The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler

The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler

by Edward G. Gray

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During the course of his short but extraordinary life, John Ledyard (1751–1789) came in contact with some of the most remarkable figures of his era: the British explorer Captain James Cook, American financier Robert Morris, Revolutionary naval commander John Paul Jones, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others. Ledyard lived and traveled in remarkable places as well, journeying from the New England backcountry to Tahiti, Hawaii, the American Northwest coast, Alaska, and the Russian Far East. In this engaging biography, the historian Edward Gray offers not only a full account of Ledyard’s eventful life but also an illuminating view of the late eighteenth-century world in which he lived.
Ledyard was both a product of empire and an agent in its creation, Gray shows, and through this adventurer’s life it is possible to discern the many ways empire shaped the lives of nations, peoples, and individuals in the era of the American Revolution, the world’s first modern revolt against empire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300137811
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Edward Gray is associate professor of history, Florida State University. He is the author or coeditor of three previous books and editor of Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life ( He lives in Tallahassee.

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The Making of John Ledyard



Copyright © 2007 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11055-5

Chapter One

A Colonial Childhood

JOHN LEDYARD was born in the small port town of Groton in the British colony of Connecticut in the year 1751. It was a happy year in the history of the colony. No major frontier conflict or colonial war raged; the bitter controversy surrounding the Great Awakening, that evangelical surge of the late 1730s and early 1740s, had passed; and the economic and emotional disruptions brought by the French and Indian War were still several years away. This was a happy year for the Ledyard family as well. Aside from witnessing the birth of John, likely heir to the family estate, it saw his parents, Captain John and Abigail Ledyard, enter the path toward prominence and security in this world and the next. The day of their son's baptism at Groton's First Church, Captain John and Abigail formally confessed their own faith in Christ, a gesture that secured for them and their son the spiritual and worldly benefits of membership in the town's oldest church. And finally, it was a year in which the family patriarch, Squire John Ledyard, continued to enjoy the financial benefits of membership in the Connecticut colonial establishment.In the year of his birth, life looked very promising indeed for the youngest John Ledyard.

The events leading up to Ledyard's birth were not quite so promising or happy. His parents had married a little over a year before John was born. This would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that they were first cousins. Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, the desire to keep property in the family fostered a permissive attitude about this sort of intermarriage, but in New England it remained a point of controversy. The Boston jurist and diarist Samuel Sewall had condemned it as a gross violation of the law, whatever its perceived benefits to the family. So opposed had he been that he was willing to endure the opprobrium of his neighbors for refusing to attend the wedding of a "Col. Shrimpton ... to his wive's sister's daughter, Elisabeth Richardson." It appears that Abigail's parents felt similarly. Her grandfather, the New London farmer and diarist Joshua Hempstead, noted in his diary that Abigail eloped with Captain John "because her parents refused to give her to him to wife." The marriage not only contradicted the wishes of Abigail's parents. It was also contrary to the law. According to Hempstead, the young couple "got a liscense of Doctor Mawason who had Blanks [to dispose of] from the Govr." The couple had obtained a fraudulent marriage license.

It is possible that Abigail's parents had reasons for their disapproval beyond simply the couple's familial ties. Perhaps there was something about Captain John himself, about his character or personality. He may have been a drunkard or simply impious. Or perhaps they were suspicious of the whole Ledyard clan. Relative to Abigail's maternal lineage, the Ledyards were newcomers to the colonies. Their patriarch, Squire John, had arrived from England in 1717, while the patriarch of Abigail's mother's family, the Reverend John Youngs, had established the first English town on Long Island in 1640. Similarly, the Youngs were a family of landowners and farmers; the Ledyards were merchants, sea captains, and lawyers. Perhaps these differences had played themselves out in the marriage of Abigail's aunt, Deborah Youngs. Her husband, Squire John, may simply have been too consumed with his business dealings to make a good spouse, and this may have contributed to Deborah's death several years before her niece married her son. Or perhaps it was a combination of these factors that accounts for the family's disapproval. In any case, the young couple was defiant. In Groton Township, far from Abigail's Long Island family, the newest Ledyards would be welcomed. Squire John would rent the young family a house with some land and a small shop near the town center. There, they would cultivate a small garden and perhaps raise a pig or two. The family's livelihood, however, would come not from this property, but from the sea.

Groton was one of many small commercial hubs, from Portsmouth and Salem in the North to Charleston and Savannah in the South, which dotted the eastern seaboard. Situated on the northern banks of the Thames River and surrounded by steep hills and granite-pocked terrain, the town offered its residents few economic options that did not in some way tie them to the sea.

In Captain John's case, this meant plying the coastwise West Indies trade. That trade carried livestock, horses, timber, dried fish, beef, and other goods south to Barbados, Santo Domingo, St. Kitts, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and other islands and returned to New England with sugar and molasses, the lifeblood of the local rum industry. The West Indies trade linked the fortunes of farmers and distillers in rural Connecticut to those of sugar planters in Jamaica, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands. But for Captain John, the more important links were those connecting him to that community of merchants around the Atlantic littoral whose trading ties constituted the backbone of the British Empire. It was through them that credit flowed to small, provincial towns such as Groton, and it was their political influence in London that kept the British government busy protecting the Atlantic trade.

The coastal trade would never make Captain John wealthy, at least not in comparison to the wealthiest merchants of New England. Lacking a major deepwater port, Connecticut could not accommodate the large-tonnage vessels that plied the most lucrative trade routes in the empire, those between the colonies and Britain and between the colonies and the slave trade centers of West Africa. For the same reason, the colony never attracted the wealthiest, most ambitious merchants and their agents, suppliers of the capital that sustained large-scale seaborne trade. Having limited access to large reserves of credit and capital, merchants and sea captains in Groton and New London and New Haven had few options beyond the much less capital intensive West Indies trade.

Under the best of circumstances, this coastwise trade could bring modest income, perhaps enough to elevate Captain John to the exclusive ranks of the men who, like Squire John, governed the colony. But the risks were enormous. Indeed, less than two years after the birth of his first son, Captain John suffered a devastating loss. Heading south to the West Indies, his ship encountered a violent storm that thrashed rigging and sails and carried away seventeen horses, forty sheep, and assorted other cargo.

In 1757, Captain John suffered another catastrophe. During a southbound voyage, his ship (perhaps hopefully named), Greyhound, was captured by French privateers, who refitted it for raids against British shipping. Leaving his ship behind, Captain Ledyard was able to make his way from French-controlled Martinique to the British island of Antigua. There he was eventually able to recover the vessel. But his losses were immense: in addition to cargo, time, and repair costs, they included substantial fees paid to the British naval officers who helped recover the ship.

These costs would have been difficult to bear under any circumstances, but the financial underpinnings of Captain John's business compounded the problem. Credit from local merchants, farmers, and probably his father allowed him to acquire export cargo; credit allowed him to obtain whatever ownership interest he might have had in the Greyhound; and in the event that price fluctuations made it difficult for him to cover the cost of a voyage credit would allow him to sail again. If the price for molasses or sugar was favorable upon his return to New England, a merchant could cover his various debts and even make a modest profit. Over time, enough such voyages could elevate a sea captain from debtor to creditor. But if the tides turned in the other direction, as they did for Captain John, losses could lead to insolvency and even debtor's prison. Captain John never descended to such depths. His family name was enough to reassure creditors. But he did not prosper. For his wife and children, this made life quite precarious. Were Captain John to suffer the fate of so many eighteenth-century seafarers and not return home, they would be left to manage his debts.

This prospect became reality in 1762, eleven years after the birth of John, the future traveler, when not a storm but smallpox took Captain John's life as he sailed toward the Caribbean. Upon her husband's death, Abigail placed his estate before a court of probate. This committee of prominent local men would determine who received what of the sea captain's modest assets. Fortunately for Abigail and her children, Connecticut law was relatively benevolent when it came to probate proceedings. The general practice in the colony was to grant widows one-third of the estate, with any real estate (land and buildings) normally held in trust for the deceased's male heirs. Since Captain John owned no real estate, Abigail mainly acquired household goods such as furniture, linens, tools, cooking utensils, dishware, clothing, and possibly livestock. Her portion of the estate was worth roughly forty-five pounds sterling, a substantial sum, but not enough to sustain the family, which now included John Ledyard's three younger siblings, Thomas, George, and Fanny. To help compensate for her loss, Abigail returned with her children to her hometown of Southold. There she would be the daughter of one of the first families of English Long Island rather than the widow of a modest Connecticut sea captain. Soon after, Abigail married the physician and widower Dr. Micah Moore, and the couple quickly began adding to their family. John's half-sister Abigail was born in 1765; Julia in 1767; and Phoebe in 1769.

Young John would not, however, be around to watch his siblings grow, for he had undertaken his first great journey. Shortly after Captain John's death, Abigail sent her eldest son to live with Squire John in Hartford. Ledyard would spend the better part of a decade in this provincial capital founded by dissident Puritans in 1636.

Hartford's persistence into the middle of the eighteenth century was owing largely to the Connecticut River, an artery that gave the town's small merchant community access to timber, furs, and grain, all produced in the New England hinterland. By the time young John arrived there, Hartford had evolved into a major commercial center, but it was still a frontier town with all the hazards of life on the far periphery of European settlement. The town's local newspaper, the Connecticut Courant, was filled with reports of floods, lightning strikes, epidemics, and stray wildlife. Not long after John moved to Hartford, the paper reported that "a large He Bear was discovered in an inclosure, opposite the Treasurer's, and being pursued he took to the Main Street, which he kept till he got to the Lane that turns Eastward, by the South Meeting (notwithstanding his being pelted from every side of the Street, with Stones, Clubs, & C) and was followed into the South Meadow, where he was shot.... In the Evening, he was roasted whole, and a large Company sup'd on him."

Far more worrisome for Hartford's residents was the dim, dark welter of conspirators who seemed to loom beyond the town's horizons. For most of its life, Hartford had existed in a perpetual state of fear, gazing North and West to hinterlands populated by hostile native peoples and perfidious French Catholics. The latter proved an unending source of anxiety, even after the peace of 1763 that ended the French and Indian War and transformed New France into the British province of Quebec. British victory simply meant that the British Empire in the American northeast would no longer be a Protestant empire. For New Englanders, there was little comfort in the knowledge that America's French Catholics were now British subjects. It was as if Bonnie Prince Charlie, the long-defeated Catholic pretender to the British throne, continued pursuing his designs from the contested American backcountry. The constant fear of such conspiring forces gave fear mongers and character assassins fertile ground. Hence, in late 1764, when a Mr. S-arrived in the colony and began attacking the theology of the colony's established church, was it not likely, an anonymous newspaper Querist asked, "that he may be an Emissary of the Church of Rome?" Indeed, referring to the itinerant preachers who were constantly passing through the colony, the writer wondered whether "the importing of foreign strange Preachers among us ... will not soon open a Door wide enough for Admission of some of those Holy Fathers of the Romish Church who compass Sea and Land to make Proselytes?" Given the anxiety Catholicism produced, it is perhaps not surprising that editors of the Hartford paper thought it newsworthy when one Rev. Mr. Vessiere, a former Recollet missionary residing in Quebec "declared himself a Protestant, took the usual Oaths of Allegiance to the King [of England] ... and subscribed the Declaration against Popery."

For all the hazards of life in this small provincial town, Hartford was the best place on earth for young John Ledyard. There he would be the namesake of one of the town's leading men.

From the day Squire John arrived in the colonies until his death in 1771, he deliberately and shrewdly climbed the colonial social ladder. From an obscure Latin tutor and petty merchant, he rose to become one of Connecticut's most prominent politicians, magistrates, and businessmen. By 1753, he had been elected representative to the colonial assembly from Hartford and continued in that position until 1761. He also served as a justice of the peace in Hartford County from 1754 until his death. During the tumultuous years of the French and Indian War, the colony's governor appointed him to a variety of offices charged with overseeing colonial defense and wartime finances.

In a fashion typical of officeholders in the American colonial government, Squire John parlayed his political and legal power into financial gain. Some of that gain was direct, above-the-board remuneration. As justice of the peace, for instance, he would have received fees for issuing writs and other legal documents. But there were all kinds of other, less direct benefits to working for the government. In helping the colony obtain credit from merchants in New York or London, for instance, Squire John helped himself. That very same credit might be used to purchase supplies for the colonial militia, supplies that Squire John sold. Similarly, when he urged his colleagues in the colonial assembly to dredge parts of the Connecticut River, he did so fully aware that such a project would help him move timber from woodlands he owned in the northwest part of the colony to his sawmill downriver.

The open mingling of political and personal capital was a fact of life in the Ledyards' world, and it could make a man rich. At his death, Squire John's estate was valued at nearly thirty-five hundred pounds, placing him among Hartford's wealthiest 10 percent and among the very wealthiest in the colony. Yet for all his wealth, there was nothing removed or distant about Squire John. He was no dissipated, detached aristocrat but a vigorous and devoted servant of the colony and its business. He was also a man of faith.

Although the uncompromising Calvinism of the colony's founders had long since dissipated-to the consternation of so-called New Lights such as the great Connecticut-born theologian Jonathan Edwards-Connecticut remained a Puritan colony. The vast majority of its churchgoing population continued to worship in Congregational churches, and the colony's governing elite remained overwhelmingly members of the Congregational Church. Squire John was no exception: he was an active member of Hartford's Second Church and a close friend of its pastor, Elnathan Whitman.


Excerpted from The Making of John Ledyard by EDWARD G. GRAY Copyright © 2007 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


A Note on Quotations....................xiii
I A Colonial Childhood....................9
II On Stage at Dartmouth College....................23
III Serving Captain Cook with Honor....................43
IV Seeking Distinction with the Pen Aboard the Resolution....................69
V Following the Revolution Home....................83
VI From Author to Fur Trader....................101
VII Becoming a Traveler in Thomas Jefferson's Paris....................124
VIII Across the Russian Empire....................136
IX Despotism and Human Nature in Catherine II's Russia....................53
X To Africa....................170
Epilogue: Memories of the Traveler....................186

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