For decades after his death in 1789, John Ledyard was celebrated as the greatest explorer America had ever produced. A veteran of Captain Cook’s final voyage, he walked across nearly all of Russia and suggested to his friend Thomas Jefferson that traversing the American continent was feasible—inspiring the Lewis and Clark expedition. When he died he was preparing to venture into Africa. Once as famous as the Founding Fathers whom he had befriended and beguiled, the “American traveler,” as Ledyard was called, fell into obscurity over the years, reduced to becoming a footnoted reference in Moby Dick.
Bill Gifford reenacted Ledyard’s 1773 escape from Dartmouth College in a canoe and followed Ledyard’s trail down the length of the Lena River in Siberia. In Ledyard he reveals the man in the legend, bringing back an American original and giving us a story that until now has not been fully told.
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BILL GIFFORD attended Dartmouth College; unlike Ledyard, he graduated. His writing has appeared in Outside and the New York Times Magazine. He is the features editor for Men's Journal and lives in Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania.
The Squire’s Revenge
ONE MORNING IN THE SPRING OF 1773, A SHOUT WENT UP in the center of Hartford, Connecticut. A canoe of some sort was making its way up the Little River, a sluggish stream that flowed through the middle of town, about where Arch Street is today. The craft was apparently being paddled by . . . a bear. The creature aimed its craft toward the riverfront house of Thomas Seymour, a prominent middle-aged lawyer and future mayor of Hartford. As the Seymour family gathered on the bank with a crowd of onlookers, the vessel drifted slowly to shore. It was a large Native American–style dugout, hewn from the trunk of a single tree. Finally the bear stood up, cast aside its skin, and leaped onto a rock—revealing itself to be none other than Seymour’s own nephew, John Ledyard. He had paddled all the way down the Connecticut River from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, negotiating several tricky rapids and two major waterfalls during the 140-mile journey; his was the first recorded descent of the river by a white man.
In the years to come, the story of the great canoe trip would become the cornerstone of Ledyard’s legend; when Jefferson heard the tale, years later in Paris, he laughed uproariously. At the time, though, it did not seem so amusing. Instead of greeting him with pride and joy, Ledyard’s family rolled their eyes in dismay. Young men from good families simply did not travel by canoe. And why was he coming home from college before the end of the term? What had gone wrong now?
A week or two later, the answer arrived, in the form of a blistering letter from the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock, the former Connecticut preacher who had founded Dartmouth College in the wilderness of New Hampshire in 1770, just three years earlier. Wheelock had agreed to accept twenty-one-year-old John as a student, since he was the grandson of an old friend. But the Reverend had recently learned that the young man couldn’t pay his tuition, and he was now very angry. He had taken Ledyard in out of the goodness of his heart, he wrote to Tom Seymour, so furious that his pen practically tore through the paper in places; he had only hoped to save Ledyard from, as he put it, “total ruin.” But his charity had limits, and Wheelock lamented that he had failed to achieve “the humbling of that youth, & fitting him for usefulness in the world—but as he secretly got his legacy into his own hands to waste as his Pride & Extravagant Humour dictated, & all out of my sight and without my knowledge, it was not possible for me to restrain him.”
Inevitably, John saw the letters between his Uncle Tom and Reverend Wheelock. He had little idea of what was being said about him behind his back—by both Wheelock and Seymour, who, evidently, had admitted some unflattering things about his nephew’s character. Ledyard was shocked. “Total ruin”? He needed to be “saved”? One of Wheelock’s spies passed by the Seymour place in mid-May and saw Ledyard sulking. “He seems to avoid all Company and Conversation,” he reported back.
In truth, both Ledyard and Wheelock were victims of the man who had brought them together: John Ledyard Sr., John’s grandfather, who by then had been dead for two years. The elder Ledyard had done some free legal work for Wheelock, years ago, so Wheelock gladly accepted the grandson at Dartmouth. Since Ledyard Sr. had been quite wealthy, Wheelock naturally assumed that the young man could afford to pay for his education. Before old man Ledyard died in 1771, however, at the advanced age of seventy, he had practically disinherited his namesake, the eldest son of his eldest son.
Nobody knows the cause of the grandfather’s spite, but the roots seemed to reach deeply into his own past, well before the future explorer was born. In later life, John Ledyard Sr. styled himself a Squire, but in fact he’d had a humble beginning in America, in part because he had practically been disinherited by his own family in England. He was born in about 1700 in the port city of Bristol, where his own father was a relatively well-off merchant, but his father had died when he was about sixteen, and his mother, a stern unbending lady, had insisted that he be “placed” to work in a store. The young man balked at this, since he had planned on attending university. But having no means of his own, he was forced to roam the world to seek his fortune, just as his grandson later would. He appears to have arrived in the town of Southold, on the eastern tip of Long Island, in 1717.
Though little more than a teenage runaway, the future Squire Ledyard was an adept social climber, and not long after he landed on Long Island he fell in with the oldest and most powerful clan on the North Fork, the family of Judge Benjamin Youngs, whose father had been among the first settlers (and whose wife, like Ledyard, hailed from Bristol). Ledyard started out as a Latin teacher, but soon abandoned that to work for the Southold merchant Benjamin L’Hommedieu, a Huguenot emigré in his sixties. He also apprenticed in the law under Judge Youngs. His true occupation, however, was wooing the judge’s daughter, Deborah, whom he eventually married in 1727. With his new wife’s substantial dowry, he moved across Long Island Sound to Groton, Connecticut, on the tidal Thames River, where he purchased an estate next to the ferry landing, directly across from the bustling port of New London. Within two years Deborah bore him a son, whom they named John Jr.
The elder Ledyard quickly established himself in his new community. In 1732, his name appears on the charter of a local merchants’ group dedicated to expanding trade with Great Britain; he had a warehouse and a pier on his property in Groton, full of Gloucester cheese and raw sugar. By 1733, he evidently had two brothers living in New London as well—Benjamin and Isaac, who at age thirty-two married a wealthy forty-seven-year-old widow, daughter of the old colonial governor, Gurdon Saltonstall (Ledyards married well, or not at all). Benjamin and Isaac owned ships together—one of their vessels burnt to the waterline one terrible night in 1735. John Ledyard Sr. dabbled in New London’s lucrative shipping industry, as well. The New London diarist Joshua Hempstead has him leaving for London in October 1738, aboard Captain John Jeffrey’s brand new snow (a type of schooner). He became justice of the peace in 1739, and represented Groton at the General Assembly of Connecticut for most of the 1740s, while steadily accumulating property that eventually totaled several hundred acres. This was the time of the Great Awakening, the religious revival movement that swept New England in the wake of a charismatic young English preacher named George Whitefield, who toured the Connecticut coast in 1740 and 1741. Whitefield believed that total salvation, marked by a powerful personal experience of conversion, was the only path to grace. At his sermons, often delivered from a hastily erected scaffold in some farmer’s field, to crowds numbering in the hundreds and thousands, women fainted and men spoke in tongues. After Whitefield left, the spiritual flames he had ignited were stoked by a band of evangelical itinerant preachers. One of the most sought after of these “New Lights” was a young minister from Lebanon, Connecticut, named Eleazar Wheelock, who, along with Jonathan Edwards, became the leading voices of the movement. Edwards’s classic sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, with its harrowing images of divine wrath and damnation, was the movement’s intellectual apotheosis. “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked,” he told his terrified audience: “He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.”
By far the most impassioned, and most controversial, of these new preachers was James Davenport, formerly of Southold, who took up residence in New London in 1741. A fiery, intemperate speaker, Davenport often castigated the establishment clergy for their own allegedly incomplete salvation. After one New London meeting, his followers built a great bonfire in the street, onto which they tossed books written by rival divines. According to one contemporary account, things became so frenzied that people began removing articles of clothing and tossing them on the flames as well; Davenport even removed his own breeches, which a horrified young woman promptly tossed back at him. This sort of thing ultimately got him banished from Connecticut for a year. Not even Squire Ledyard was immune to the religious fervor: Joshua Hempstead reports that during one particularly lively service in April 1742, “mr. ledyard caryed it on. He Prayed & Exhorted, it was the 3d time of his performing in [that] form.”
Copyright © 2007 by William C. Gifford
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