A fast-paced account of America’s first great explorer.
John Ledyard was born in 1751 Connecticut, died in Cairo, and traveled almost everywhere else imaginable in the intervening 37 years. The heart of journalist Zug’s bio details Ledyard’s travels, of course, but the author is to be commended for paying scrupulous attention to Ledyard’s early life as well. In the opening chapter, on Ledyard’s childhood, Zug (Squash, 2003, etc.) manages to give a real flavor of colonial life: in just nine pages, we get religion, children’s games, family networks, and romance. Chapter two, chronicling Ledyard’s brief stint at Dartmouth, begins to suggest Ledyard’s temperament. In college, Ledyard read Virgil, directed a play, and went backpacking on what would one day be the Appalachian Trail. But the highlight of his academic career was his exit—after only one year, Ledyard simply took off, running the Connecticut River in a canoe and winding up back at his grandfather’s farm in Hartford. At loose ends, the young man decided to travel—“I allot myself a seven year’s ramble more,” he wrote to a cousin. This “ramble” turned out to be more than postcollege aimlessness; it was a vocation. Zug chronicles the travels, which took Ledyard to the Sandwich Islands with Captain Cook and along the Alaskan coast to look for the Northwest Passage. He spent time in Lapland, St. Petersburg, and Paris, where he was virtually adopted by Thomas Jefferson. The character that emerges is a complicated one: Ledyard was sometimes manic and sometimes overwhelmed by despair; he was a rough explorer, but he loved clothes (in all his letters, he described his wardrobe before saying anything about his itinerary or adventures). He was courageous and sociable, but a loner. And he wanted to be famous. Thanks to Zug’s fascinating re-creation of his adventuring, Ledyard is well on his way.
Your average bear has never heard of Ledyard, true enough, but this brisk biography should catch the Early-America-Founding-Fathers craze.