American Traveler

Called “a man of genius,” by Thomas Jefferson, John Ledyard was the first great American explorer. Ledyard (1751-1789) was a native of Groton, Connecticut. He fled Dartmouth College by canoe after his freshman year. After being pressganged into the British Navy, Ledyard sailed on the Resolution on Captain James Cook’s final voyage. During the epic, four-year expedition, Ledyard got a tattoo in Tahiti, venereal disease in Tonga, attempted to climb Mauna Loa in Hawaii and made a five-day solo hiking and kayaking tour of the Aleutians. By virtue of his presence on the Resolution, Ledyard became the first American citizen to see the west coast of North America, Alaska and Hawaii. His memoir of the Cook voyage was a bestseller after it was published in 1783. It was the only one written by an American and the only account of the third voyage that blamed Cook’s death not on the Hawaiian islanders but on Cook himself.

After his return Ledyard formed fur-trading companies with Robert Morris and John Paul Jones and became lifelong friends with Thomas Jefferson, Marquis de Lafayette and Sir Joseph Banks. Ledyard concocted the plan of walking around the world outfitted with two dogs for company, an axe to cut firewood and a peace pipe with which to make friends. He traveled from London through Europe—including a dangerous, solo, mid-winter trek in Lapland—and across Russia in an amazing, fifteen-month trip that ended when Catherine the Great arrested him in far eastern Siberia. He died in Cairo at the age of thirty-seven on his way to find the source of the Niger River.

Combining rich scholarship—including previously unknown documents—and riveting storytelling, American Traveler was the first new biography of John Ledyard in sixty years. It was published in April 2005 by Basic Books and was a May selection for the History Book Club. It was also named an Editor’s Choice by the New York Times Book Review.

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