Ledyard: In Search of the First
by Bill Gifford
Reviewed by Kate Jylkka
Who was John Ledyard? Rarely mentioned in history books and completely unknown to many people today, this man was one of America’s first great pioneers and was celebrated as a hero in his own time. Yet as an explorer, he was not actually very successful. He didn’t discover any uncharted territories, he fabricated some of the accounts of his travels, and his most ambitious adventure was cut short less than halfway through. Rather than his achievements, it is his dynamic character that has allowed his legend to persist, in one form or another, until today. In this detailed biography, Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer, author Bill Gifford takes the reader across the world, from the woods of New Hampshire and the bustling city of Paris to the barren plains of Siberia. Gifford not only chronicles the explorer’s life from his birth in 1751 to his death in 1789, but also the turbulent history of the American nation itself.
Ledyard’s life seems to have begun with an equal amount of turmoil. As a student at the newly founded Dartmouth College, Ledyard was expected to train as a Christian missionary in order to convert the local Native Americans. Instead, the young man became intrigued by the Native American way of life and left school for nearly four months to live among them, learning their language and customs. Shortly after his return to campus, he shocked Dartmouth once again by dropping out and returning home via canoe on the hazardous Connecticut River.
This was just the beginning of a lifetime full of shocking moves and daring feats. After his departure from Dartmouth, he would be conscripted into the British navy to fight against his own family in the American Revolution, he would sail with the famous Captain James Cook on his third (and for Cook, fatal) voyage, and he would attempt to circumambulate the globe. A certain lack of moral principles characterizes many of the explorer’s decisions, but his charisma and charm won over nearly everyone he met. Ledyard’s biography sometimes reads like a Who’s Who of important historical figures of his time, all of whom seemed to know and respect the young explorer, including Thomas Jefferson, Captain Cook, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, and Catherine the Great.
In order to fully immerse himself and the reader in Ledyard’s world, Gifford replicated many of the explorer’s experiences: paddling down the Connecticut River during his own time at Dartmouth, sailing on a modern reconstruction of Cook’s ship the HMS Endeavour, and taking a train across Siberia to Yakutsk, the city where Ledyard’s journey ended after his arrest by Catherine’s officials. Gifford’s deep admiration for his subject’s bravery illuminates what otherwise may have become a stodgily historical narrative. For Ledyard was nothing if not fearless. Every new challenge was an opportunity for the independent traveler. Yet Gifford recognizes that Ledyard was not exactly a romantic hero driven by purely altruistic motives.
Gifford combats the image of “the Boys’ Life Ledyard…the gallant adventurer who never swore and led a life of noble ambition” which Ledyard’s first biographer Jared Sparks propagated in 1828 (xvii). Afraid of offending both Ledyard’s family and the general populace, Sparks constructed a squeaky-clean version of Ledyard, even editing some of Ledyard’s letters and journal entries as they appeared in his own book. Conversely, the man Gifford portrays is complicated, fascinating, and flawed. He was constantly pestering his family and friends for money, which he seems to have burned through at an astonishing rate, and he had a penchant for self-aggrandizement and for distorting the truth in letters describing his accomplishments. The first great American explorer had his fair share of quirks as well; according to one of his journal entries, Ledyard enjoyed writing his letters “in the nude,” or, as he put it, in an “unconstrained situation” (157).
The travel narrative as a genre is plagued by a common obstacle. How can the author portray a place which has been described hundreds of times in a new and intriguing way? How can a narrator avoid clichés in depicting a place like Paris or Cairo? Gifford is lucky to have Ledyard’s own words to resolve this problem. In quoting heavily from Ledyard’s writings, Gifford provides the reader with the impressions of someone seeing such sights for the first time, someone whose impressions are uncolored by media-induced expectations or preconceptions. In Ledyard’s experienced but still impressionable eyes, St. Petersburg became an “Aurora Borealis of a city” (184). Cairo, on the other hand, received Ledyard’s scathing critique, “Sweet are the songs of Egypt on paper. Who is not ravished with gums, balms, dates, figs, pomegranates, with the Circassia & sycamores without knowing amidst these one’s eyes ears mouth nose is filled with dust eternal hot fainting winds, lice bugs mosquitoes spiders flies – pox itch leprosy, fevers, & almost universal blindness” (259). Ledyard’s colorful descriptions offer the reader a uniquely contemporary look at the people and places which are so prominently yet dryly displayed in history textbooks.
Gifford blends the high esteem in which he holds Ledyard with a critically appraising eye. In writing one of the only biographies of this fascinating character since Jared Sparks’ heavily skewed portrayal, Gifford presents his own valiant attempt at an objective, yet absorbing, account of Ledyard and his world. His sources include Ledyard’s own letters and journals, particularly versions which had not been bowdlerized by his contemporaries, as well as the letters of Ledyard’s peers, some of which discuss the man at great length.
Gifford deftly brings Ledyard’s voice into the 21st century, where its passion, ambition, and restlessness speak to us just as strongly as they did to Americans in the 1700s. In his epilogue, Gifford recounts his own canoe trip down the Connecticut River with a number of Dartmouth students and their concerns about their own impending graduation: “relief to be finished with school, dread of what would come next – a job, obligations, the swift and inevitable curtailment of freedom.” All of these worries are what attract us to Ledyard, both the myth and the man – for better or for worse, he valued his freedom above all else.
Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer
(New York: Harcourt Press, 2007)
ISBN: 0-15-101218-0 $25.00 331 pp.