, but was unsuccessful. Biographer Jared Sparks, writing in 1828, relates:
While affairs were in this train, Ledyard formed the design of ascending the high peak, which rises from the centre of the island, and is called by the natives Mouna Roa. Although this mountain stands on an island only ninety miles in diameter, yet it is one of the highest in the world. Its elevation has been estimated to be about eighteen thousand feet, and its summit is usually covered with snow. From his station at the tents, Ledyard sent a note on board the Resolution to Captain Cook, asking per mission to make this jaunt, for the double purpose of exploring the interior, and, if possible climbing to the top of the mountain. The request was granted…
The expedition ended on a tragic note with the death of Captain Cook, who was killed when relations with the islanders collapsed. The expedition returned to England, and Ledyard, still serving with the British military, was sent to Canada. There he promptly deserted and returned to Dartmouth after an absence of about eight years. He wrote an account of his travels in 1783 called Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage, a well-written memoir, which has the distinction of being possibly the first written account describing Hawaii that was published in North America.
With the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, Ledyard tried his hand in various commercial and trading ventures, none of which amounted to anything. In 1784, he visited Paris to meet another restless, disgruntled veteran of the Revolution, John Paul Jones. One of his major purposes was to plan an expedition that would explore the Pacific Northwest, then still very much terra incognita. In Paris Ledyard met both Jefferson (serving there as a US ambassador) and John Paul Jones, both of whom were remarkable men of energy and vision. It is amazing that the young United States was able to produce so many men of distinction in those days.
At this point Ledyard’s plan (with the backing of Jefferson, Jones, and several other notables) was among the most ambitious and audacious proposals in the history of exploration: he now wished to travel across Russia from West to East, across Siberia and the Bering Strait, move down through Alaska, cross the entire continental United States, and arrive back on the east coast of America! Such a proposal would be extremely impressive in 2017; in the 1780s it defied belief.
And so off he went. We regrettably cannot follow Ledyard on all his adventures in Russia and Siberia. But they are extremely interesting for the student of exploration or Russian history; we have few reliable accounts of native customs in Siberia and the Russian far East, and Ledyard’s travels fill a critical gap in our knowledge of the region.
Remarkably, he was able to discern the common ancestry of the American Indians with the Asiatic peoples of Siberia and eastern Russia, a fact that has now been confirmed by DNA evidence. Ledyard wrote the following perceptive words to Thomas Jefferson, which hint at further anthropological discoveries (global human diffusion) to come in a later century:
I am certain, that all the people you call red people on the continent of America, and on the continents of Europe and Asia, as far south as the southern parts of China, are all one people, by whatever names distinguished, and that the best general name would be Tartar. I suspect that all red people are of the same family. I am satisfied, that America was peopled from Asia, and had some, if not all, its animals from thence. I am satisfied, that the great general analogy in the customs of men can only be accounted for, by supposing them all to compose one family; and, by extending the idea, and uniting customs, traditions, and history, I am satisfied, that this common origin was such, or nearly, as related by Moses, and commonly believed among the nations of the earth.
There is, also, a transposition of things on the globe, that must have been produced by some cause equal to the effect, which is vast and curious. Whether I repose on arguments drawn from facts observed by myself, or send imagination forth to find a cause, they both declare to me a general deluge…[p. 338]
But foreigners traveling in remote regions frequently come under suspicion, even when they have official permission to be there. Ledyard was arrested in Irkutsk by the personal order of Empress Catherine the Great and taken into custody. The charge was apparently that he was a “French spy.” He was packed off to Moscow for a perfunctory hearing, and then deported from the country. The real reason for Ledyard’s expulsion? Catherine did not want an informed American to learn too much about Russia’s far eastern holdings, which at that time included Alaska.
An observer named Count Segur (who spoke to Catherine himself) claimed that her pretext for arresting him was an intention to save Ledyard from possible death in the wilds. “Possibly this pretext of humanity,” Segur wrote, “advanced by Catherine, only disguised her unwillingness to have the new possessions of Russia, on the western coast of America, seen by an enlightened citizen of the United States. The above, however, were the reasons she advanced to me.”
So Ledyard found himself back in London in 1788. But the relentless explorer had new vistas in mind: Africa. He assembled the men and supplies for such an expedition, and arrived in Alexandria soon after. He was able to explore parts of Egypt and even sent letters to Thomas Jefferson describing his experiences and findings. But here tragedy struck. He likely contracted some sort of disease in Egypt; his biographer only identifies it as an “attack of bilious complaint.” As a remedy, Ledyard began to take doses of vitriolic acid (now called sulfuric acid); whether this was administered by himself or by a local doctor, we do not know. The dosage was too great, and he died, despite an attempt to save him with a dose of tartar emetic. He was only 38 years old.
We do not know the exact date of his death, but it was probably near the end of November 1788. He was buried in Cairo, probably along the banks of the Nile, but the location of his grave remains unknown. Covered up by the silts and sands of time, as so much in human history, Ledyard’s achievements remain the only funerary monument to his memory, and these live on wherever men continue to celebrate heroic deeds.
Read more in Pantheon.