When John Ledyard died in 1789, Thomas Jefferson called him “a man of genius, of some science, and of fearless courage and enterprise.”
It was both high praise and something of an understatement.
When it comes to living a life of adventure, few figures in Connecticut or elsewhere can match the stranger-than-fiction story that was Ledyard’s life. Traveler, writer, soldier, sailor and alleged spy, Ledyard was born in Groton in 1751. His father was a ship captain but died at sea of disease when Ledyard was young, and Ledyard spent much of his childhood in Hartford with relatives. In 1772 he attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire but frequently took unexcused leaves of absence from the school. He spent time camping in the woods and learning from indigenous people who lived nearby. In the spring of 1773, he made his own dugout canoe and traveled for a week down the Connecticut River to his family’s farm — no easy feat on a river that passed through the wild at many points and had dangerous falls.
After returning home to Hartford he told a relative he was ready to travel, writing in a letter, “I allot myself a seven year’s ramble more.”
Ramble Ledyard certainly did.
He went to sea and became a British marine. In June 1776 he joined the final voyage of Captain James Cook. During the famous voyage, the crew explored the Cape of Good Hope, islands off South Africa, the Cook Islands and Tahiti, and became the first documented Westerners to visit Hawaii.
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After the voyage, with the American Revolutionary War in full swing, Ledyard deserted the British Navy and came home to Hartford. “I made my escape from the British at Huntington Bay,” he wrote in a letter. “I am now at Mr. Seymour’s, and as happy as need be. I have a little cash, two coats, three waistcoats, six pair of stockings, and half a dozen ruffled shirts.” He added, “Many are my acquaintances. I eat and drink when I am asked, and visit when I am invited.”
It was in this period that Ledyard wrote a best-selling account of his fateful voyage with Cook. During the sea journey, Cook was killed by islanders in Hawaii while attempting to kidnap their monarch. The book not only secured Ledyard’s reputation as a world-famous traveler, but it became important for licensing purposes, as it was the first book in the U.S. to be protected by copyright law.
Newly famous, Ledyard came up with a business idea of trading North American furs with China. After he failed to get backing in the U.S., he traveled to Paris. There he became friends with Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson was interested in exploring more of the North American continent, and Ledyard was inspired to launch an audacious expedition. He planned to travel across Europe and Asia, sail to Alaska and then cross the continent to Virginia.
To begin this epic journey, he sailed to Hamburg and traveled more than 1,400 miles from the German city to St. Petersburg, Russia, arriving in March 1787. With a traveling companion, he set out upon a horse-drawn coach. He trekked through Russia and Siberia for 11 weeks, traveling more than 4,000 miles to the village of Yakutsk. But his forward progress through Russia was soon stymied when he was arrested in February 1788 on the order of Empress Catherine the Great. Russian authorities believed he was in the country as a spy attempting to uncover details about the country’s fur trade that could be used to break Russia’s monopoly, but it’s unclear if that was really the case.
Ledyard was deported from Russia but not discouraged from future travels. He made his way to London where he was hired to lead an expedition exploring Egypt. In Cairo, after contracting some unknown illness, he took too much vitriolic acid (now called sulfuric acid) as medicine and died as a result. He was just 38. His body was buried in Cairo along the banks of the Nile, though the place of his grave is unknown.
His name would fade from popular history, but his failed expedition helped inspire Jefferson to fund the famous explorations of Lewis and Clark. Reading Ledyard’s writings, it is also clear he cared about indigenous people, at least more than many of his contemporaries. At Dartmouth he bemoaned the poverty of the local tribes. Later in life he noted similarities between the customs and languages of indigenous people he encountered in different parts of the globe, from North America to Russia. He even theorized, correctly as it turned out, that Native Americans had originally migrated from Asia.