John Ledyard brings new meaning to the word “trekkie.” Like modern-day “Star Trek” devotees, Ledyard had an obsession with the final frontier and exploration. However, back in 1786, when the intrepid Dartmouth College drop-out managed to walk through Scandinavia in the dead of winter, the last unknowns were still earthbound. James Zug’s lithe, aptly-named biography, “American Traveler,” delightfully follows the haphazard journeys of the first great American explorer, who sailed with Captain Cook, dined with Thomas Jefferson, and tried to walk around the world.
Zug, a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly and previously author of “Squash: A History of the Game,” seamlessly incorporates the written words of primary sources—some of which were obtained from Harvard’s Houghton Library—into an engaging narrative as jam-packed with action as Ledyard’s short life.
Ledyard was born in 1751 to a pair of first cousins who had to run away from their homes in Groton, Conn., to get married. After his father died at sea, Ledyard went to learn business from his paternal grandfather—but the two were a mismatched pair. As a result, the older Ledyard diverged from the tradition of handing down his estate to his eldest son’s eldest son, leaving young John only 60 pounds—equivalent to almost $10,000 today. Not bad, but the estate was worth about $200,000.
Snubbed in the will, Ledyard headed north to the new Dartmouth College, which was not yet two years old. The entire institution consisted of only three log cabins buried in the rustic Hanover, N.H., woods. (It’s not much more of a happening place today.) But Ledyard sought to spice up life at the Big Green. He nettled the college president with cheeky requests for fencing lessons, and he audaciously organized a camping trip through knee-deep snow in the middle of winter. During a mysterious two-and-a half-month disappearance, Ledyard somehow managed to spend his £60-pound legacy, which had been earmarked for tuition. Ledyard fled the college by taking a homemade canoe down the treacherous Connecticut River.
This undignified departure closed the door on a ministerial career, but, as Zug rightly points out, Ledyard would never have lasted long in such a strict, ordered profession. He joined a sea voyage to England in 1775, deserted, and was pressed into service in the Royal Navy as the Revolutionary War loomed on the horizon. In 1776, Ledyard seized the chance to serve on the renowned Captain James Cook’s third expedition, which hoped to discover a Northwest Passage to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
For the next 80 pages, the book becomes an enjoyable chronicle of Cook’s voyage, sailing past Antarctica to Tasmania, New Zealand, and several exotic Pacific islands. Encounters with the natives usually involved gift exchanges, celebrations, and, of course, sex. In many cases, the island women would have sex for trinkets and clothes; when the ships reached the frigid Alaskan waters, some men had trouble staying warm in their few remaining clothes. Cook’s men infected the natives with devastating venereal diseases, which were transmitted back in a vicious cycle. Ledyard was infected. In Hawaii, the natives “aplly’d to us, for help in their great distress: they had a Clap, their Penis was much swell’d, & inflamed,” a lieutenant reported.
Cook’s flaming temper didn’t improve the situation. The captain took a possessive attitude toward the rank farm animals stowed on board. At Moorea in the Pacific, Cook became furious after two goats were stolen, rampaging through a village and burning down 200 huts. Cook’s explosive nature led to a fatal showdown with the Hawaiian people, and Cook was hacked apart for trying to kidnap the king. The crew later recovered “a horrifying package of burnt bones, thighs, calves, skull with one ear attached, arms and hands,” Zug notes.
But for Ledyard, the trip wasn’t entirely a failure. In Alaska, he encountered an outpost of Russian traders who introduced him to otter furs, which would become his own lifelong obsession. When the ships later sailed to China, Ledyard discovered that otter furs fetched a fortune—up to $5,000.
Cook’s two ships returned to England sans Cook, and Ledyard went back to his garrison. Feeling trapped in the rigid military, Ledyard deserted when his unit was stationed in Long Island for the Revolution. “Bound by the conventional and the ordinary, he would revolt,” Zug writes. Having quickly spent his navy pay, the poor Ledyard wrote a popular memoir of his voyage with Cook in an effort to drum up support among potential donors for a fur-trading expedition. Ledyard stirred up an interested group, but corruption abounded and Ledyard was cut out of the loop. One of his partners fled the U.S. after embezzling $200,000 from his creditors.
Ledyard traveled to France, where his celebrity allowed him to befriend Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, among others. He considered himself out of place among the rich and famous, since he was chronically short on money and always borrowing from his friends. Ledyard tried to set up a fur-trading mission again, this time with the help of the brash American naval hero, John Paul Jones. The plan met resistance from the major European powers, each of which was trying to corner the fur market for itself. His dreams dashed, Ledyard felt footloose.
A WALK TO REMEMBER
Ledyard decided to walk through both Europe and Asia, and, as if that were not enough, traverse the still-undiscovered western half of North America. Jefferson suggested that Ledyard have a 12-inch ruler tattooed on his arm so he could measure longitude without an instrument. (Ledyard rebuffed the suggestion.)
In November 1786, with only 50 pounds, a wool cloak, two dogs, a hatchet, and a peace pipe, Ledyard walked through northern Sweden and Finland to reach St. Petersburg, Russia. As he walked, he got in the habit of talking to himself in French: “I believe that wolves, rocks, woods & snow understand it, for I have addressed them in it & they have all been very complaisant to me,” he wrote to Jefferson.
After a short stay in St. Petersburg, Ledyard set off across Siberia in a kibitka, a coach drawn by three horses. But he never received permission to travel through the country from Catherine the Great, and the empress signed an order for his arrest. She feared that Ledyard was really trying to spy on the Russian fur trade, and perhaps pass the information along to the British. Ledyard was rudely escorted out of Russia and his goal of circumambulating the world ended in disappointment.
He returned to England just in time to hear that his old friends were organizing an expedition to Africa, and he, of course, volunteered. Unfortunately, so soon after his Siberian excursion, Ledyard’s health was not as vigorous as his spirit. “To those who knew him…the African adventure looked something like a death wish,” Zug writes. Ledyard only made it as far as Cairo. Suffering stomach pains, he took medication to induce vomiting. But he ingested too strong a dose, causing a blood vessel to burst. He died at the age of 37.
Ledyard was lionized in American newspapers after word of his death reached the States. His exploits attracted the attention of the famed historian and future Harvard president Jared Sparks, Class of 1815. Sparks published a comprehensive biography of Ledyard in 1828, the first edition of which now lies in Widener. Almost two centuries before Captains Kirk and Picard, Ledyard had set the standard for world travelers. He had dared to boldly go where no man had gone before.
—Staff writer David Zhou can be reached at email@example.com.