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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
But he was still a British marine when he returned to England in the fall of 1780. He was obliged to stay there until his enlistment expired early in 1782, while the American Revolution dwindled toward its close. Refusing to fight against his countrymen, he was detained in barracks for two years. Then, sent out on a frigate that cruised American waters for several months, he finally managed to jump ship, and joyously surprised his mother by appearing suddenly at the inn she ran in Southold, on Long Island, New York.
Back home after nearly seven years, Ledyard hurriedly worked his notes on Captain Cook’s last voyage into a publishable journal, sold it to a Hartford printer, and set about promoting his project. His plan was to get sufficient backing to outfit a good ship, sail around the Horn to Nootka Sound, barter for a load of furs from the Indians, and send it on to China for fabulous profits. Ledyard himself, meanwhile, would have begun his great trek across America to the back door of the new republic.
But Yankee businessmen were as yet hard to convince when it came to such exotic ventures; and Ledyard’s eye, they thought, had a too-romantic gleam. Discouraged after a fruitless year of hard work, he went to France, where prospects looked brighter. John Paul Jones was there, loaded with prize money from the capture of British ships; he took a keen interest in the Nootka scheme, and tentatively offered himself as a partner. For the noncommercial side of Ledyard’s project there was even more impressive support in Paris. Thomas Jefferson, the newly appointed American minister, found in Ledyard a kindred spirit. He too had dreamed of probing the great western wilderness that one day, he felt sure, would be peopled by Americans; and Ledyard’s idea of exploring it alone caught his imagination. They spent many pleasant hours talking at Jefferson’s dinner table in the fall of 1785; and when, after weeks of negotiating, John Paul Jones decided that the venture was too risky, Jefferson was almost as disappointed as Ledyard.
“My friend, my brother, my Father,” Ledyard began a letter to Jefferson a few months later when he was in London for one last try to find a ship for the Pacific Northwest. It was a salutation expressive of the deep feeling he had developed for the older man, and there are indications that in generous measure the feeling was returned. The last try had fallen through like all the others, and now Ledyard was ready to adopt a startling remedy that Jefferson had proposed. If it was impossible to secure a ship, why not go by land? Jefferson had seen ample evidence of Ledyard’s strength, courage, and self-reliance: he seemed a fit candidate to attempt “to circumambulate the globe,” walking across Europe and Siberia to the Pacific, and perhaps crossing to America with Russian fur traders.
It was an idea just wild enough to appeal to Ledyard, who after three years of frustration was in a mood for drastic action. His finances, as always, were low, but his morale was still amazingly high. He drew heavily on his fund of friendship with Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, whom he had also come to know well in Paris. “I am indeed a very plain man,” he wrote Jefferson just before starting out in November, 1786, “but do not think that mountains or oceans shall oppose my passage to glory while I have such friends in remembrance.”
He little guessed what he was in for. With almost no money and less luggage, he doggedly made his way up through Denmark, Sweden, Lapland, and Finland, and down to St. Petersburg; and from there—walking, hitchhiking, living largely on haphazard hospitality--all the way to Yakutsk, more than halfway across Siberia. “He says,” Jefferson explained to a mutual friend after receiving a letter from Ledyard, “that having no money they kick him from place to place & thus he expects to be kicked round the globe.” But Yakutsk turned out to be the end of his luck. There Russian officials, evidently suspicious of this strange American who already knew far too much about Russian fur trade in North America, began to put obstacles in his path, and after maddening delays he went back some 1,500 miles to Irkutsk to spend the winter of 1787. Suddenly, with an abruptness and lack of explanation that would have done credit to a Soviet commissar, one of Catherine the Great’s provincial governors arrested him, and he was packed out of Russia by sledge-and-pony express at the killing rate of nearly a thousand miles a week, to be dumped unceremoniously across the Polish border less than a month later. It had taken him half a year to cover the same distance going the other way.
Destitute, broken in health, Ledyard stumbled back to London in the spring of 1788, his dream of American glory splintered on the rocks of imperial Russian hostility. But his American spirit was intact. Concealing his physical condition and his desperation, he undertook, only a few weeks later, a dangerous project in a quite different direction. The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, a group of wealthy English gentlemen, desired to sponsor an expedition to trace the course of the mysterious Niger River and locate the fabled city of Timbuktu. Would Ledyard lead the expedition, and if so, how soon could he be ready to go? “Tomorrow morning,” Ledyard replied.