Author Tags: 1700-1800, Civil Rights

John Ledyard published some of the earliest non-Aboriginal impressions of British Columbia but he is little-known in Canada, perhaps because his roots were American and not British. Ledyard was described by Thomas Jefferson as “a man of genius, of some science, and of fearless courage and enterprise.” He described his momentous arrival at Nootka Sound with Captain Cook on March 30, 1778.

“We entered this inlet about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The extremes of the opening at the entrance were about 2 miles distant, and we had the prospect of a snug harbour. It was a matter of doubt with many of us whether we should find any inhabitants here, but we had scarcely entered the inlet before we saw that hardy, that intrepid, that glorious creature man approaching us from the shore...."

John Ledyard began to earn his title of “America’s Marco Polo” at an early age. Born in Groton, Connecticut in 1751, he studied law and theology at Dartmouth in 1772, intending to become a missionary. His family was poor because his father had died at sea. One of his Dartmouth classmates was an Aboriginal who taught him how to paddle a canoe whereupon, in 1773, Ledyard chopped down a white pine, carved a 50-foot-long canoe on the banks and paddled down of the Connecticut River with the Greek Testament and Ovid as his reading material. He paddled 140 miles to Hartford, then reached New York. It was the start of a lifetime of wandering.

As a sailor he visited the Barbary Coast and the West Indies in late 1773, then enlisted as a corporal in the British Navy at Gibraltar in 1776. In Plymouth he signed on for duty with Captain Cook’s third voyage that took him to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands, Cape of Good Hope, Tasmania, New Zealand, Tahiti, California, Oregon, the Bering Sea, Unalaska Island, the eastern coast of Asia and the western coast of Vancouver Island. His description of Cook's arrival continues:

“Night approaching we came to an anchor between one of those islands and the eastern shore about one quarter of a mile from each. In the evening we were visited by several canoes full of the natives; they came abreast our ship within two rods of us and there staid the whole night, without offering to approach nearer or to withdraw farther from us, neither would they converse with us. At the approach of day they departed in the same reserve and silence. On the 30th we sent our boats to examine a small cove in the opposite island, which answering our wishes we moved with both ships into it and moored within a few rods of the surrounding beach.”

John Ledyard proceeded to provide one of the first and best records of Mowachaht (Nuu-chah-nulth) behaviour and attitudes in the 18th century. “Water and wood they charged us nothing for. Capt. Cook would not credit this fact when he first heard it and went in person to be assured of it, and persisting in a more peremptory tone in his demands, one of the Indians took him by the arm and thrust him from him, pointing the way for him to go about his business. Cook was struck with astonishment, and turning to his people with a smile mixed with admiration exclaimed, ‘This is an American indeed!’ and instantly offered this brave man what he thought proper to take; after which the Indian took him and his men to his dwelling and offered them such as he had to eat.”

Upon his return to England in 1780, Ledyard was forced to give his journals to the Admiralty. He served in the British navy for two more years, reaching America at the close of the Revolution in December 1782. During a seven-day leave he visited his mother, brothers and sisters whom he had not seen for eight years. Unwilling to fight for the British against his American brethren, he deserted at Huntington. Ledyard spent the first four months of 1783 at Thomas Seymour’s home in Hartford. When friends persuaded Ledyard to recount his adventures with Cook, he was not averse to using portions of crewmember John Rickman’s newly published account to refresh his memory. Ironically, Ledyard’s book, published in 1783, served as a landmark volume for copyright legislation in the United States.

As a former student of the law, Ledyard successfully petitioned the Connecticut Assembly for the right of exclusive publication. Although the copyright designation did not appear in the volume, Ledyard’s memoir became the first book to be issued in the United States under a copyright law of the sort that is now prevalent, to protect the rights of the author. Provisions of the Connecticut copyright law were soon copied by other states, leading to a national copyright law in 1790.

Ledyard’s memoirs provide an uncensored eye-witness narrative of Cook’s murder at Kealakekua Bay. Also killed were Royal Marine Corporal John Thomas, Privates Theophilus Hinks, John Allen and Tom Fatchett and many Hawaiians. Unlike most of his British contemporaries, Ledyard was clearly willing to consider the confrontation from the perspective of the Hawaiians. His account of the great hero’s death was critical of Cook’s arrogant attitude towards the Hawaiians and he alleges Cook was jealous of Vitus Bering.

Ledyard’s memoirs constitute the first great travel literature by an American to be published in the United States. His publisher was Nathaniel Patton, a Hartford printer who dedicated the book to Governor Jonathan Trumbull, George Washington’s “Brother Jonathan” of Revolutionary fame.

It soon became Ledyard’s great ambition to become the first American to cross the continent on foot. Thomas Jefferson wrote of their meeting in Paris in 1786: “I suggested to him the enterprise of exploring the western part of our continent by passing through St. Petersburg to Kamtchatka and procuring a passage thence in some of the Russian vessels to Nootka Sound, whence he might make his way across the continent to the United States; and I undertook to have the permission of the empress of Russia solicited.”

Ledyard devised a plan to travel across Russia and Siberia, then onto Alaska, then down to the Mississippi River. With two hunting dogs as companions, he set forth but failed to cross the Baltic ice from Stockholm to Abo.
Reconsidering, he walked from Stockholm to St. Petersburg, arriving barefoot and penniless in 1787. Undeterred, Ledyard managed to accompany a Scottish physician named Brown to Siberia. Leaving Dr. Brown at Barnaul, he went on to Tomsk and Irkutsk, visited Lake Baikal, and descended the Lena to Yakutsk, but Catherine the Great sent orders for him to be arrested. At Irkutsk he was accused of being a French spy and banished from Russia. He was sent back to Poland.

In 1788, Ledyard speculated about possible racial connections between Asian and American aboriginals, providing grist for similar anthropological arguments that advanced in the two centuries that followed. Ledyard’s wanderlust continued. Back in London, he signed on for duty with Sir Joseph Banks and the African Association for an overland expedition from Alexandria to the Niger. At age thirty-seven, John Ledyard died in Cairo on January 10, 1789, killed by an overdose of vitriolic acid.

Extracts from Ledyard’s private correspondence with Thomas Jefferson and others are provided in Jared Sparks’ Life of John Ledyard. Ledyard’s comments about women give an indication of his seriousness and character.

“I have always remarked that women in all countries are civil and obliging, tender and humane; that they are ever inclined to be gay and cheerful, timorous and modest; and that they do not hesitate like men, to perform a generous action. Not haughty, not arrogant, not supercilious, they are full of courtesy, and fond of society; more liable in general to err than man, but in general also more virtuous, and performing more good actions, than he. To a woman, whether civilized or savage, I never addressed myself in the language of decency and friendship, without receiving a decent and friendly answer.

“With man it has often been otherwise. In wandering over the barren plains of inhospitable Denmark, through honest Sweden and frozen Lapland, rude and churlish Finland, unprincipled Russia, and the wide spread regions of the wandering Tartar; if hungry, dry, cold, wet, or sick, the women have ever been friendly to me, and uniformly so. And add to this virtue, so worthy the appellation of benevolence, their actions have been performed in so free and kind a manner, that if I was dry, I drank the sweetest draught, and if hungry, I eat the coarsest morsel with a double relish.”


A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and in Quest of a North-West Passage, between Asia & America; Performed in the Years 1776, 1777, 1778, and 1789 (Hartford, Connecticut: Nathaniel Patten, 1783).


Sparks, Jared. Life of John Ledyard, the American Traveller; Comprising Selections from His Journals and Correspondence (London: Hilliard and Brown, 1828; 1834, 1847, 1864.) [Contains extracts from Ledyard's journals and his private correspondence with Thomas Jefferson and others.]

Adam, Graeme Mercer. The Adventures of a Yankee; or, The singular life of John Ledyard; with an account of his voyage round the world with the celebrated Captain Cooke. Designed for youth by A Yankee (Boston, Carter, Hendee and Babcock, 1831).

Mumford, James K. John Ledyard: An American Marco Polo (Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1939).

Mumford, J. K. (editor). John Ledyard’s Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage (Corvalis, Oregon: Oregon State University, 1963).

Watrous, Stephen D. (editor). John Ledyard’s Journey Through Russia and Siberia 1787–1788: The Journal and Selected Letters (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966).

[BCBW 2004] "American"

Ledyard & Cannibalism

On the 1st of April [1778] we were visited by a number of natives in their boats… This was the first fair opportunity after our arrival that I had of examining the appearance of those unknown aborigines of North-America. It was the first time too that I had been so near the shores of that continent which gave me birth from the time I at first left it; and though more than two thousand miles distant from the nearest part of New-England I felt myself plainly affected… It soothed a home-sick heart, and rendered me very tolerably happy.
I had no sooner beheld these Americans than I set them down for the same kind of people that inhabit the opposite side of the continent. They are rather above the middle stature, copper-coloured, and of an athletic make. They have long black hair, which they generally wear in a club on the top of the head, they fill it when dressed with oil, paint and the downe of birds. They also paint their faces with red, blue and white colours, but from whence they had them or how they were prepared they would not inform us, nor could we tell. Their cloathing generally consists of skins, but they have two other sorts of garments, the one is made of the inner rind of some sort of bark twisted and united together like the woof of our coarse cloaths, the other . . . is also principally made with the hair of their dogs, which are mostly white, and of the domestic kind. Upon this garment is displayed the manner of their catching the whale—we saw nothing so well done by a savage in our travels… Their language is very guttural, and if it was possible to reduce it to our orthography, [it] would very much abound with consonants.
In their manners they resemble the other aborigines of North-America; they are bold and ferocious, sly and reserved, not easily provoked but revengeful; we saw no signs of religion or worship among them, and if they sacrifice it is to the God of liberty.
When a party was sent to procure some grass for our cattle they would not suffer them to take a blade of it without payment, nor had we a mast or yard without an acknowledgment. They intimated to us that the country all round further than we could see was theirs… The houses we saw near this cove appeared to be only temporary residences from whence it was supposed that in winter they retired into the interior forests, and in summer lived any where that best answered the purposes of fishing or hunting.
The food we saw them use consisted solely of dried fish and blubber oil, the best by far that any man among us had ever seen: this they put into skins. We purchased great quantities of it [for] our lamps [and] many other purposes useful and necessary. Like all uncivilized men they [were] hospitable, and the first boat that visited us in the Cove brought us what thought the greatest possible [gift], and no doubt they offered it to us to eat; this was a human arm roasted. I have heard it remarked that human flesh is the most delicious, and therefore tasted a bit, and so did many others without swallowing the meat or the juices, but either my conscience or my taste rendered it very odious to me.
We intimated to our hosts that what we had tasted was bad, and expressed as well as we could our [disapproval] of eating it on account of its being part of a man like ourselves. They seemed to be sensible by the contortions of our faces that our feelings were disgusted, and apparently paddled off with equal dissatisfaction and disappointment themselves.


After serving as corporal of marines for Cook’s final voyage, Ledyard deserted the British navy and returned to Connecticut where he noted in his journal that sea otter pelts which “did not cost the purchaser six pence sterling” could be sold in China for $100 or more. Hoping to exploit the Pacific Northwest fur trade, Ledyard unsuccessfully sought financial backers in Spain, France, and England until he spoke to Thomas Jefferson, the United States minister to France, in Paris. Along with John Paul Jones, the naval hero of the American Revolution, Ledyard suggested to Jefferson that two ships were required “to proceed in company to the Northwest Coast, and commence a factory there under the American flag.”
After six months collecting furs, Ledyard and his companions would erect a small fort and be left there with a surgeon, an assistant, and twenty soldiers. One ship would be sent with its cargo of furs to China, commanded by John Paul Jones. The other ship would remain to gather more furs. Then John Paul Jones would take both ships for a second visit to China, load them with silks and teas, and return to the United States after stopping in Europe. Ledyard and Jones hoped to gain the financial support of the French government for their plan, but Spain soon took objection to the appearance of the French explorer La Perouse at Nootka, so the French demurred. Discouraged, Jones withdrew from the scheme.
Eager for fame, if not fortune, Ledyard decided he would be the first man to cross the American continent, west to east, by walking from Nootka Sound to the sources of the Missouri River and “the shores of Kentucke.” Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society of London, was not averse to serving as his patron for this exploration, so Ledyard made arrangements, with the help of R. Cadman Etches, to gain passage on a ship bound for Nootka from England in the spring of 1786. When this ship was unable to sail, the intrepid Ledyard was undaunted. He vowed to reach the western edge of North America via Siberia.
Armed only with letters of introduction from Banks, Ledyard visited Hamburg, then Sweden, in order to walk across the frozen Gulf of Bothnia to reach Russia. Finding open water in the Gulf, he backtracked to Stockholm. For his second attempt, he veered further north, towards the Arctic Circle, and managed to reach St. Petersburg in 1878. Ledyard accomplished his goal of joining an expedition that was taking supplies to Siberia for Captain Billings who had been his seaman on the Resolution with Ledyard under Cook. Ledyard managed to complete the 6,000-mile trip to find Billings in Yakutsk, Siberia, on November 12, 1787. There Ledyard notified his astonished friend that he wished to tag along to reach North American “for the purpose of exploring it on foot.”
While waiting for the ice to break at Irkutsk, Ledyard received an unwelcome visit from two Hussars in February of 1788. They advised him they had received order to apprehend him and return him to Moscow where there would be an inquiry. Apparently Ledyard was suspected of being some sort of spy. Taken into custody and returned from whence he came, Ledyard somehow managed to evade the Russian inquiry and find his way back to London.
Again aided by Banks, Ledyard approached the Society for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa for a commission. When asked how soon he might be able to start exploring, Ledyard reportedly said, “Tomorrow morning.” By August of 1788, Ledyard was in Cairo, writing to Thomas Jefferson, assuring him that if he could get himself out of Africa, he would still be eager to go “to America and penetrate from Kentuske [sic] to the Western side of the continent.” By January of the following year, John Ledyard was dead—and Captain Billings reached the Asian coast of the Pacific.