John Ledyard: Controversial Corporal

Bertha S. Dodge follows the journey of John Ledyard, a captain’s son from Connecticut, who helped to explore the Pacific and travelled across the Russian Empire.


‘We have made a fruitless search after my friend Ledyard’s letters,’ wrote the Marquis de Lafayette in August, 1823, to Ledyard’s would-be biographer, ‘and am without hopes to recover them - but as the Havre packet is to sail in a few days I will not defer the little information I can give... (concerning) the good and extraordinary man... Mr Jefferson and myself, I am proud to say, had indeed a great share in his affections.’

It must have been extraordinary qualities of character and mind that the Marquis referred to, for John Ledyard had neither great family connexions, high position, nor any personal wealth. In fact, he had nothing at all. His father, a captain in the West India trade, had died when his four children were quite young, leaving an estate of which his widow was soon defrauded.

By the time John, born in 1751 in Groton, Connecticut, reached the age of twenty, ‘Dr Wheelock, the amiable and pious founder of Dartmouth College... the intimate friend of his grandfather... invited Ledyard to enter his institution, recently established at Dartmouth, New Hampshire, amidst the forests on the banks of the Connecticut River’. Dartmouth was to train future missionaries to the Indians.

Typically, Ledyard arrived and departed from the institution in highly original ways - arriving in a sulkey laden with materials for theatrical performances in which he would play leading roles. A year later he left in a dugout canoe of his own manufacture. In between he studied occasionally, starred in the theatrical productions, and spent three and a half months in the wigwams of Indians of the Six Nations. There, at least, he learned some things of enduring value, the one of most immediate importance being that he felt no call to return to his Indian hosts in the role of missionary.

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