John Ledyard’s mother hoped her son would be a missionary to Native Americans, but the Connecticut-born Dartmouth dropout had a different mission: to see the world and all its peoples. Within the space of two crowded decades, Ledyard toured the South Pacific with Captain James Cook, ventured among natives of the Aleutian Islands, and traveled deep into Siberia—where he was arrested for spying. Ledyard’s final journey, in 1788, took place along the Nile, underwritten by noted British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks.
Sometimes called “America’s Marco Polo,” Ledyard was more ethnographer than explorer. His memoirs brim with notes on the habits and similarities of cultures he encounters. But Ledyard’s most lasting achievement is not his writing, but the effort he put into a 1783 lawsuit to gain legal protection in Connecticut for his book, A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage. That measure led to enactment of a federal copyright law in 1790, a bit more than a year after Ledyard’s death.
Ledyard logged less than a year at Dartmouth, preferring to spend time among Native Americans. Dropping out, he collaborated with friends to build a 50’ dugout canoe. On a voyage now commemorated annually at Dartmouth, Ledyard—with a bearskin and two books, the Greek New Testament and an edition of Ovid—put into the Connecticut River and paddled alone to his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut.
In 1776, Ledyard, 25, enlisted in the Royal Marines and that July sailed from Plymouth with Cook on the explorer’s third voyage. Pausing in the Aleutians, the crews of HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery encountered natives clad in blue linen shirts and pants serving salmon baked in a crust of rye bread, a culinary legacy of Russian fur traders who had arrived decades before. Ledyard describes a trek he made to the island’s interior with natives to meet actual Russians, who served their guest boiled whale and rum.
Barred by naval regulations from keeping a journal, Ledyard nonetheless carefully observed all he beheld, such as details on the Aleuts: “The women cut their hair short, and the men wear theirs long. They have a custom of staining their bodies in a manner that is universal among all the islands, and is called by them tattooing; in doing so they pick the skin with an instrument of small sharp bones, which they dip as occasion requires into a black composition of coal dust and water, which leaves an indelible stain.” Ledyard later had his hands tattooed. The British expedition next headed to the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii, where the vessels’ arrival impressed locals.
“The intrinsic difference between us and them in every respect was certainly great,” Ledyard recalled. “But the greatest difference was imaginary respecting them and imputed to us, the moment therefore that this supposed superiority of ours should cease to exist or be diminished, our consequence and importance would be at an end…”
Ledyard evenhandedly depicts a disregard for cultural traditions that provoked an attack by natives in which Cook and three of his men died. Ledyard describes the fate of the captain’s remains: “We were extremely affected and disgusted when the other indian produced from a bundle he had under his arm a part of Cook’s thigh wrapped up in clean cloth, which he said he saw himself cut from the bone in the manner we saw it, and when we enquired what had become of the remaining part of him, he gnashed his teeth and said it was to be eaten that night.”
Arriving in London in 1780, Ledyard remained a Royal Marine until 1782, when he deserted, returning to Connecticut. To make money, he pitched prospective investors on a trading post in the Northwest and a publisher on a memoir of his travels with Cook, in the process petitioning a court to grant him a copyright on the resulting work. He argued that an account of Cook’s last voyage “may be essentially usefull to America in general but particularly to the northern States by opening a most valuable trade across the North Pacific Ocean to China and the East Indies.” No one bought into his trading gambit, but Ledyard did get Connecticut to protect copyrights.
Through his travels, Ledyard focused more on the puzzle of people than places. “I am now fully convinced, that the difference of color in man is solely the effect of
natural causes, and that a mixture by intermarriage and habits would in time make the species in this respect uniform,” he wrote. Thomas Jefferson, the American minister in France, met the explorer, whom Jefferson described as “a roaming, restless character” and a “man of genius, some science, and of fearless courage and enterprise.” Jefferson encouraged his countryman. “I suggested to him the enterprise of exploring the Western part of our continent by passing through St. Petersburg to Kamschatka, and procuring a passage thence in some of the Russian vessels to Nootka sound, whence he might make his way across the Continent to America,” the future president wrote.
Ledyard set off in 1787 but didn’t get far. Russia, ruled by Empress Catherine the Great, issued the wandering American papers admitting him to the country. He got as far as Yakutsk, Siberia, but when Ledyard was 1,930 miles southwest in Irkutsk, police seized him as a spy. He was sent to Moscow and held for more than two months.
“It would be excellently qualifying, if every man who is called to preside over the liberties of a people, should once—it would be enough—actually be deprived of his liberty unjustly,” Ledyard wrote of the episode.
Ledyard, 38, next persuaded the English naturalist Banks to fund an expedition up the Nile. At Cairo in November 1788, Ledyard fell ill; he died in January. In his last letter—to Jefferson—he mentions plans to visit to an African ruler. “If possible, I shall write you from the kingdom of this black gentleman,” the intrepid traveler wrote. “I shall not forget you; indeed, it will be a consolation to think of you in my last moments. Be happy.”