Captain Cook’s American
Connecticut-born John Ledyard became the first American to see Alaska and Hawaii. Years before Lewis and Clark, he planned to cross the North American continent—from west to east
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
If a judicious fate had deliberately selected one American as the first of his countrymen to see Alaska and Hawaii, our future forty-ninth and fiftieth states—to represent America to them, and them to America—it could hardly have chosen better than in John Ledyard of Connecticut. He was a man who seemed to have bred into his very bones an intuitive grasp of those American ideals which his friend Thomas Jefferson so enduringly expressed in the Declaration of Independence. To Ledyard nothing appeared more self-evident than that all men, of whatever race, color, or creed, were created equal, and that their common heritage was the free pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Primitive people could sense in him a direct and simple faith that human beings were indeed all of one family; and accordingly, whether they were Polynesians or Aleuts, they treated him like a brother.
Ledyard’s upbringing in the provincial democracy that was pre-Revolutionary New England, with an intellectual background colored by the European Enlightenment, no doubt encouraged his attitudes; yet to a great extent they must have been his by nature. Born in Groton, Connecticut, in November, 1751, he was the son of a sea captain engaged in the West Indies trade. There could have been no lack of adventure tales and cosmopolitan atmosphere for John in his early boyhood. But his father died at sea when John was only eleven, and the lad soon went to live in his grandfather’s house at Hartford. It was a conservative ménage, and young John fitted it poorly: he was too much inclined to go without his hat, wear his shirt unbuttoned at the neck, and take a close interest in tramps and wandering Indians.
During his teens John Ledyard vacillated between a career in law and one in the ministry. When he was twenty, a friend of his grandfather’s, Dr. Eleazar Wheelock, intervened. Wheelock, who had founded at Hanover, New Hampshire, a combination college and training school for missionaries to the Indians, asked if John would like to come up to help in the good work and at the same time secure a college education. Since there seemed nothing better to do at the moment, he packed his few belongings, and in April, 1772, left for the rustic environs of Dartmouth College.
Although Ledyard’s sojourn at Dartmouth was not long, it is possible that he left a stamp upon it almost as deep as that of the Reverend Dr. Wheelock. Broad-shouldered, yellow-haired, and handsome, the new student had a generous good humor that attracted his classmates even though they found him a bit eccentric in taste and manner. He was charged with energy; things were never dull when Ledyard was around. He is credited with having introduced dramatics into the extracurricular activities, delighting his fellow students with a sensational performance in Addison’s Cato. Better, he unofficially founded the Dartmouth Outing Club by inveigling a few undergraduates into an overnight camping trip in the snowdrifts of a nearby mountain.
But the most important thing he did, in view of his later career, was to vanish into the north woods for three months of travel and visitation among the Iroquois Indians. Christian proselytizing was his excuse, but there was no evidence that he converted any of the red men. On the contrary, the conversion may be said to have gone the other way. For Ledyard was fascinated by the customs and attitudes of this primitive culture and found himself with no disposition to alter or improve.
When he returned from the land of the Iroquois in the spring of 1773, Ledyard was more restless than ever. Having become entangled with Dr. Wheelock over payment of college bills, he decided to take a bold way out of his troubles. Evidently he had picked up some knowledge of dugouts from the Indians, and with the help of a few classmates he proceeded to hew out a large canoe from a pine tree cut on the bank of the Connecticut River. Near the end of April, with a fresh New England spring greening the New Hampshire woods, Ledyard equipped himself with a bearskin robe, some smoked venison, and a couple of books, and set out on his first voyage. It seemed a gallant gesture, a fine blow struck against humdrum reality, and it left an indelible impression on Dartmouth College. The undergraduates who still celebrate his feat each year by canoeing down the Connecticut to Hartford generally return to Dartmouth, satisfied with the gesture. But John Ledyard never went back.
Before another year was out, Ledyard had crossed the Atlantic twice, and had discovered himself to be quite at ease in his father’s calling. He was not so devoted to it, however, that other lures were unfelt. When his ship, a trading vessel, touched at Gibraltar in 1774, he turned up missing one morning. The ship’s captain, an old friend of Ledyard’s father, made a search and found John, resplendent in a red coat, drilling with the British garrison. The captain talked the commander into releasing his new recruit, and Ledyard, with some reluctance, returned to the ship.