Captain James Cook is considered the greatest British explorer of all time. In three voyages of discovery, starting in 1768, Cook sailed thousands of miles across largely uncharted areas of the globe. He mapped lands from New Zealand to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, surveyed and named features, and recorded islands and coastlines on European maps for the first time. He displayed a combination of seamanship, superior surveying, cartographic skills, physical courage, and an ability to lead men in adverse conditions. On board the ship HMS Resolution, during Cook’s third and final voyage of discovery, was a lone American, John Ledyard, from Groton, Connecticut.
Ledyard was the only American to accompany Cook on his last voyage and was on the beach in 1779 with Cook when he was attacked and killed by the natives of Hawaii. After the voyage Ledyard wrote his account of the adventure and it was a best seller. He became a celebrity and close friends with Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Ledyard was born in Groton, Connecticut, the eldest son of Captain John Ledyard. From the start Ledyard had a restless nature. After his father’s death Ledyard tried studying law but that didn’t work out and at the age of nineteen found himself with little money and few prospects. In 1772 a friend of his grandfather suggested Ledyard enter Dartmouth College and study to become a missionary to the Seneca and Oneida tribes.
At first he did well at Dartmouth but soon wearied of college life and withdrew from classes to live among the Indians. He learned their way of life and their language but the poverty and general wretchedness of the tribes bothered him. Learning to travel by canoe from the Indians he cut down a large tree on the banks of the Connecticut River and built a 40-foot Indian dugout. Loading his belongings aboard the canoe he paddled the 140 miles down the river to Hartford.
He decided to go to sea and signed onto a ship in the triangle trade sailing between New England and the West Indies. At last, Ledyard felt he’d found something he loved, a life at sea. He was 22 years old when he returned from this first voyage and signed onto a ship bound for England. After a few months in London he met Captain James Cook who was signing on crew for his third voyage of discovery.
The expedition’s real goal, kept secret at the time, was the discovery of the famed Northwest Passage. All previous expeditions in search of the passage had been from the Atlantic side of the continent but this attempt would be from the Pacific side. Ledyard was the only American onboard and since the ship was a Royal Naval vessel he was required to join the Royal Marines to become part of the crew.
The expedition left England on July 12, 1776, just before the start of the Revolutionary War. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope Captain Cook visited New Holland, New Zealand, Tahiti, and were the first European ships to reach the Hawaiian Islands. They spent ten days there before heading for the North American continent. In March 1778 they reached the coast of North America and sailed up to Vancouver Island. Cook sailed north along the Alaskan coast looking for inlets that might lead to the Northwest Passage but was forced to turn south. By July he had rounded the Alaskan Peninsula and was able to sail north again visiting the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia before heading out into the Bering Sea. Cook crossed the Arctic Circle and went as far north as latitude 70 degrees 41’ north before being forced back by the pack ice off Icy Cape, Alaska.
Trading with the Indians Cook’s men purchased 1500 beaver skins for sixpence each. The crews were later able to sell the skins when they reached China for $100 apiece, an incredible amount at the time. Ledyard realized that a fortune could be made this way and although he tried he never succeeded at this. Only a few years later, John Jacob Astor made his fortune this way.
After several months of exploring Cook sailed back to the Hawaiian Islands. The first time Cook visited the natives were friendly and Cook was treated almost like a God. However, on this trip, after a dispute over a stolen boat relations turned hostile. “The people were soured,” Ledyard wrote in his Journal. On February 14, 1779, the day of Cook’s death, Ledyard and a company of armed marines went ashore with Cook. In an attempt to recover the stolen boat Cook attempted to lure the high chief back to the ship to be used as a hostage. Realizing Cook was trying to capture him the old chief sat down in the sand and refused to move. By this time an angry crowd of several thousand Hawaiians gathered. Another chief tried to go to the aid of the high chief but Cook struck the man across his face with his sword. A struggled ensued and Cook was struck on the head by a native and fell to the sand. As he tried to rise another native stabbed him with a dagger. He fell face down in the water and died.
A battle broke out between the natives and Cook’s crew. Ledyard along with the remaining sailors and marines fired as they fled to their small boat and rowed back to the ship. Four Royal Marines were killed and two were wounded. Dozens of native Hawaiians on the beach were injured or killed.
Historians note that Cook made many uncharacteristic mistakes in his dealings with the native Hawaiians and some believe he was ill at the time and not thinking clearly. After Captain Cook’s murder Captain Charles Clerke, Cook’s second in command, took over command of the expedition. He made another unsuccessful attempt to find the Northwest Passage before the expedition slowly started back to England via China, the Sunda Strait, and Cape Town. The expedition arrived back in England in August of 1780.
To his surprise upon his arrival, Ledyard found that his country was at war with England. Notes from the journal he’d been keeping throughout the voyage were confiscated pending publication of the official account. Ledyard continued to serve another two years in the British Navy but refused to fight against Americans. Ledyard was sent to Canada to fight in the American Revolution but he deserted.
After the war he was finally able to come home to Connecticut where he wrote his account of Cook’s voyage, Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage. The book became an instant best seller but the always restless Ledyard was already planning his next adventure.
Ledyard was convinced that America’s future lay in trading furs for Chinese silk and porcelain, which could then be sold in the United States. His idea laid the groundwork of the subsequent China trade. He tried to get financing but couldn’t get anyone to invest and eventually went to France in 1785. There he tried to convince Thomas Jefferson, then Ambassador to France, and John Paul Jones of his scheme. Although they were impressed financing still eluded him.
When there seemed no way to get to the west coast of North America Jefferson suggested that Ledyard explore the American continent by proceeding overland. The route would take him through Russia, across the Bering Strait, south through Alaska, and across the American west to Virginia. This would be a distance of over twelve thousand miles, mostly through unexplored wilderness. The fact that Jefferson thought Ledyard could accomplish such an incredible journey says a lot about the faith he had in him.
Jefferson agreed to ask Catherine the Great for permission for Ledyard to cross Russia but the blessing did not arrive in time. Ledyard waited for the promised passport and on June 1st set out without it. He got half way across Russia when he was arrested by order of the Empress and transported all the way back to the Polish border. His hope blasted and his health weakened Ledyard eventually made his way back to London where he arrived penniless and ragged. Looking for another opportunity he found employment with a group of noblemen who needed someone to travel through Africa to find the source of the Niger River.
With a new adventure before him all his cares appear to have been forgotten. In a letter to his mother before he left for Egypt he wrote, “Truly it is written that the ways of God are passed finding out and his decrees are unsearchable. Is God thus great? So also is he good. I am an instance of it. I have trampled the world under my feet, laughed at fear, and derided danger. Through millions of fierce savages, through parching deserts, the freezing north, the everlasting ice and the stormy seas, have I passed without harm.”
But this was to be his last adventure. John Ledyard died in Cairo, Egypt in 1788 at the age of 38 far from his friends and family. The cause of his death remains somewhat of a mystery. He had certainly been weakened by his trip across Siberia. Some theories say he died from bilious fever, others say from an overdose of vitriolic acid which was used at the time to treat stomach problems.
In his last letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson he asked, “Do not forget me,” and when Jefferson became President he did not forget him. In 1803, fifteen years after Ledyard’s death, Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the great northwest that Ledyard had told him so much about.
John Ledyard, the Connecticut sailor, explorer, and adventurer was buried in the sand dunes lining the Nile River ten thousand miles from his home. The location of his modest grave is unknown today. In a strange twist of fate the ship, Resolution, that Ledyard sailed on with Cook ended her days rotting on a mud bank in Newport, Rhode Island only a few miles from Ledyard’s home.