The following is excerpted from a feature by Jim Collins ‘84 included in Dartmouth Undying. Collins co-edited the book, which was published in February 2019 to commemorate Dartmouth College's 250th anniversary.
John Ledyard’s dramatic departure has been burnished into myth. He likely didn’t actually fell the pine tree from which he dug out his canoe (and the canoe was almost certainly no more than fifteen or twenty feet long). According to observers, he didn’t even paddle off down the river — he lay back in his canoe and ostentatiously read his copy of Ovid while the current did the work for him. And according to Bill Gifford ’88, who published a book on Ledyard in 2007, that could easily have been the last anyone saw of John Ledyard:
A day’s float downstream from Hanover, the river poured over Bellows Falls, a turbulent series of cascades and rapids that dropped more than forty feet in Ledyard’s day (but now is buried under a hydroelectric dam). Ledyard was so engrossed by his reading, he later claimed, that he didn’t hear the roar of the falls until it was almost too late. In his panic, he managed to tip over the canoe, and just barely avoided being swept over the falls to his death. Apart from the bearskin, of course, he lost nearly everything — his food and most of his possessions — when the canoe capsized.
Ledyard sailed with Captain Cook on Cook’s ill-fated final voyage; became the first American to set eyes on the continent’s west coast and to set foot in Hawaii and Alaska; he trekked alone in the winter across Lapland and much of Russia; started the fur trade with China; befriended common seamen and nobility, natives and savages, Lafayette and John Paul Jones and Thomas Jefferson.
But history has remembered, or not remembered, John Ledyard primarily for his failures, some of which were spectacular on a global scale. He failed at both Dartmouth and at divinity school. He abandoned his widowed mother and five younger siblings. He deserted the British Navy. The fur companies he dreamed of creating were a bust. His ambitious plan to walk around the world was thwarted after seventeen months and 14,000 miles when Catherine the Great had him arrested in Siberia, in fear that he was spying for the French government. Not long after that, not yet forty years old, attempting to find the source of the Niger River, he died of illness barely out of Cairo, vomiting on the banks of the Nile.
James Zug ’91, who wrote a biography of Ledyard and edited a National Geographic collection of Ledyard’s writings, said, “His dreams were so large and impossible that people remembered the heartbreak more than the mere distance traveled.”
Ledyard, in one sense, may have been the first modern explorer. He was a professional explorer for hire, in it for the exploration and the glory. He wasn’t funded by governments or scientific academies. He found his own money from patrons, even going so far as to make up subscription forms. No explorer before him did those things, but others afterward would emulate him. He brought a starkly modern sensibility to his exploration. Americans at that young point in the country’s history were concerned about creating a government and a sense of home, a sense of place. Ledyard was thinking globally. He was genuinely curious about the people he met in his travels and treated them as his equals. He learned native languages. He recorded journal entries from native perspectives. He wanted to make Americans aware of the people he encountered that they lived in real places and cultures that were as valid as the ones he came from.
The Jan - Feb 2019 issue of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine featured an illustrated, succinct biography of Ledyard's remarkable life titled "The Amazing Life and Times of John Ledyard."
To mark the College's 250th anniversary, the Sphinx Foundation commissioned an original painting (image, top) of John Ledyard’s departure from campus in a dugout canoe down the Connecticut River in the spring of 1773. The painting appeared in Dartmouth Undying.
John Ledyard’s Departure, 2018
oil on gessoed panel
30” x 30”