Ledyard, According to Gifford

by Zeke Turner | 4/13/07 5:00am

When John Ledyard arrived at Dartmouth in the spring of 1772, he grabbed everybody's attention with his flashy clothes and his carriage -- the first to ever reach Dartmouth. Ledyard left just one year later when he made his own canoe and floated down the Connecticut River, once again the center of attention, wearing a bearskin and reading Ovid in Latin (which distracted him from a waterfall downstream, coming perilously close to a fatal accident).

While most of us are familiar with Ledyard's famous canoe trip, his search for the Northwest Passage, his close friendship with Thomas Jefferson and his travels across Siberia and Africa have been all but forgotten. Even unbeknownst to us, Ledyard's character and values left a thumbprint on Dartmouth that survives to this day.

Earlier this week, I sat down with Bill Gifford '88, the author of "Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer" (Harcourt 2007), to discuss the intersection of the forgotten explorer and the Dartmouth spirit.

What initially attracted you to John Ledyard?

On my freshman canoe trip in 1984, I learned the legend of this Dartmouth freshman who dropped out by canoe, and only later I found out the rest of the story. The canoe trip was just the beginning; he had gone on to lead this amazing life, meeting the most important people of his time, from Captain Cook to Thomas Jefferson.

After your freshman trip, were you thinking about Ledyard when you were a student at Dartmouth?

Ledyard is a tremendously attractive character to anyone who's at that point where they're starting to have a hard time with college. Everybody reaches that point. Maybe they blew an exam or they think they got let in by mistake. Maybe they think they're not going to make it or they can't stand the isolation. That's why he's such a legend; because everybody's had that mad thought to take off. In Ledyard's time, the canoe was just the easiest and cheapest way to leave.

You retraced some of Ledyard's footsteps while you were researching for your book, including a trip aboard a replica of The Endeavor, which Ledyard sailed on as a marine with Captain Cook in search of the Northwest Passage. Were you vomiting the whole time?

I made it three days because I had bought these patches you can put behind you ear, releasing drugs directly into your brain. It also puts you in a daze so you're seeing double. I knew I should have been violently seasick, but I wasn't. And then after the third day, the patches wore off and there were a couple of hours of misery. Can you imagine four years of sailing like that?

And with Syphilis.

[Laughs] Yes, adding to the discomfort. But that really gave me an appreciation for how far Ledyard traveled. Most people died ten miles from where they were born. Ledyard traveled thousands and thousands of miles -- probably more than anyone of his time. When he came back, he had all these amazing stories. You definitely wanted him at your dinner party and you didn't want your girlfriend near him.

The book tells Ledyard's story but, as the title suggests, it is also the story of you remembering Ledyard. For you, how much is this book about your shared experience with Ledyard?

Well, his paper trail is very sparse, and I think that was because of his psychological make-up. He went through long periods when he would write nothing because he was depressed, and then things would turn in his favor, and there would be a flurry of letters.

Sounds like Seasonal Affective Disorder -- something we hear a lot about at Dartmouth.

I grew to identify with him pretty strongly. He was the kind of guy who would say anything to anybody. One of his English friends said he seemed to regard every man as his equal, from a Polynesian king to the lowliest sailor on Captain Cook's ship.

Well, there's two ways to think about that. If you regard everybody as your equal then maybe you are disrespectful, but you seem to think that because he respected everyone as he respected himself, he was incredibly respectful.

Exactly. That was why he tangled with Eleazar Wheelock, because Wheelcok was a strong character and also did not like to have his authority challenged.

It seems that even though he was a nuisance to Wheelock, he managed to leave a certain mark on Dartmouth.

He was the original rebellious Dartmouth kid. That's one of the great things about the school. It's the kind of place where students are not afraid to make their mark or challenge authority. Even the Dartmouth Review is a testament to that.

Free speech to the limit.

If you go down to the Ledyard Canoe Club, there's a monument with a plaque, and it says "His was the Dartmouth spirit." I thought about that the whole time I wrote this book. Were they crazy? He left Dartmouth in disgrace. He hated it, yet he also loved it at the same time. Is his the Dartmouth spirit? I ultimately decided that it is.

Was that the main question on your mind while you were writing?

This unstoppable passion that Ledyard had, the appetite for life -- that's the Dartmouth spirit. It takes a certain type of person to want to go to college 125 miles from the nearest city.

Do you think it's funny that "his was the Dartmouth spirit," but he's also relatively unknown to Dartmouth students today?

That's the way it was when I was there too, but half the things in town seem to be named after him--the bridge, the canoe club, the bank, Ledyard Lane.

And then there's the Ledyard challenge.

He would have approved of that for sure. I think for a dropout, he left a pretty good mark. He left more of a mark than Mr. Rogers.

Would students benefit from knowing more about John Ledyard? Did you write this with the hope that people would remember him?

If there's a great lesson from his life that college students miss because they don't hear the story of Ledyard's life, it's that you can make your own way in the world. You don't have to follow the prescribed path that's laid out for you. He was the ultimate self-made, self-created man. He was sent to Dartmouth as a missionary to civilize the Indians, and he realized that that was a futile mission and somewhat inappropriate -- they didn't need to be civilized by him. Wheelock realized the same thing, and the school became a more conventional college.

I guess Robert Frost was right when he said that Ledyard was "the patron saint of freshmen who run away."

In a way, although he was admired for dropping out of Dartmouth, he kind of shot himself in the foot. For the rest of his life, he would bemoan the fact that he was incompletely educated. He didn't have the patience to sit through four years of school. He didn't have the tools to process everything he was seeing so he could never become a scientist like Jefferson.

Do you think he regretted his departure down the Connecticut?

I think he would have preferred that his family send him to Yale, like they sent all of his cousins. He was the black sheep so he got sent to Dartmouth.

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