- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007


By Bill Gifford

Harcourt, $25, 331 pages

From the beginning, it was clear that John Ledyard had a flair for travel. He was 21 years old in the spring of 1772 when he arrived at Dartmouth College in a horse-drawn buggy — the first carriage to appear at the college, which had been carved out of wilderness just a few years earlier. “It was like showing up in the Yukon behind the wheel of a Porsche,” writes Bill Gifford in “Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer.”

Ledyard’s departure from Dartmouth a year later was just as memorable. Penniless and academically adrift, Ledyard decided to return home, to Hartford, Conn. He built a canoe alongside the Connecticut River and delighted his classmates by reading Ovid after he pushed off. One hundred forty miles later, he hid beneath a bearskin as he approached Hartford, where a crowd had gathered after spotting a strange beast paddling towards the shore. Ledyard sprung from the canoe and threw off the bearskin. His family was not amused.

Peripatetic and dramatic, Ledyard would become one of America’s first great explorers. He sailed with James Cook on the famed captain’s last Pacific voyage. He attempted to cross America 15 years before Lewis and Clark — only he planned to start in Europe and head through Russia before traversing America from west to east. And he embarked on an expedition to find the then-undiscovered Niger River in Africa.

Despite Ledyard’s impressive feats — one scholar thinks he was the inspiration behind Ishmael in Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” — today he is largely unknown. Mr. Gifford has corrected that slight with “Ledyard.” The author was a student at Dartmouth when he first heard about Ledyard and his infamous canoe trip down the Connecticut River. Now a features editor at Men’s Journal, Mr. Gifford has drawn a lively and engaging portrait of the “broad-chested and garrulous” explorer.

It was no easy task. Ledyard left only a few letters and journals, and the one original portrait of him has been lost. But Mr. Gifford does a commendable job of filling in the gaps by sorting though competing scholarship, old biographies and the explorer’s original documents.

Even Ledyard’s birthdate remains a mystery; it was probably a few months before his baptism on Nov. 10, 1751. Ledyard’s father was a ship captain who married his first cousin (the daughter of his mother’s sister) against the wishes of her parents. He died of tropical fever at sea, and after creditors collected their portion of his estate, there was little left for Ledyard.

After his brief stay at Dartmouth, Ledyard convinced a captain (a friend of his father’s) to enlist him on a trading mission to Gibraltar and the West Indies. It was his first taste of big-time adventure.

Ledyard’s career as an explorer blossomed in 1776, when he secured a spot on Cook’s third mission to the Pacific, during which the captain searched for the fabled Northwest Passage that reputedly connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. At the time, British merchant ships had to round Cape Horn in South America to reach China — a journey both long and arduous.

Ledyard was undoubtedly charismatic, but there was another likely reason that Cook enlisted him, writes Mr. Gifford. At Dartmouth, the future explorer had Native American classmates and had learned much about their customs and language. Such knowledge served Ledyard well when Cook’s expedition encountered the native peoples in Tahiti (where Ledyard had his hands and arms covered with tattoos), Vancouver and Hawaii.

In the end, not even Ledyard could prevent Cook’s demise. The captain and five of his men were killed when the Hawaiian natives revolted against the ship’s crew. After his return, Ledyard wrote an account of the expedition — the first copyrighted nonfiction work published in America, notes Mr. Gifford. Word of Ledyard’s lively book spread far and wide.

Thomas Jefferson was especially tickled by the tale of the young man’s escape from Dartmouth by canoe. The two men met in Paris, where Jefferson was stationed as an American minister. The future president was intent on exploring and establishing colonies in the western reaches of America. And the explorer had developed a keen interest in the region when he saw its profitable fur trade during the Cook expedition.

Out of these parallel interests, Ledyard’s next grand adventure was born. Jefferson would later write in his autobiography that the explorer was “a man of genius, some science, and fearless courage and enterprise.” Ledyard was indeed courageous as he headed east in 1786, traveling from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg by walking around the Gulf of Bothnia — a 1,200-mile trip in the middle of winter.

Ledyard reached Yakutsk, in eastern Siberia (where his thermometer froze), before his journey came to a surprising end. The Russians arrested Ledyard, claiming that he was a French spy. The explorer had left St. Petersburg without getting permission for his expedition from Catherine the Great, who had ordered his capture. He was summarily transported to the Polish border and released.

It didn’t take long for Ledyard to embark on a new expedition. In 1788, Sir Joseph Banks, the president of the Royal Society in London, helped create the “Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa.” The association commissioned Ledyard to travel south along the Nile in search of the Niger River.

Ledyard never made it past Cairo. He fell ill, after exploding with fury when his guides refused to leave Cairo because of unfavorable winds. He swallowed sulfuric acid and potassium tartrate, then used as medicine. But he began vomiting so violently that he burst a blood vessel. He was 37 years old.

Mr. Gifford’s portrait of the explorer hides none of his faults. When Ledyard’s relatives made transcripts of his letters for public consumption, the author reveals, they excised numerous passages: Ledyard making an appointment with a married prostitute in Paris, for example, or Ledyard writing in the nude (a favorite pastime). The explorer was undeniably a ladies’ man, contracting venereal disease (possibly syphilis) during his expeditions. He even flirted with a nun in a Paris hospital.

Ledyard’s “most enduring piece of prose,” according to Mr. Gifford, was about the opposite sex: “I have always remarked that women, in all countries, are civil, obliging, tender, and humane; that they are ever inclined to be gay and cheerful, timorous and modest; and that they do not hesitate, like men, to perform a generous action.”

Mr. Gifford does slightly overstate Ledyard’s significance. “In modern terms, it was as if he had crossed both the North and South Poles and walked on the moon,” he writes, even though the explorer never actually traversed America or ventured into the African interior.

The author did clearly fall under the explorer’s spell: In the book he sails on a replica of one of Cook’s ships and retraces Ledyard’s steps in Russia. Along the way he manages to draw us in as well, to make us feel a pang of sorrow when the explorer dies in Cairo. So any embellishment by Mr. Gifford is easy to forgive.

It may be true, as he writes, that Ledyard “almost single-handedly established the archetype of the restless American wanderer … from Ishmael on the ‘Pequod,’ to Huck and Jim on the Mississippi River, right down through Dean Moriarty, the rootless wild, life-embracing hero of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road.’” That Ledyard “embodies that uniquely American urge to pull up stakes and go, taking to the river or the road, reinventing ourselves in some new place.”

But in the end, we see Ledyard on simple human terms, a charismatic yet flawed adventurer who didn’t fit into normal, genteel society. I, for one, can’t help but wish I had made his acquaintance.

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