[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'American Traveler': The First Bicoastal American

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'American Traveler': The First Bicoastal American
New York Times Book Review, 5.4.17

[First chapter appended.]


AMERICAN TRAVELER: The Life and Adventures of John Ledyard, the Man Who 
Dreamed of Walking the World.
By James Zug.
Illustrated. 286 pp. Basic Books. $25.

    IN many ways the archetype of the restless explorer, John Ledyard
    traveled the world when America itself was terra incognita. He was the
    first American citizen to step on the west coast of the continent. He
    also served before the mast on the greatest circumnavigation in the
    age of sail and made an epic solo journey across the sepulchral wastes
    of Siberia. Ledyard had an elastic imagination, and although his
    career was chiefly distinguished by its range of failures, his story
    is gripping, as he had the habit of appearing in the most exciting
    place at the most interesting time.

    Born in 1751 in Groton, Conn., into a respectable if unremarkable
    family, he got a whiff of the high seas from the saltworks on the
    Thames estuary. The young Ledyard matriculated at the newly fledged
    Dartmouth College, but abandoned his studies at the end of his
    freshman year to investigate the wide world beyond. He eventually
    headed for Europe, joined the British Navy as a marine and maneuvered
    his way onto the crew of Captain Cook's third voyage. This four-year
    expedition, which left Plymouth, England, in 1776, inaugurated
    Ledyard's career, and in his lively new biography James Zug devotes 5
    of his 14 chapters to it. We see the men celebrating Christmas in the
    roaring forties with roast penguin and a double ration of grog,
    enjoying fricassee of rats off the Oregon coast and carousing with
    garlanded Polynesian lovelies in the South Seas, an interlude in which
    Ledyard picked up a tattoo in Tahiti and a venereal disease in Tonga.

    Before Cook's murder on a Hawaiian beach the expedition had sailed
    north to look for the Northwest Passage, the geographical grail of the
    day. (If it existed, it would enable merchant vessels from London and
    Lisbon to reduce the yearlong haul to the riches of the Orient to a
    six-week dash.) It was at Nootka Sound, off Vancouver Island, that
    Ledyard became the first American to walk on the west coast. More
    significantly from his point of view, he bartered with the Mowachaht
    Indians for black-gold sea otter pelts. This was the beginning of a
    vastly lucrative trade. ''By 1790,'' Zug writes, ''all of Europe knew
    of this little bay off the coast of America and its supply of otter
    fur, and war nearly broke out between Spain and Great Britain over its
    sovereignty.'' Later, in Macao, Ledyard was instrumental in setting up
    the Chinese fur business.

    Returning home at the end of the Revolution, Ledyard found that the
    British had burned down most of Groton and, in a single day, killed or
    wounded 28 members of his family. His energy undiminished, he set
    about a career as an independent explorer, and while he was at it
    wrote the only book he published in his lifetime, an account of the
    Cook expedition. But he failed to secure a patron, and left America
    for good in 1784. In Europe he marketed himself, 21st-century style,
    as ''John Ledyard the Traveler.'' He stayed initially in Paris -- a
    city lovingly described by Zug -- where he made friends with the
    American ambassador, one Thomas Jefferson, who called him ''a man of
    genius.'' Ledyard at last had the kind of influential supporter who
    made things happen, and Zug states baldly that Jefferson changed his
    life. Desperate to get back to the pelts of Nootka Sound, Ledyard
    persuaded Jefferson of the need to explore the American continent (it
    was two decades before Lewis and Clark). To do the job Ledyard decided
    he would walk around the world, starting from Europe, then proceeding
    through Asia and across the Bering Strait -- one of the first known
    attempted circumambulations. He duly slogged across Russia, alone
    except for two dogs, but in the end went mostly by post office
    carriages. In eastern Siberia Catherine the Great had him arrested and
    deported, but the trip made him famous. (''Behold me the greatest
    traveler in history,'' he wrote to his mother.) Sir Joseph Banks, the
    celebrated botanist and one of the most powerful figures in Britain,
    then dispatched Ledyard to Cairo to follow what was thought to be the
    course of the Niger from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. But in 1789,
    before he got started, Ledyard perished of a combination of dysentery
    and exhaustion in a squalid room on the banks of the Nile. He was 37.

    Zug, the author of ''Squash: A History of the Game,'' paints a
    convincing portrait, at least insofar as the opaque 18th-century
    sources allow. Ledyard had remarkable physical and mental stamina,
    enduring frostbite, lice and ''alternating bouts of mania and
    depression.'' He was passionate and resourceful. (''I have a heart,''
    he wrote, ''as big as St. Paul's church.'') He favored Turkish
    breeches and was a robust heterosexual, though he never married. Most
    fascinating, he was a creative thinker, writing detailed notes
    wherever he went and regularly debunking the theories of the day. He
    developed the idea that Native Americans had trekked over from Asia,
    and that all mankind had evolved from one common ancestor -- both
    mightily odd notions at the time. He was an early ethnologist, more
    interested in people than landscape, and, unlike many explorers, he
    perceived indigenous peoples as human beings.

    This is the fourth biography of Ledyard (the third appeared in 1946).
    Zug has researched the material with diligence. His prose is clear and
    sober throughout, and the pace of his narrative never flags.
    Occasionally he veers toward the purple, and he never really captures
    the raw, salty flavor of the 18th century. But this is a useful book.
    Zug has also edited the first single-volume collection of Ledyard's
    writings, The Last Voyage of Captain Cook: The Collected Writings of
    John Ledyard (National Geographic, paper, $16), which also includes
    letters, and journals from Siberia and Egypt. Many others on the
    expedition wrote accounts of the Cook saga, but Ledyard's was a best
    seller at the time as it was the only one that partly blamed Cook for
    his own demise. (He had recently tried to repeat a trick he had used
    elsewhere, and held the king of the island hostage.) As a writer
    Ledyard is stronger on content than style, but his digressions open a
    window onto a vanished world, and the text is agreeably spiced with
    aphorisms. (''Speak kind of Anthony ye who have not seen a

    Zug reckons that Ledyard's writings ''changed how America viewed
    itself.'' The country was no longer ''a baker's dozen of struggling
    British colonies on the Eastern Seaboard, but one nation, immense and
    inevitably stretching coast to coast.'' The claim that Ledyard
    ''changed the history of the United States'' is hard to swallow. In
    fact, in Zug's zeal to rehabilitate his man, he tends to inflate
    Ledyard's legacy all the way through the biography -- though he is
    probably right to say that Ledyard was ''America's first great
    explorer.'' Zug ends the book on a poetic note that would have pleased
    its subject: ''John Ledyard is in the wilderness of every American
    explorer's mind, full of passion and hope, burning to see the next

    Sara Wheeler's books include ''Cherry: A Life of Apsley
    Cherry-Garrard'' and ''Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through


First Chapter: 'American Traveler'


     Ocean's Briny Waves-A Connecticut Childhood

    * * *

    He grew up with the sea. Salt was in the air of the first breath he
    took. Gray-green tidal water lashed rocks within sight of his first
    house. The sounds of his childhood were the smack of ropes on wood,
    the rumble of barrels rolling steady across wharves, the hesitating
    flap of a sail unfurling and the cadence of the tides. The official
    seal of his town was a full-rigged ship, with sails spread and the
    motto Mare liberum. As a young boy he unloaded cargo brought from a
    dozen nations for the family store. Each ship that moored in the
    harbor brought tantalizing news from distant lands. When his father, a
    sea captain, died young and his grandfather disinherited him, he
    turned to the sea, because it was familiar and because it was the way
    to discovery.

    John Ledyard was born in Groton and always referred to himself as a
    Connecticut man, yet his family roots were in Long Island. In 1637 the
    Reverend John Youngs, a graduate of Oxford who had converted to
    Calvinism, emigrated from England with his brother Joseph to Salem,
    Massachusetts. There he married a widow named Mary Gardner, the sister
    of his brother's wife. Youngs chafed under the Puritan strictures in
    Salem, and after three years he took his family to a new colony. They
    landed near the far eastern tip of the North Fork of Long Island. The
    Corchaugs who lived there called the spot Yennecock or Yennecott;
    Reverend Youngs named it Southold, after the village of Southwold in
    Suffolk, England, where his wife was born. Southold was the first
    English settlement in what would become the state of New York.
    Situated on a narrow, windswept spit of land, with Peconic Bay and
    Shelter Island to the south and Long Island Sound to the north,
    Southold prospered and became an important port in what was then the
    colony of Connecticut.

    The reverend's grandson, Benjamin, born in 1689, was the leading judge
    on the North Fork and a captain in the local militia. Young lawyers
    came from around the colonies to apprentice under him. They also
    courted his beautiful, smart daughters. One protégé, Robert Hempstead
    from New London, Connecticut, married Benjamin's daughter Mary,
    inherited his practice and built a grand house on the northeast corner
    of Youngs Avenue and Town Road. A younger daughter, Deborah, also fell
    in love with a visiting apprentice lawyer, John Ledyard, who had
    recently emigrated from Bristol, England. In 1727 John Ledyard and
    Deborah Youngs married and moved across the Sound to Groton.

    The village of Groton lay two miles up the Thames estuary across from
    the town of New London. Founded by John Winthrop, Jr., the son of the
    leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, New London was one of the
    major ports in North America. Groton, named after Winthrop's family
    seat in Suffolk, England, had officially separated from New London in
    1705 but was considered more of an outlying industrial district than a
    separate town. Besides farming and salt works, the main industry for
    the few hundred people on Groton Bank was the shipping industry.
    Warehouses and wharves crowded the shoreline, and shipbuilding became
    Groton's signature industry after an Englishman named John Jeffreys
    transplanted his shipyard there. On a rainy Tuesday in October 1725,
    Jeffreys launched a seven-hundred-ton ship, the largest ship ever
    built in North America.

    John Ledyard flourished in Groton. He started his own merchant house,
    became a justice of the peace, represented Groton in Connecticut's
    General Assembly, was a deacon at the First Church of Christ in Groton
    and was soon known as Squire John. He stocked his warehouse on the
    Thames with goods from around the world: Gloucester cheese, Bristol
    beer and Herefordshire cider from England; cinnamon from India; rum
    and muscovado sugar from the Caribbean; flour from New York; and coats
    from Philadelphia. Starting with John, III, in 1729-Squire John had
    been named after his grandfather John, who upon his death in 1685
    willed £100 to his younger son, Squire John's father, Ebenezer-Deborah
    Ledyard bore ten children in sixteen years before dying of measles-at
    age forty-three in March 1747, just days after giving birth to her
    tenth child. Within months, Squire John married Mary Austin Ellery and
    moved to Hartford, the capital of the colony. Widowed herself, Ellery
    had a substantial estate and a position in the upper reaches of
    Hartford society. With Squire John, she bore five children in rapid

    Once he moved to Hartford, a two-day horse ride away, the
    paterfamilias exerted less influence over his Groton brood. This
    became apparent in the spring of 1750. John, III, had worked in his
    father's warehouse as a clerk until old enough to sail on Groton
    merchant ships. He also spent time in Southold and fell in love with
    his first cousin Abigail Hempstead. Their mothers were sisters, and
    everyone strongly disapproved of the relationship. One night in early
    May, John, III, and Abigail, both twenty years old, secretly left
    Southold together. Abigail's father, Robert, rushed across the Sound
    to track them down. For three days he and his father and brother
    looked in vain for the love-crossed couple, visiting churches to "take
    the evidence" of ministers and talking to neighbors. They finally
    found the missing couple sailing into Groton in a boat manned by a
    cousin. They were husband and wife. Instead of crossing to Groton,
    John and Abigail had traveled to Setauket, a Long Island village
    nearly halfway to New York City. There a doctor, whose father-in-law
    was the Southold minister, used an extra marriage license to perform a
    civil ceremony.

    Despite eloping, the young couple managed to return into their
    families' good graces. Soon enough Abigail's grandfather, Joshua
    Hempstead, who was an assiduous diary keeper, mentioned visiting with
    his granddaughter and having Sunday dinners with her at his grand
    house in New London. Joshua was absent, though, on 10 November 1751,
    when at the little Congregational meetinghouse in Groton, Reverend
    John Owen wrote in the church ledger, "John, son of John Ledyard, was
    baptized in infancy."

    John Ledyard, IV, was probably born in his parents' new home on Broad
    Street in Groton, and for the first decade of his life he was nestled
    in a cozy, close-knit family. In the small triangle of Groton, New
    London and Southold, dozens of cousins, uncles and aunts and in-laws
    lived, especially as Ledyards had married into extensive New London
    clans like the Averys and Saltonstalls. John, III, and his brother
    Youngs Ledyard, with the help of their father, formed a merchant
    company and piloted ships in the West Indies trade, earning the title

    Youngs had four children within three years of John, IV's birth, and
    so while the fathers were away at sea, the Ledyard cousins ran about
    Groton Bank. John, IV became particularly close with Benjamin and
    Isaac, eighteen months and three years younger. "We have a language of
    our own," John later wrote to his cousin Isaac, "& you so well know my
    soul that should Language fail in the communication you would still
    understand me." The boys played in the Ledyard warehouses, peeking out
    from richly scented sacks and barrels. They prowled for coyote and
    bear that still lived outside town. They climbed Lantern Hill, the
    highest spot in the area and the first bit of land that sailors saw
    coming into the Sound. They spent hours paddling canoes and rowboats,
    riding ferries and taking day trips in little smacks up the Thames or
    the Mystic River or out to Fishers Island. In winter they sledded; in
    spring they fished for smelt that ran in silvery schools up the Thames
    to spawn; in autumn they lit bonfires on Guy Fawkes Day. They visited
    the construction site of the New London lighthouse, which when it was
    finished in 1760 was the first lighthouse on the Connecticut coast.
    They searched Cedar Swamp for Spanish gold. A year after Ledyard was
    born a Spanish galleon struck a reef west of the harbor. The town
    helped unload the ship's chests of gold, but one night the local men
    guarding it in New London spirited the chests into the swamp outside
    town. For decades afterwards gold coins materialized in the woods.

    The Ledyard boys schooled at the meetinghouse in the center of Groton.
    They studied under Daniel Kirkland, who had replaced Reverend Owen. A
    graduate of Yale, Kirkland stayed at Groton for just four years.
    Jonathan Barber, another Eli man, took over and brought the Great
    Awakening revivalist fervor of Methodist evangelist George Whitefield
    to the little meetinghouse. Whitefield himself preached twice in
    Groton to enormous crowds.

    The Seven Years' War of 1754-1763 (or the French & Indian War, as
    Americans later called it) was a prosperous time for the Ledyards. The
    British forced the American colonies to buy high-priced sugar from the
    British West Indies rather than from the cheaper French West Indies.
    False papers, sham swearing of goods, fake unloadings, bribing of
    customs officials and a constant, intricate game of selling and
    buying-all washed down by the universal solvent of rum-was the order
    of the day. More than three times as many ships stopped at
    sugar-producing St. Kitts than at its neighbor Nevis, for example,
    because St. Kitts specialized in issuing the right paperwork. Captain
    John profited from the clandestine smuggling and privateering,
    although in 1757 he got caught while sailing his ship, Greyhound
    -named for the animal on the Ledyard family crest. In quick succession
    the French and then the English captured the Greyhound, and Captain
    John had to ransom the ship in Antigua in order to return to Groton.

    While young Ledyard considered his cousins Ben and Isaac his brothers,
    his own family grew apace. His sister Frances arrived in 1754, then
    Thomas in July 1756, Charles in September 1759 and George in September
    1761. Charlie tragically died at just three and a half months old and
    was buried in the northeast corner of the Groton cemetery. The loss of
    a baby brother was saddening, but the shattering event of Ledyard's
    childhood came in the spring of 1762. Within three weeks time, both
    Captain John and Captain Youngs, on voyages to St. Eustatius, died at
    sea, John of malaria and Youngs of smallpox. The dangers of the sea
    were well known to the family, especially after 1753, when a storm
    blew Captain John's cargo of horses and sheep overboard. But for John,
    IV, a ten-year-old boy living a charmed life, the death of his father
    stunned him. With the gulls cawing overhead, the Ledyards laid Captain
    John to rest in the Groton cemetery in front of his infant son. On a
    gravestone adorned with a bursting sun, his eloquent epitaph read,
    "Once did I stand amid Life's busy throng/Healthy and active, vigorous
    & strong/Oft' did I traverse Ocean's briny waves/And safe escape a
    thousand gaping graves/Yet dire disease has stop'd my vital breath/And
    here I lie, the prisoner of Death/Reader, expect not lengthened days
    to see/Or if thou dost, think, think, ah think of me."

    Compounding the loss was a rupture in the family. Abigail Ledyard had
    not completely gotten along with the Ledyard clan since the elopement,
    and after her husband's death the tensions broke into the open.
    Captain John's estate, in particular the deed to the Groton house, was
    thrown into a complicated morass of legal dealings, and the house
    legally reverted to Squire John, who gave it to his son William. That
    summer Abigail took her four children and moved across the Sound to
    Southold. It was not a horrible exile. They lived in the Hempstead
    family home. Ledyard could still paddle and sail on the Sound, but he
    missed his cousins and the life he had led.

    On the Feast of the Epiphany in 1765, Abigail married Micah Moore. The
    town doctor of Southold, Moore was a fifty-two-year-old widower
    (Abigail was thirty-five) with a daughter named Jerusha. The new
    family moved into a saltbox house along the King's Highway at the
    eastern side of town, and soon added three daughters, Julia, Phebe and

    Ledyard never knew the girls that well, for in 1765 he moved to
    Hartford. Squire John had invited three of his fatherless grandsons to
    come to Hartford and prepare for a life in business. Reunited with Ben
    and Isaac, Ledyard found his third home in three years quite
    comfortable. The boys lived in a garret on the top floor of Squire
    John's imposing house on Arch Street. With three aunts, an uncle,
    numerous cousins and the Squire's five young children from his second
    marriage all living there, the house burbled with footsteps. The
    family slaves lived in quarters in the back.

    The boys went through their arithmetic at the redbrick Hartford
    Grammar School and learned about business at Squire John's complex of
    farms, shops and mills along Hartford's Little River. They worked
    closely with their uncle, Colonel Thomas Seymour, who was a Yale man,
    lawyer, representative in Connecticut's colonial assembly and later
    mayor of Hartford for twenty-eight years; Seymour swam every day in
    the Little River, breaking ice in winter if necessary, and died at age
    ninety-four. Hartford, with four thousand citizens, was a larger
    version of New London, but the Ledyard clan was even more prominent.
    Squire John was the head of an ever-growing family (he had more than
    seventy grandchildren), a representative in the colonial assembly and
    one of the wealthiest merchants in the colony.

    Ledyard worked earnestly at his studies. "Under the tuition of a
    tender Uncle," he wrote to his mother in December 1767, "I shall be
    Diligent and in time Be able to make Some proficiency in My business.
    Uncle Seymour Promises me as far and kindly as an Uncle Can he sayeth
    that if I will (which I hope I will be steady and mind my business)
    That he will do well by me & if my life should be spared he will let
    me be chosen up to the Law Businesses (as Docs) and to follow the
    Business long and leave room for us."

    Despite his assurances, Ledyard never felt entirely at home in
    Hartford, and tragedy struck soon after his arrival. In May 1766
    during a celebration at the repeal of the hated Stamp Act, John's
    uncle Nathaniel Ledyard was killed in a fireworks explosion.
    Furthermore, Ledyard and his grandfather never saw eye to eye. The
    great patriarch held decided views on matters of business and politics
    and considered his grandson a bit of a fool. Ledyard's cousin Henry
    Seymour later recalled that one day Ledyard met a drover bringing some
    horses for sale in Hartford: "Being pleased with one of them & ready
    for sport, he bought the whole drove, & drew on his grandfather for
    the amount. He came with the horses to Hartford, and, arriving in the
    night, he drove the horses to his grandfather's yard, where they
    remained till morning, when the owner called for his money, & found
    that they had been dealing with a boy, & was glad to receive his
    horses again." No doubt this stunt did not amuse Squire John. . . .

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