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John Ledyard may be the most famous person you’ve never heard of, which makes Bill Gifford’s new biography and journal of discovery, Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer, an educational as well as engrossing read. Ledyard was born in Connecticut in 1751 and died in Cairo in 1788. At a time when many Americans lived their entire life in the place where they were born, Ledyard traveled halfway around the world and back twice. His first adventure was modest enough. In 1772 he was booted out of fledgling Dartmouth College for not paying tuition. So he carved a canoe from a tree trunk and floated 120 miles down the Connecticut River from Hanover, N.H., to the sea, leaving behind a seven-page departure letter that said among other things, “Farewell, dear Dartmouth — delightfull repose for Innocense & true felicity.” Ledyard’s second adventure brought him fame. After Dartmouth, he knocked about on various sailing ships for four years. But while the Founding Fathers were in Philadelphia adopting a Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, Ledyard was with the Royal Marines in London. On July 9, he signed on as a crew member of the HMS Resolution under the famous Capt. James Cook for Cook’s third voyage of discovery. Cook planned to sail to what is now Alaska and look for the long-sought Northwest Passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. (Cook’s declaration that he “sailed farther than any other man has before” was inspiration for Capt. James Kirk of “Star Trek” to “boldly go where no man has gone before.”) But Cook wore out his welcome during a stop in Hawaii and was killed and eaten by his hosts. Ledyard claimed to have witnessed the affair and wrote 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 1779. Published in 1783 in America, it was a best seller. From there, Gifford’s narrative of Ledyard’s life reads like a Who’s Who of the 18th century. In Paris, Ledyard was wined and dined by the American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson. It was from Ledyard that Jefferson got the idea that later led to Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the Pacific Northwest. Through Jefferson, Ledyard met naval hero John Paul Jones, and so on. Gifford’s book has as much name-dropping as a lobbyists’ convention. For his third and greatest adventure, Ledyard set off alone to travel from England by land to Siberia, cross the ocean by boat to the Pacific Northwest, and walk from there to the East Coast of the United States, writing all the way. He succeeded in only the first phase of this plan, because Catherine the Great of Russia, suspecting he was a spy, ordered him arrested and expelled. John Ledyard was an explorer par excellence, tough as nails physically and mentally. To get to Russia, he had to walk 1,400 miles through Scandinavia in the winter. When the Russians arrested him, Ledyard was in eastern Siberia. Escorted by two guards, he was put into a kibitka, a horse-drawn vehicle that could travel on wheels or runners, and driven to Poland, covering 3,000 miles in 30 days. Still, Gifford, a former editor of Legal Times, faced no small task in bringing Ledyard to life, given the paucity of material he left behind. He noted: “Ledyard never kept any of the letters he received, and only a few of his correspondents bothered to save his missives to them. After Dartmouth, he almost never stayed in one place more than a few months, with the exception of his eighteen-month stint in Paris.” To add some beef to this thin historical gruel, Gifford followed in Ledyard’s footsteps, serving on the crew of a replica of another of Cook’s ships, the HMS Endeavor, and riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Gifford has also used scraps of Ledyard’s prose to brighten the book. For example, on cannibalism: “I have often heard it remarked that human flesh is most delicious and there fore tasted a bit . . . but either my conscience or my taste rendered it very odious to me.” On the delights of writing in the nude: “At this moment that I am scribbling [I am] sitting with my pipe in my mouth & a glass of plain burgundy & nothing on but my shirt.” On dinner companions in Hamburg: “[A] stiff rumped Calvinisitical Chaplain and his mummy of a Wife.” On women: “I have always remarked that women, in all countries, are civil, 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.” Because Gifford had so few of Ledyard’s letters to work with, the reader still won’t really know John Ledyard when he finishes this book. But he will conclude that it is enough to know of this man. As Jefferson once wrote, Ledyard was “crazy enough to go and search for the sources of the Nile, and yet clever enough to give a good account of his journey.”
D.C. lawyer James H. Johnston is a frequent contributor to Legal Times and has written articles on historical figures even more obscure than Ledyard.

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