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The Making of John Ledyard

The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    The Making of John Ledyard
    Book Description:

    During the course of his short but extraordinary life, John Ledyard (1751-1789) came in contact with some of the most remarkable figures of his era: the British explorer Captain James Cook, American financier Robert Morris, Revolutionary naval commander John Paul Jones, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others. Ledyard lived and traveled in remarkable places as well, journeying from the New England backcountry to Tahiti, Hawaii, the American Northwest coast, Alaska, and the Russian Far East. In this engaging biography, the historian Edward Gray offers not only a full account of Ledyard's eventful life but also an illuminating view of the late eighteenth-century world in which he lived.Ledyard was both a product of empire and an agent in its creation, Gray shows, and through this adventurer's life it is possible to discern the many ways empire shaped the lives of nations, peoples, and individuals in the era of the American Revolution, the world's first modern revolt against empire.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13781-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    JOHN LEDYARD was ill and haggard. His normally erect frame was bent, making him look much older than he was. On his hands was a series of closely placed reddish brown dots (tatau,or “tattoo,” as Captain James Cook transcribed the Tahitian word) that resembled a tailor’s pattern for cutting fabric. Ledyard had acquired these while sailing with Cook in the South Pacific. He carried a heavy overcoat, boots, and socks made from reindeer hide; a fur cap; and a pair of foxskin gloves lined with rabbit fur. He was penniless, expecting, as he had for most of his days,...

  6. CHAPTER I A Colonial Childhood
    (pp. 9-22)

    JOHN LEDYARD was born in the small port town of Groton in the British colony of Connecticut in the year 1751. It was a happy year in the history of the colony. No major frontier conflict or colonial war raged; the bitter controversy surrounding the Great Awakening, that evangelical surge of the late 1730s and early 1740s, had passed; and the economic and emotional disruptions brought by the French and Indian War were still several years away. This was a happy year for the Ledyard family as well. Aside from witnessing the birth of John, likely heir to the family...

  7. CHAPTER II On Stage at Dartmouth College
    (pp. 23-42)

    THE FEW DOZEN Dartmouth College students and their tutors must have wondered about John Ledyard when he arrived at the college in April 1772. From the campus, a few rude buildings and recently cleared fields tucked along the Connecticut River, they would have seen a twenty-year-old man approaching in a sulky, a carriage made for carrying one passenger and little else. It was the sort of conveyance a country lawyer might use on his rounds, and perhaps John acquired this one from his uncle. It was also old and rickety, much like the horse by which it was pulled. Nobody...

  8. CHAPTER III Serving Captain Cook with Honor
    (pp. 43-68)

    THEResolutionwould be Ledyard’s principal home for the next four years. This former North Sea coal-hauling vessel was not a particularly large or grand ship. At 462 tons, it would have ranked among the smaller vessels in the navy, and its crew of 112 officers, sailors, and marines was modest in number (larger ships routinely sailed with crews double or triple that size). But what it lacked in stature, it made up for in other ways. Having already been around the world with Cook, theResolutionhad proven itself ideally suited for voyages of discovery. Its broad, shallow hull...

  9. CHAPTER IV Seeking Distinction with the Pen Aboard the Resolution
    (pp. 69-82)

    IN A CHRONICLE OF North Pacific exploration published in 1819, theDiscovery’s former first lieutenant James Burney, brother of the novelist Fanny, recalled that sometime after Cook’s death, John Ledyard petitioned his superiors for appointment as official historian of the voyage. Burney explained that in pursuit of this office, late in the voyage Ledyard presented Captain Charles Clerke with “a specimen, which described the manners of the Society islanders, and the kind of life led by our people while among them.”

    Writing the official account of the voyage, especially after Cook’s death, was no minor responsibility. The job would have...

  10. CHAPTER V Following the Revolution Home
    (pp. 83-100)

    A LITTLE OVER A YEAR after returning to England aboard theResolution, Ledyard found himself sent to sea once again. This time he would leave England not as part of a benevolent expedition of discovery but rather as a member of a fighting force. And he would be asked to do what he had hoped never to do: raise arms against his American countrymen. For his ship was sent to America to cruise Long Island Sound in search of American privateers and blockade runners.

    Ledyard arrived in the former colonies in October 1781, just before his thirtieth birthday and the...

  11. CHAPTER VI From Author to Fur Trader
    (pp. 101-123)

    SOMETIME DURING THE LATE spring of 1783 the struggling Ledyard met Robert Morris, a Philadelphia merchant, former member of the Continental Congress, and superintendent of finance for the United States. The controversial Morris was perhaps the most influential financier in the new country, having amassed Philadelphia’s largest fortune. In the early years of the Revolutionary War, he used his political connections and a web of commercial associates in the West Indies and Europe to procure essential manufactured goods for the Continental Army. It was a hugely profitable arrangement, and by the early 1780s, Morris had become, in the words of...

  12. CHAPTER VII Becoming a Traveler in Thomas Jefferson’s Paris
    (pp. 124-135)

    IN THE SPRING OF 1813, the Baltimore newspaper editor Paul Allen requested from Thomas Jefferson a biographical essay on the late Meriwether Lewis. The essay was to be included as a preface to the first published edition of the expedition journals of Lewis and Clark, a work that Allen was helping to prepare for publication. Jefferson agreed to Allen’s request and produced a five-thousand-word essay. What is notable about the essay is that it is as much about Jefferson as it is about Lewis. Clearly the former president saw this as an opportunity not only to memorialize his friend (Lewis...

  13. CHAPTER VIII Across the Russian Empire
    (pp. 136-152)

    LEDYARD ARRIVED IN St. Petersburg in March 1787. Although he would spend nearly three months in the Russian capital, he wrote little at all about Europe’s newest city. The fact that St. Petersburg was less than eighty years old when he arrived there, or that it was constructed on inhospitable, windswept marshlands by tens of thousands of conscript laborers (many of whom died in the process), or that it grew from vast quantities of stone and marble brought from all over Europe and Russia seemed to impress him not at all. Neither did he show the least interest in the...

  14. CHAPTER IX Despotism and Human Nature in Catherine II’s Russia
    (pp. 153-169)

    FOR JOHN LEDYARD, the habit of ordinary Russians from the lowliest serf to the most elevated aristocrat of referring to their subordinates as slaves and to their superiors as masters was not merely rhetorical. These people were essentially enslaved and, as such, vivid exemplars of a culture of dependency that seemed to pervade every aspect of Russian life. It is true, Ledyard was himself something of a dependent, but the male, gentleman’s republic of the Atlantic world had allowed him to sustain the illusion that he was a free man. It was perhaps the fragility of this status that explains...

  15. CHAPTER X To Africa
    (pp. 170-185)

    LEDYARD RETURNED TO London sometime in the early spring of 1788. His American benefactor, William Smith, had left for the United States, but Ledyard was able to get news of his country from the New York merchant James Jarvis. He would have learned that his world was in flux. The United States, where John had not been for four years, was in the process of ratifying a highly controversial new federal constitution, and America’s former French allies were mired in a constitutional crisis of their own. The latter would culminate in a show of force by the army as it...

    (pp. 186-194)

    IT DID NOT TAKE LONG for news of Ledyard’s death to reach the United States. By the middle of July 1789, thePennsylvania Packetcarried an obituary describing John as “strong and active, bold as a lion, and gentle as he was bold.” His loss and the collapse of his projects to explore “either America or Africa,” the author continued, “must be felt as a very general and public loss.” In the same month, the Hartford pedagogue and lexicographer Noah Webster made laconic note of the event in his diary: “hear of the death of Mr John Ledyard.” There is...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 195-216)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 217-224)