LEDYARD, JOHN (1751–1789). The only American to write an account
of Captain James Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific Ocean, John Ledyard
was born in Groton, Connecticut. After the death of his mariner father and the remarriage of his mother, the young Ledyard was sent to live with his
paternal grandfather in Hartford. He attended Dartmouth College for a
short time before beginning the extensive travel that would take him to
every continent.
Shipping as a sailor from New London to Europe, Ledyard met Captain
Cook in London. He signed aboard Cook’s expedition as a corporal of
marines and set sail for the Pacific in July 1776. Though the British Admiralty required sailors to turn over to them their private accounts of the
voyage at its completion, Ledyard and his shipmates John Rickman, Henrich
Zimmermann, and William Ellis all published their own accounts of the
voyage before the official narrative appeared in 1784. Portions of Ledyard’s
A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1783) are
similar enough to Rickman’s 1781 book of the same title to have been based
largely on it, if the men did not share diaries at sea. There are important
differences, however, especially in the description of Cook’s death in Hawai’i
and in the detailed accounts of fur trading. Ledyard was impressed with the
prices that sea otter pelts, purchased incidentally at Nootka Sound, brought
at Canton, and his book was largely intended to inspire a mercantile venture
on the Northwest Coast.*
Failing to find a voyage sponsor in the newly independent United States,
Ledyard sailed to Paris in 1784, where he gained the notice of Thomas
Jefferson. With Jefferson’s support, Ledyard formed a plan to walk across
Siberia, sail from there to Nootka Sound, off Vancouver Island, and then
walk across North America to Virginia, but the Empress Catherine refused
permission. In 1787 he made the attempt anyway and was apprehended at
Irkutsk. Upon his release, Ledyard signed on to explore the source of the
Niger River with the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior
Parts of Africa, but he died in Cairo before the departure of the expedition.
Ledyard had an enthusiastic biographer in Jared Sparks, whose Life of John
Ledyard was published in 1828.
The Boston vessels Columbia and Washington left in September 1787 for
the voyage that Ledyard imagined and, ultimately, inspired. The Columbia
returned to Boston from the Northwest Coast and Canton in August 1790,
the first American vessel to circumnavigate* the globe and the pioneer in a
trade route that would ultimately lead to American annexation of the
Oregon Territory.