Catherine the Great and John Ledyard
By Ken Zurski
In December of 1786, at the age of 35, John Ledyard packed a small bag and set off from London, alone but determined to be the first person to circle the globe. A momentous feat for sure, but even more impressive considering Ledyard planned to do it all by foot.
Well, mostly by foot.
Although Ledyard, an American-born son of a sea captain, had high regards for his own unconventional skills as a navigator, not even he could walk on water. So he would walk from London, hoof it across Russia, sail the Bering Strait, walk across North America to Washington D.C. then sail back across the Atlantic to London.
It was as crazy as it was ambitious and Ledyard had another American to thank for it, a self-described “explorer aficionado” and future President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson liked Ledyard and proposed the idea of an American exploring America, specifically the uncharted land between the two lateral coasts. There had been no precedent for the journey, no demands for such a seemingly impossible task, but at the time reaching new milestones especially in exploration was tantamount to becoming a rock star today. Ledyard however thought the idea was too simple. He was thinking bigger. Perhaps circumventing the globe would be more functional, he implored. Jefferson, who was an ambassador in Paris at the time, had no objections.
After all, it’s not as if Ledyard wasn’t qualified.
Born in Groton, Connecticut, Ledyard attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire then traveled to London and enlisted in the Royal Marines so he could assist the great explorers. In 1778, in his late twenties, Ledyard was a appointed corporal on Captain James Cook’s third and last voyage around the Pacific Rim. Unlike many of the other sailors on board, Ledyard was educated and literate, so he kept a journal. When the ship Resolution returned to England without Cook, who was killed – some say executed – by Hawaiian natives, Ledyard’s journal and his first hand account of the beloved Captain’s final days was confiscated by the Admiralty for security reasons. Ledyard however had a story to tell and didn’t hesitate to write down the details of Cook’s murder from memory. The resulting book, A Journal of Captain Cook’s last Voyage, became a best seller.
Despite his success, personally, Ledyard still had the desire to see the world, possibly all of it if he could. So with Jefferson’s blessing, Ledyard mapped out a route. North America would come later in his trip. But he needed help in getting there.
For the first two months, everything went as planned. Ledyard walked, begged for food and shelter and made it to the Baltic Sea, the short inlet separating Scandinavia from northern Europe. But the water had not frozen over as Ledyard had hoped. So walking across the ice was not an option. Ledyard had to loop around the sea, mapping out nearly 400 miles more just to reach St. Petersburg. The Acrtic Circle was brutal, but Ledyard pressed on. By September of 1787, nearly 6,500 miles into his journey, and enduring some of the harshest conditions imaginable, Ledyard somehow made it to the Russian border. Once he stepped onto Russian soil, however, he was subsequently arrested.
This likely didn’t come as a big surprise to Ledyard. When planning the trip, Jefferson had asked the Russian leader Catherine the Great for permission to cross her land unmolested. She flat out refused, worried that the American traveler – or any American – would infiltrate her country’s lucrative fur trade. Jefferson relayed this information to Ledyard who ignored it and went anyway. He even considered the fur trade idea an option, something he might pursue after the journey.
Now he was in Russia and in custody. The trip was effectively over. Russian officials marched him to the Polish border, set him free and promised to hang him if he ever set foot in their country again. Ledyard was defiant. He carried no flag and answered to no monarch. He wrote in his journal:
I travel under the common flag of humanity, commissioned by myself to serve the world at large; and so the poor, the unprotected wanderer must go where sovereign will ordains; if to the death, why then my journeying will be over and rather differently from what I contemplated; if otherwise, why then the royal dame has taken me much out of my way.
But Ledyard still wanted to find a way. “I may pursue other routes,” he wrote confidently. Perhaps the British royalty would have more influence over Russia was his thinking. So he turned his back on Jefferson and went directly to London where exclusive clubs and society’s were filled with men intent on one thing – exploring. They also funded expeditions.
His timing was impeccable. A new society called the African Association was looking for someone to lead a mission through the continent of Africa. Ledyard practically fell into their laps. He accepted the assignment wholeheartedly.
Ledyard set off for Africa, but didn’t make it very far. In Cairo he got sick, took a sulfurous substance to ease his aching belly, and died from an overdose of vitriolic acid. It was torture, but a quick end.
Fifteen years after Ledyard’s attempt to walk around the world, in 1803, Jefferson funded another expedition, this time a team of two men to charter the American west, his original plan for Ledyard.
Their names were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Perhaps had Ledyard followed Jefferson’s original plans, he would have been credited with exploring the expansion across the continental divide and the waterway to the Pacific. Even in Africa, he may have been the first person to discover the source of the Nile. But he was too driven, too courageous, too stubborn. He wanted more and got far too less.
After his sudden death in 1789, neither the British nor the American authorities claimed Ledyard’s body. In Cairo, his remains were buried in a makeshift grave that still to this day has never been located.