American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

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 ofJohn 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. [See also VOYAGE NARRATIVES]

Mary Malloy