John Ledyard The Traveler
by Dr. Clanance Ashton Wood
John Ledyard the Traveler, of whom I have previously written, was the son
of Captain John Ledyard and Abigail Hempstead Ledyard, of Southold lineage
and birth. He was born at their Groton, Ct. home in 1751, the first child
after their runaway marriage at Setauket. His mother was the daughter of
Squire Robert Hempstead, and his father a son of the one-time mayor of
After the death at sea of her husband in 1762, Abigail and her four children
removed to Southold where she there after lived, first on her father's
farm but after her marriage to Dr. Micah Moore, Southold's village physician,
at his home which stood half a mile east of the Hempstead homestead.
Shortly after the death of Dr. Moore, young John went to live with his
Grandfather Ledyard at Hartford. Following the latter's death he was taken
into the Hartford home of his guardian, Thomas Seymour, a lawyer and a
brother-in-law of the elder Ledyard.
During his stay at Southold John attended school there, later in Hartford
and still later he read law in the office of his guardian. In the spring
of 1772 he entered Dartmouth College, recently established chiefly as an
Indian school, at Hanover, N. H., by the Rev. Eleazer Wheelock. Within
a few months, however, he left that institution and journeyed many miles
through the wilderness, as far as Canada, living among the Indians and
learning their language, manners and customs which infatuated him. Among
other things, he learned how to make a dugout from the trunk of a tree
using fire and sharp stones.
Upon returning to college after an absence of several months he and some
Indian students built such a dugout fifty feet long and three feet in width.
As late as 1836 the stump of the tree from which the crude craft was shaped
stood on Dartmouth's campus. After completing the dugout, John again pushed
off down the winding river, carrying among other things provisions, a bearskin,
a Greek testament and a copy of Ovid's Latin classic.
Reaching Preston, Ct., John took up residence with his cousin young Dr.
Isaac Ledyard and there decided to begin preparing for the ministry. He
was encouraged in this by the village pastor, a Rev. Hart, possibly the
same Joshua Hart who later preached on Long Island and ran a boys' school
at Fort Salonga during the Revolution. On Hart's advice, Ledyard returned
to Long Island and at Southold suddenly surprised his mother, brothers
and sisters whom he had not seen for several years. Approving of his plans
to become a preacher, his mother sent him to her local pastor, the Rev.
John Storrs from whom he received a letter of recommendation. (Thirteen
years later John was to write from Paris to his mother, who later sponsored
Methodism at Southold, severely criticizing her for carrying her religious
notions "to the most ridiculous and absurd lengths").
On this visit to the scenes of his boyhood, John tarried but a day, then
crossed Boisseau's ferry from Conklin's Point at Ashamomoque to Shelter
Island, traversed that island to the South ferry and thence reached Sag
Harbor. At East Hampton, he presented his recommendatiors to Dr. Samuel
Buell, moderater of the Long Island Synod, with whom he spent a month in
intense study of theology. Dr. Buell it was who advised John to seek a
teaching post while continuing his theological preparations.
Fortified with another "good letter" from the Reverend Doctor, Ledyard
rode westward astride his horse Rosinante, stopping at Bridgehampton, Southampton
and Fireplace (Southaven), thence to Setauket where his parents had plighted
their troth two decades earlier. Later he passed through Smithtown, reached
Huntington and there "feasted" for about twelve days in the library of
the Rev. Ebenezer Prime who had taken as his second wife Experience Youngs
of Southold, a sister of John's Grandmother Hempstead.
From Huntington Ledyard returned to East Hampton where he again spent a
short time with Dr. Buell before returning to his cousin's home at Preston,
Ct. Here, having received no encouragement from President Wheelock of Dartmouth
or others to whom he wrote, he abandoned all thought of becoming a minister.
A few weeks later he signed up at New London, Ct. with a Capt. Deshon and
sailed as common seaman on a vessel bound for the Mediterranean.
At Gibralter he enlisted in a British regiment but was released at the
request of Capt. Deshon on whose ship he returned to New London, a year
later. Thus at twenty two John Ledyard, who was later to win fame as a
traveler, had tried the law and the pulpit without success. Soon bidding
farewell to local friends and relatives, he journeyed to New York and from
there worked his way to Plymouth, England. Reaching London on foot, he
there met Captain James Cook, the navigator who was about to set sail on
his third and final voyage of exploration.
Ledyard signed up as a corporal of marines and sailed July 12, 1776, with
Cook who on February 14, 1779 was killed by cannibals in the Sandwich (Hawaiian)
Islands. After an absence of four years and three months, the onetime Southold
youth reached London October 6, 1780.
During the next two years Ledyard served in the British navy, never reaching
America until the closing months of the Revolution when in December 1782
his ship came to anchor at Huntington which was then held by the British.
From there on a seven-day leave he visited Southold and his mother, brothers
and sisters whom he had not seen for eight years. This was the last time
he ever saw any of them. Nevertheless. He was eulogized at Southold's 200th
Anniversary celebration in 1850 as "the fearless and world famed Traveler
who almost put a girdle around the earth on foot."
Deserting the British at Huntington, John Ledyard spent the first four
months of 1783 at Thomas Seymour's home in Hartford and there wrote his
recollections of Cook's last voyage - the first great travel story by an
American to be published is the United States. Its publisher was Nathaniel
Patton a Hartford printer who dedicated the book to Governor Jonathan Trumbull,
George Washington's "Brother Jonathan" of Revolutionary fame.
Ledyard next planned to lead an expedition into America's unexplored Northwest
but although Robert Morris, the signer" offered to outfit a ship, none
was found available On June 1, 1784, the frustrated adventurer wrote his
mother at Southold that he was about to sail for Europe and contemplated
a voyage aound the world. Soon thereafter he embarked for Spain, finally
reached Paris and there became the friend of Thomas Jefferson, then minister;
Lafayette and Commodore John Paul Jones, all of whom offered aid for such
After several disappointments, however, Ledyard made his famous journey
through northern Europe on foot, eventually reaching St. Petersburg March
20, 1787, then going on to Siberia and Irkutsh where he was suddenly arrested
and banished from Empress Catherine's dominiors, possibly on suspicion
of being a French spy.
Ledyard returned to London early in May 1788, a penniless and disappointed
man. Two months later, financed by a society interested in learning more
than the world yet knew of darkest Africa's interior, he sailed for that
continent, reaching Cairo August 19, 1788. There he was successful in joining
a caravan about to start for the interior. Before it did so. John wrote
what proved to be his final message to his mother at Southold. Widow Abigail
Hempstead Ledyard Moore was then sixty years old but she survived her famous
son sixteen years.
Ledvard wrote that he expected to be absent three years and hoped then
to see them all again. He reported that he was in "full and perfect health"
although he had "trampled the world under his feet. laughed at fear and
derided danger". Before the caravan left Cairo, however, John Ledyard was
taken ill and died there Januarv 17, 1789 in hs 38th year. He was buried
in some unknown spot in the yellow sand where the desert meets the Nile
James Seymour, the Hartford lawyer who had been Ledyard's early guardian,
described him as above middle stature, not tall nor corpulent; athletic,
firm and robust; with light eyes and hair, equiline nose, broad shoulders
and full chest." "For capacity, endurance, resolution and physical
vigor," says the Encyclopedia Brittanica, "he was ore of the most remarkable
For many years there was a penciled likeness of the Southold adventurer
on a wall of the old chapel at Dartmouth. A portrait of Ledyard, who has
been called "the American Marco Polo', was painted by the celebrated English
artist Brenda who had met him in London. The original was last heard of
in Sweden. There were some poorly executed copies of the painting,
one of which Ledyard sent to his cousin Dr. Isaac Ledyard, then a resident
of Newtown, L. I., and another made by Dr. Ledyard to his mother
This Dr. Ledyard planned to publish a life of his cousin. When the
Doctor died in 1803 the task was assumed by Dr. Jared Sparks president
of Harvard College from 1819 to 1853. It was first published at Cambridge,
Mass., in 1823 and was reprinted during the first half of the 19th century
in a number of editions.
The New York Mirror of October 1, 1836, declared that Ledyard added another
to the catalogue of those whose lives have been sacrificed to extend the
boundaries of human knowledge, and that no ordinary man would traverse
burning deserts, frozen lakes and regions of eternal snows unless animated
by some high principles.
Ledyard's "Eulogy on Women", recorded in his private journal and first
published after his death, has been reprinted time and again. of it Griffing's
Journal declared that it "has given Ladyard an imperishable name in the
estimation of all the sex throughout the civilized world."
"I have observed among all nations," wrote the one-time Southold schoolboy,
"that women, wherever found, are the same kind, civil, obliging, humane,
tender beings; that they are ever inclined to be gay and cheerful, timerous
and modest. They do not hesitate, like men, to perform a hospitable or
generous action; not haughty, nor arrogant, nor supercilious, but full
of courtesy and fond of society; industrious, economical, ingenuous; more
liable in general to err than man, but in general also more virtuous, and
performing more good actions than he.
"I never addressed myself in the language of decency and friendship to
a woman, whether civilized or savage, without receiving a decent and friendly
arswer. With man it has often been otherwise. In wandering over the barren
plains of inhospitable Denmark, through honest Sweden, frozen Lapland,
rude and churlish Finland, unprincipled Russia, and the wide-spread regions
of the wandering Tartar, if hungry, dry, cold, wet, or sick, woman has
ever been friendly to me, and uniformly so; and to add to this virtue,
so worthy of the appellation of benevolence, these actions have been performed
in so free and so kind a manner, that, if I was dry, I drank a sweet draught,
and, if hungry, ate the coarse morsel, with a double relish."