Monday, November 8, 2010


I’ve been reading John Ledyard again, our man stopped by Catherine the Great in 1788 when he attempted to walk around the world. He did do a fair portion: touching down on America's western shores before Lewis & Clark, through some of Europe, all of Lapland. Pretty much considered an early day terrorist while in Russia (their fur trade possessiveness, Ledyard’s own aggressive interest in fur and trade).

While in Hanover, when crossing from Vermont into New Hampshire, we noticed the marvelous bridge, quite fancy, is named after Ledyard. Many of the biographies of the man are written by Dartmouth College alumni. The one who arrived in Hanover when the college was nineteen months old, its first half dozen acres roughed out and first built by a minister and his slaves, with a college charter proclaiming "education and instruction of the youth of the Indian tribes" which didn't quite succeed. Fleet-footed Ledyard lasted only one year. He had other things to do — like dropping a shoreline white pine and hollowing it out as a 50 x 3 foot dugout canoe, handwork he learned while recruiting students from the Six Nations Iroquois and paddling down the Connecticut to his family home in Connecticut. His favorite author Ovid as book companion.

Born in Groton, Connecticut in 1751 to the well-to- do, this sea captain's son and dreamer was shunned any inheritance that went to a younger brother, and for his 37 years got by on wit and wisdom and walking. Lots of walking. Some of his associates were the sailor John Paul Jones, Captain James Cook, and Thomas Jefferson, who slipped the adventurer funding and ideas, the latter the former didn't quite have the stomach for. While serving as the American ambassador in Paris, Jefferson hatched this brainstorm journey for Ledyard to explore the American continent — through overland Russia, crossing the Bering Strait and down across America to Virginia. Ledyard said he would do this on-foot. He would prowl across 2/3 of Russia before facing Catherine the Great's authority.

Aboard James Cook's final voyage, where the captain was murdered on a Hawaiian beach, Ledyard became a British marine for four years. He circled the world. Wrote of his adventures. One hundred years before Arthur Rimbaud, John Ledyard traveled into Africa as an explorer for the African Association and would die there at the same age as the poet (37); who never made it back, as was his plan. Ledyard's plan was characteristically bold: he would lead an expedition from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. Not at all well, close to Cairo, Ledyard died in 1789 overdosing on vitriolic acid and was buried in the sand dunes along the Nile. The precise location has never been found.

photo: © bob arnold