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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
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.
He was to get his red coat again, ironically enough, just before his native country declared its independence. The fourth of July, 1776, found Ledyard on the deck of H.M.S. Resolution as it lay off Plymouth, England, about to sail for the Cape of Good Hope and the Pacific. Knowing little of the stirring events back home, he had eagerly signed up with Captain James Cook in the spring of 1776 when fortune had brought him to London. Cook was no doubt impressed with the young American’s bursting good health, good looks, and alert enthusiasm; at any rate he saw to it that Ledyard was commissioned a corporal in the complement of marines chosen to go along with a handpicked crew.
It was to be the third of Captain Cook’s momentous voyages of discovery in the Pacific. Few men in history have so changed the map of the world as this sailor son of a Yorkshire farmer. A near-genius in marine cartography, he had already made notable surveys of the St. Lawrence River and the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland before the Admiralty, in 1768, sent him on his first mission to the South Seas. Like images emerging on a photographic print thrust into developing fluid, Australia and New Zealand took shape on the map as Cook cruised and charted their shores. Going out again in 1772, he penetrated the Antarctic Circle and proved that the old rumor of a great continent lying just south of Australia was a myth; he partially made up for this erasure by discovering New Caledonia and a few smaller islands.
But the North Pacific was still largely a realm of wild surmise. The exploration of this vast area and, more specifically, one last search for a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific, were the goals of Cook’s third voyage. The dream of easy access to China across the top of the American continent—perhaps by a strait linking Hudson Bay to the Pacific—was one that died hard in the minds of English kings, queens, and navigators. Sailing from the south, Sir Francis Drake had tried to make it a reality for Queen Elizabeth in 1579, but never got farther than what is now the state of Washington; many others had tried, in later years, from the northeast. Cook’s aim—kept secret from his crew until they had been gone from England for many months—was to strike the western shore of North America at approximately the forty-ninth parallel of latitude—which passes through Vancouver Island off the mainland of present-day British Columbia—and then nose carefully up the coastline, charting as he went, and poking into any likely-looking inlet that might conceivably be the Passage. At best, he would get through; at worst, it was hoped, he would contribute some realistic zigs and zags to the map of northwestern North America, the eighteenth-century outline of which was absurdly smooth.
Cook was in his prime as a sea captain—he was forty-seven in 1776—and knew all there was to learn about successfully conducting a long ocean voyage in a sailing ship. His qualifications as surveyor and navigator were matched by a shrewd insight into the nature of the British seaman; he was always firm but seldom unjust, and made the men feel a rare sense of participation in the mission of each voyage. In an age when it was common to lose nearly half a ship’s company through disease on a long expedition, Cook had no peer as a guardian of his crews’ lives and health. He seemed to have a sixth sense about such shipboard scourges as dysentery and scurvy: his innovations in diet and sanitation alone would have earned him a place of honor in the annals of the sea. Of 117 men who sailed on the Resolution, only five succumbed to sickness on a voyage lasting over four years; her consort ship, the Discovery, lost not a single man.
Although only a corporal, John Ledyard ranked as an officer in Cook’s company, and as such found himself among an extraordinary group of men. There was George Vancouver, a midshipman who later (1792–95) would immortalize his own name by leading a similar exploratory venture. There was Lieutenant John Gore, one of the most experienced sailors afloat—born a Virginian, but a veteran of the Royal Navy for so many years that he no longer considered himself a colonial. And there was the sailing master, William Bligh, who because of the mutiny led by Fletcher Christian was fated to achieve a most unsavory reputation as captain of the Bounty, but who nevertheless was a first-rate navigator and deck officer. Besides these accomplished seamen there was a parcel of scientists who interested Ledyard even more: an astronomer, a botanist, and an artist sent along to record flora and fauna, including Polynesian natives.
One Polynesian native was already on the Resolution. This was Omai, a young man from Raïatéa (an island near Tahiti) adopted on Cook’s second voyage and taken to London. Having soon acquired a gloss of fashionable manners and upper-class English speech, he was the guest most in demand at London parties for an entire season—arrayed not in his native loincloth, but in silk, velvet, and lace. It was the era of the “noble savage,” that sentimental invention of eighteenth-century Europe which was to find its American counterpart in the saga of Hiawatha. Almost everyone in London society saw Omai as Nature’s original gentleman; even Dr. Samuel Johnson, no romanticist, remarked that his table manners were unimpeachable.
Ledyard, observing Omai at close quarters as the Resolution carried them toward the South Pacific, was not favorably impressed. As a result of his experience with Indians he had already formed the opinion that it was a mistake to transplant a native from his own culture to that of “civilization,” and in Omai he saw not only signs of corruption but evidence of defects in the original specimen. “His ignorance and vanity,” Ledyard noted in his journal, “are insupportable.” Soon he was to see natives who struck him as much finer representatives of Polynesian culture, both physically and mentally.
A splendid example was Phenow, a young chief of the Tonga Islands, where Cook (who called them the Friendly Islands) visited in the spring of 1777. This tall statuesque youth Ledyard described as “one of the most graceful men I ever saw in the Pacific ocean. He was open and free in his disposition, full of vivacity, enterprising and bold … the idol of the fair, having himself one of the most beautiful brunetts for a wife, that the hands of nature ever finished.”
That quick switch of attention to the female is a ready clue to what Ledyard, like so many others, found almost overwhelmingly attractive about Polynesia. If Omai was a fraud of sorts, there was nothing false about the beauty of the brown-skinned, marvelous girls who swam out to the ships with breasts entrancingly bare, their white teeth flashing in superb contrast to their black hair whenever—and it seemed to be always—they smiled.
The whole company was dazzled. Even Captain Cook, a man of severe views, was moved to eulogize the charms of Polynesian women, and his officers were ecstatic. “Their natural complexion,” one wrote, “is that kind of clear olive or Brunette, which many people in Europe prefer to the finest white and red … the skin is most delicately smooth and soft. … Their eyes, especially those of the women, are full of expression, sometimes sparkling with fire, and sometimes melting with softness; their teeth also are, almost without exception, most beautifully even and white, and their breath perfectly without taint.”
Ledyard took meticulous notes on the natives of the Tongas. He described every detail he could of this exotic environment, and always with an effort to restrain his natural enthusiasm for the sake of accurate observation. As full of ebullient life as the islanders themselves, he sometimes found it hard to maintain a scientific attitude, especially since the natives seemed to be attracted to him as much as he was to them. But he worked at it. Their food, their clothing, their implements and weapons, their language, their religion, their songs and dances—remarks on everything went into his journal, along with thoughtful speculation as to the origins of Polynesian culture. He avoided sentimentalizing the South Sea Islands as Paradise regained, soberly considering such shallows amid the romance as human sacrifice and infanticide.
Midsummer of 1777 found the Resolution and the Discovery at Tahiti. The Tongas had offered persuasive erotic temptations, but those of Tahiti were irresistible. Although upper-class Tahitian ladies were not without reserve, the ordinary young women of the island were so eager to grant what Cook called “personal favours” to the visitors that everyone who had not been there before was incredulous. What was most surprising was their utter lack of shame—so far removed from depravity, however, that to Ledyard it appeared a kind of original innocence. The sailors, by no means loath, were yet hardly prepared by their background to adjust to companions who, as one Englishman observed, “gratify every appetite and passion before witnesses with no more sense of impropriety than we feel when we satisfy our hunger at a social board with our family or friends.” (At the same time, Captain Cook could record the following puzzled entry in his journal: ”… the women never upon any account eat with the men but always by themselves. What can be the reason of so unusual a Custom it is hard to say …; they were often asked the reason but never gave no other answer but that they did it because it was right.”)
As for Ledyard, he is reticent about his own experiences in Tahiti; but certainly there is a note of intense personal feeling in a remark he makes about the island love affair of one of his crewmates: “Love like this is not to be found in those countries where the boasted refinements of sentiment too often circumscribe the purity of affection and narrow it away to mere conjugal fidelity.” He left Tahiti with his hands tattooed in the native style—a practice, as he tells us, among some of the men who fell in love with island girls and wished to make a ceremonial exchange of tokens.
Near the end of 1777 Cook decided that it was time to tear his crew from the delights of the South Pacific and push northward into the unknown ocean above the equator. They encountered nothing but a few coral reef’s until early in January, 1778; then a stir of excitement arose as signs of land began to occur. A tree branch drifted by; small birds flew past. At daybreak on January 18, the lookout in the crow’s nest of the Resolution sighted land to the northeast. All hands rushed to the rail, and as the ship surged northward through the blue swell of the Pacific, Captain Cook trained his spyglass on the emerging heights of a large island. Soon a second island appeared, directly ahead. Having observed both carefully, Cook made for his chart room and marked the ship’s position with satisfaction. They had just discovered the Hawaiian Islands.
If the Resolution and the Discovery had veered northeast toward that initial landfall, they would have sailed right into what is now Pearl Harbor. But the direction of the wind made it difficult to approach Oahu, so Cook held straight north for Kauai. He was, of course, ignorant of the native names for these islands; in fact he was not yet certain whether there would be any natives. Inhabited or not, however, they certainly were an important discovery, for existing charts showed the Pacific absolutely empty at this spot. Cook named them the Sandwich Islands, in honor of the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty.
Now Ledyard and his companions were about to have a new experience: contact with a Polynesian civilization which had never before known Europeans or even dreamed of their existence.* As the ships approached Kauai, several canoes put out toward them, but stayed a respectful distance until the English had anchored and furled their sails. Then the canoes came closer, and the men lining the ships’ rails could see that their occupants were bronzed young athletes not unlike those of Tahiti. Ledyard recorded that they “appeared inexpressibly surprised, though not intimidated: They shook their spears at us, rolled their eyes about, and made a variety of wild uncouth gesticulations.” Considering that over two thousand miles of ocean had been covered since leaving Tahiti, the visitors were in turn surprised to find that these natives spoke a language closely resembling that of the South Pacific. Encouraged by an exchange of phrases, a few of them accepted the invitation to come aboard, and with many expressions of amazement gazed about at the products and creatures of another world:
They were exceeding wild; ran up to us and examined our hands and faces, then stripping up our shirtsleeves and opening the bosoms of our shirts to view such parts of our bodies as were covered by our cloaths. Then they enquired if we could eat, which we discovered [ i.e., revealed] by eating some biscuit. As soon as they observed this they ran to the side of the ship and called to those in the canoes, who hove on board several little pigs and some sweet potatoes. … They had no knowledge of iron or European articles, but the moment we discovered its obvious importance they were in raptures about it, and gave us any thing they possessed in exchange for it.
The crew gladly would have stayed at Kauai for the rest of the winter, but their resolute captain had other ideas. His attention was now focused on the search for the Northwest Passage, and he was determined to reach America early enough to take every advantage of spring and summer as the ships worked up closer to the Arctic. After two weeks of stocking their larder with provisions supplied by the Hawaiians in return for trinkets and nails, they set out again into the huge expanse of the North Pacific. Conversation with the natives had indicated that there were several other islands in the Hawaiian group, just over the horizon beyond Oahu, to the east; but Cook decided to delay their investigation until later.
By this time the Captain had revealed to his men the main purpose of the expedition and the fact that King George had announced a prize of twenty thousand pounds to be divided among officers and crew if they succeeded in returning to Europe via the northwest. This made it somewhat easier to face a long siege of storms that beset them as they bore in toward the coast of what is now Oregon. Having caught a dim view of it through what Ledyard called “the ruggedest weather we had yet experienced,” they tacked northward to the forty-ninth parallel, and then put in for a landing.
The Resolution and the Discovery sailed into Nootka Sound, or King George’s Sound, as Cook patriotically named it, on the assumption that they were penetrating the mainland, and that this might be the fabled Passage. They were soon disillusioned on the latter point, but it remained for George Vancouver, coming back in 1792, to show that what they were probing was actually a large offshore island.
Ledyard notes that the explorers were uncertain whether this part of the world was populated “but we had scarcely entered the inlet before we saw that hardy, that intriped [ sic ], that glorious creature man approaching us from the shore.” What he found very exciting was that the natives of Nootka seemed clearly to be “the same kind of people [ i.e., Indians] that inhabit the opposite side of the continent.” Despite his service with the British Navy, Ledyard had never lost the sense of being an American; and now his heart was stirred with a strong feeling of national identity. “Though more than two thousand miles distant from the nearest part of New-England,” he wrote, “I felt myself plainly affected. … It soothed a home-sick heart, and rendered me very tolerably happy.” Doubtless it was at this moment in the voyage that he had his first vision of an adventure which was to lure him on for the rest of his life. Why not, some day, come back here and then tramp across the whole of North America to the colonies? It would be a feat worthy of an American Cook, resulting in well-won fame for himself and inestimable opportunities for his country.
The spring and summer of 1778 were spent in painstaking exploration of the coast from Nootka Sound to Alaska and the Aleutians, with time off to repair the ships, trade with the natives, and send the men ashore for exercise and berry-picking. Near the end of May they entered a deep inlet on the south shore of Alaska and sailed northeast, again “not without hopes,” as Ledyard put it, “of the dear Passage, which was now the only theme.” It proved to be only a deep estuary (now called Cook Inlet), and they turned back, disappointed. While there, they landed near the future site of Anchorage, and “took possession” in the name of George III (a vain gesture, since the Russians already had a well-established claim to the area). They also viewed with appropriate awe the mountain one day to be named McKinley, after an American President—the highest point, though they did not know it, on the North American continent.
In all of these events young John Ledyard was a fascinated participant; and now he was about to have a moment of personal glory. As they moved southwest, in order to circumnavigate the Alaska Peninsula, they began to meet signs of Western civilization: natives with iron tips on their spears, scattered articles of European clothing, and, finally, an Aleut who produced a note written in Russian. Nobody from Cook on down could make out a word of it, but since it was dated 1778 they had no doubt that they were intruding into a fur-trading area which Catherine the Great’s entrepreneurs were currently working.** Cook was curious to see some Russians but felt impelled to push his exploration as far as possible before the end of summer. They therefore paused briefly at the island of Unalaska, and then made the final thrust up through Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean. Here they soon encountered a formidable barrier of ice. No further progress being possible, they returned to Unalaska in early October, and now Cook decided to send someone in search of Russian traders. One man, he thought, could do better than a party. John Ledyard volunteered.
So it was that the young American was able to test his theory that he could make his way through uncharted wilderness alone and unarmed, depending for survival on his ability to get along with the natives of any country, especially if they were primitive. (“Like all uncivilized men,” he had noted when observing the Nootka Indians, “they are hospitable.”) He took with him no weapons, and only a little bread and a flask of rum by way of provisions. With a native who had claimed, by sign language, to know something of a white settlement, he made his way across the island, arriving by nightfall at a small Aleutian village where he was indeed hospitably received. Dinner—dried fish--was nothing to cheer about, but with the help of the rum Ledyard and the Aleuts managed to make a very sociable evening in the low, grass-thatched hut: “Ceremony was not invited to the feast, and nature presided over the entertainment until morning.”
The next day Ledyard found a cove where a Russian sloop lay at anchor; nearby was a well-established trading station. Although verbal communication between him and the handful of Russians posted there was hopeless, he demonstrated his usual facility at making strangers like him. They plied him with such delicacies as boiled whale, dressed him in Russian clothes, and in the morning insisted that he take a steam bath. Three of them then accompanied him back to the Resolution, where he got a taste of acclaim from the whole ship’s company for the successful completion of his mission.
It was now time to think of winter quarters, and Captain Cook headed back for the Sandwich Islands—with no premonition of the disaster that lay ahead. Coming in from the northeast, they discovered the island of Hawaii itself—Owhyhee, as Cook spelled it***—by far the largest of the group, and the most easterly. Although the men were desperate to get ashore, Cook cruised around the island for seven weeks while Master William Bligh made a careful survey. Finally, on January 17, 1779, they anchored in “Karakakooa” (Kealakekua) Bay, and Cook went in to the beach surrounded by a mass of canoes estimated by an officer, observing the scene from the rigging of the Resolution, at three thousand. Ledyard described the scene:
The crowds on shore were still more numerous. The beach, the surrounding rocks, the tops of houses, the branches of the trees and the adjacent hills were all covered, and the shouts of joy and admiration proceeding from the sonorous voices of the men confused with the shriller exclamations of the women dancing and clapping their hands, the oversetting of the canoes, cries of children, goods on float, and hogs that were brought to market squealing, formed one of the most tumultuous and most curious prospects that can be imagined. God of creation, these are thy doings, these are our brethren and our sisters, the works of thy hands. …
Cook was astonished not only by the number of Hawaiians out to greet him, but by their attitude. Somehow this seemed to go beyond what might have been expected even of people who had never met white men before: the moment he set foot upon the beach all the natives within view “fell prostrate with their faces to the ground, and their arms extended forward.” A great cry of “Lono” went up, and with elaborate ceremony Cook was escorted by the chiefs and priests to a grassy pavilion. Various rituals ensued, none of which the English understood very well, beyond grasping that for the Hawaiians something highly important was taking place.
The explanation, it developed later, was that Cook unwittingly was playing a role in Hawaiian mythology. In a former age, so the story went, a god-king named Lono had departed from the Islands with a promise to return in some distant future bringing with him omens of peace and plenty. It happened that Cook’s first landing, at Kauai the year before, had occurred during the annual feast of Lono. Now it was feast time again, and during the year that had elapsed the idea had spread through the Islands that the English, with their great ships and miraculous equipment, were Lono’s immortal band, and that James Cook was Lono himself.
In John Ledyard’s opinion, the trouble that soon began between the Hawaiians and the British grew out of the natives’ gradual discovery that they were dealing with creatures who were, after all, extremely human. One human proclivity that led to the lessening of awe was the sailors’ persistent desire for the accommodating Hawaiian girls, many of whom swam out nightly to the two ships despite Cook’s orders to the contrary. Those orders, moreover, had been prompted not by any concern for chastity—Cook knew his seamen too well for that—but by the Captain’s realization that his crew was spreading venereal disease among natives who had never before known this affliction.
But nature would not be denied, and even at the shore encampment, where Ledyard held guard over the tents, the attempt to keep Hawaiians and Englishmen apart soon broke down. Since the nonfraternization orders initially had been looked upon as having the force of a religious tabu, the fact that they were now broken with impunity raised considerable doubt among many natives as to the visitors’ supernatural standing.
To make matters worse, Hawaiian economic resources were being put to a severe strain by Cook’s demand for more and more produce with which to stock the ships for another long stint at sea; it seemed that there was not enough pork, breadfruit, yams, and bananas on the whole island to fill the maws of the Resolution and the Discovery . On the other hand, the British supply of nails, beads, and other desirable hardware for trade was running low, while some natives were getting bold enough to want more substantial articles, and to steal them when they could not be bargained for. Cook punished acts of thievery rigorously; the Hawaiians were obliged to see some of their fellows lashed with the cat-o’-nine-tails and others, including chiefs, held as hostages until stolen goods were returned. “We shall soon see the consequences of such conduct,” Ledyard noted ominously.
Still, there were pleasant days during the latter part of January, when Cook and the old Hawaiian king, Kireeaboo, exchanged formal visits and entertainments, becoming genuinely fond of each other. The weather was fine, and the men enjoyed themselves ashore. Native girls performed exceedingly voluptuous hula dances; the English responded with a cotillion, danced to flute and fiddle—the music of the violin producing among the natives, Ledyard reports, “the most immoderate laughter.” His Dartmouth mettle stimulated by the beckoning peak of Mauna Loa, Ledyard went with three friends to climb to its snow-rimmed top. They never made it, having underestimated its height (13,680 feet) and the thickness of the tropical undergrowth on its slopes, but it was good sport.
Now events took their last, sinister turn. Wanting firewood for the ships’ stoves, Cook had the bad judgment to requisition the fence surrounding the Hawaiian’s Morai, or sacred burial ground. A party went ashore to tear it down, offering the priest two or three iron hatchets in compensation. The bargain was indignantly refused, but the priests took no action to prevent the destruction of the fence: Lono had spoken.
Or was it really Lono? That, apparently, was the question that was beginning to bother some of the Hawaiian leaders. About this time one of the English sailors died of natural causes, and instead of concealing his death Cook had him buried on the island with a good deal of ceremony, thinking to impress the natives. They were certainly impressed, but perhaps what struck them above all was the fact that their troublesome guests were not, obviously, immortal.
The British departed from Kealakekua Bay, in an atmosphere of strained cordiality, on February 5, 1779. All might have ended reasonably well had not a heavy storm sprung the Resolution’s foremast before they were a week away, so back they came to make repairs. The Hawaiians were not happy to see them. “When we entered the bay where before we had the shouts of thousands to welcome our arrival, we had the mortification not to see a single canoe,” Ledyard wrote. Violence between sailors and natives broke out several times within twenty-four hours; and now systematic thefts occurred as if in further effort to discourage a longer stay. On the night of February 13 the Discovery’s cutter was stolen. Cook was furious, and decided to take action in person. His plan followed a pattern he had effectively used at other islands: he would lure King Kireeaboo aboard ship and hold him until the cutter was returned.
Early the next morning Cook took two boats ashore with a guard of ten marines, including Corporal John Ledyard, and went to Kireeaboo’s dwelling. Ledyard noted that the settlement showed “every symptom of mischief”; no women or children were to be seen, and very few men. The old king came out to greet Cook amicably enough, and seemed willing to come aboard the Resolution for a visit. As they walked back to the beach, however, several hundred Hawaiians appeared as if from nowhere, most of them armed and wearing thick, woven mats hung over their chests like armor. Things looked ugly, and Cook ordered his marines to beat an orderly retreat to the waiting boats. He had given up any idea of taking the king with him.
But it was already too late. The crowd was excited, those in the rear pushing and agitating those in front; and at this point word swept through their ranks that one of their chiefs had been killed by gunfire from the boats waiting offshore. Another chief, standing near Cook, made a threatening gesture. To frighten the natives, the Captain, who was carrying a double-barreled musket, promptly fired a load of harmless small shot at the chief. Since this did no damage, the crowd’s boldness rose with its anger: the chief rushed Cook, who then fired a ball from the second barrel and hit him in the groin. The sailors waiting in the boats and the retreating guard of marines now began to fire into the crowd, while the foremost Hawaiians leaped to attack the marines with clubs, spears, and daggers. Ledyard, who was in the thick of it, describes the next few seconds:
Cook, having at length reached the margin of the water, between the fire of the boats, waved with his hat to cease firing and come in; and while he was doing this, a chief from behind stabbed him with one of our iron daggers, just under the shoulder-blade, and passed quite through his body. Cook fell with his face in the water, and immediately expired.
Thus the greatest explorer of the eighteenth century died on the shore of his greatest discovery.
Everything after that was painful anticlimax. Ledyard and five other marines got to the boats and back to the ship; four were left dead beside Captain Cook. The Resolution’s guns fired some cannon balls into the crowd on the beach, to keep them out of the bay, and the skirmish was over. That night and the next, several natives sneaked out to the ship bringing various parts of Cook’s body. They were charred; Ledyard was firmly of the opinion that the rest had been eaten in some unpleasant religious ritual. More misery followed: in going ashore for water, the sailors met stiff resistance and ended by burning a third of the Hawaiian village and killing scores of their former friends.
And so, under a pall of bitterness and gloom, the English left the islands they had so happily discovered to make a halfhearted second attempt at the Northwest Passage before getting under way, late in 1779, for home. It had been a dismal year, and their spirits were only partially raised when they touched at Canton, and found that Chinese merchants were delighted to pay tremendous prices for furs which had been casually acquired from the natives of Nootka and Alaska for a handful of trinkets the year before.
John Ledyard’s life, after his voyage with Captain Cook, was short but fantastic; and in a sense his remaining eight years were a projection of that voyage. For at Nootka Sound he had been gripped by an obsession. He would return to the Pacific Northwest on an expedition of his own—not merely to make a fortune in the fur trade, but to realize his dream of crossing the American continent alone. He would open to his astonished countrymen the unmapped plains and forests beyond the Mississippi, and the name of John Ledyard would be remembered whenever men spoke of the westward thrust of American destiny.
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.
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.