- Historic Sites
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
Writing to a fellow American diplomat in 1789, Jefferson sadly noted: “My last accounts from Ledyard … were from Grand Cairo. He was just then plunging into the unknown regions of Africa, probably never to emerge again. If he returns, he has promised me to go to America to penetrate from Kentucky to the western side of the Continent. …”
Ledyard had sent his mentor a courageous but disillusioned report from Africa. “Sweet are the songs of Egypt on paper,” he wrote. “Who is not ravished with gums, balms, dates, figs, pomegranates, cassia, and sycamores—without recollecting that amidst these are dust, eternal hot fainting winds, lice, bugs, mosquetoes, spiders, flies, pox, itch, leprosy, fevers and almost universal blindness?” He was disenchanted with the Nile: “…a mere mud puddle compared with the accounts we have of it. What eyes do travellers see with—are they fools or rogues?” He compares the Nile to “the river Connecticut” in size; and one cannot help feeling that he also compared, in his own mind, the fetid Egyptian banks to the cool April green of the New England woods which had cheered his youthful flight down the Connecticut from Dartmouth.
On November 15, 1788, Ledyard took up his pen again to write the last letter anyone was ever to receive from him. “I have been at Cairo three months,” he told Jefferson,
and it is within a few days only that I have had any certainty of being able to succeed in the prosecution of my voyage. … I travel from here Southwest about three hundred leagues to a Black King. Then my present conductors leave me to my fate—beyond, I suppose, I go alone. … Do not forget me. … I shall not forget you. Indeed, it would be a consolation to think of you in my last moments. Be happy.
Apparently it was only a few days later that, beset with a hundred irritations in the attempt to get started on his quest, Ledyard fell sick, overdosed himself with an emetic, and died at the age of thirty-seven. But if he did think of Thomas Jefferson in his last moments, he must have seen in his mind’s eye the far-flung American West, still awaiting its first explorer; and there may, too, have flashed before him a glimmering montage of those splendid sights in Alaska and Hawaii which he had been the first American ever to see.
* It was once thought that a Spanish navigator had touched at Hawaii in the sixteenth century, but this is now generally discredited.
** See Robert L. Reynolds’ “Seward’s Wise Folly,” in the December, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE.
***Since the Hawaiians had no written language, the first European attempts to spell their words were, to say the least, carefree.