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Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer Hardcover – February 5, 2007

4.5 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It's easy to see why the once famous 18th-century explorer John Ledyard lapsed into obscurity. Ledyard's claim to fame was his presence on Captain Cook's ill-fated final voyage to Hawaii, about which he wrote a partly plagiarized, sometimes unreliable but widely read 1783 book. Aside from that, there were unsuccessful stabs at the ministry and the fur trade, and his own fizzled journeys of exploration: an attempted trek across Siberia and North America ended when he was expelled from Russia, and his death in Cairo aborted a planned expedition across Africa. Journalist Gifford struggles to give Ledyard's feckless life a compelling arc. He reconstructs Ledyard's travels, supplementing them with observations from his own voyage on a modern replica of Cook's HMS Endeavour and trip through Siberia. And he highlights Ledyard's alleged charisma as a charming raconteur and ladies' man (attested by many episodes of venereal disease); a premature multiculturalist in sympathy with indigenous peoples; an inveterate mooch who financed long journeys from the generosity of bemused hosts; an "eternal adolescent," prototype of romantic American wanderers from Huck Finn to Dean Moriarty. Gifford's biography has plenty of engaging travelogue, but his claims for the importance of this "first modern American" give him an ambitious destination that he never quite reaches. Photos. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

John Ledyard, a renowned traveler and explorer, died in 1789, and a biography written in 1828 placed him in the pantheon of American heroes. Ledyard took part in three expeditions: Captain Cook's voyage to the Pacific, an expedition across North America that was later completed by Lewis and Clark, and the exploration of inner Africa led by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park. Ledyard left a handful of letters and a few scattered journals, most of which were expurgated by his relatives; others have been lost. "Over a period of four years," Gifford writes, "I pursued Ledyard from the Connecticut River to the North Atlantic Ocean, from the libraries of New England to the archives of Britain, and from the streets of Paris to Siberia." Gifford describes him as a complicated man--idealistic and mercenary, restless and lazy, chivalrous and uncelibate, and having a history of tantrums and fistfights. Gifford contends that Ledyard's life was a series of self-reinventions, and this rich and immensely detailed biography brings this obscure explorer to life. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt; 1 edition (February 5, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151012180
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151012183
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,114,449 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This was another of those works that I found difficult to put down once I began reading the first page. I have always been aware of John Ledyard, having stumbled across is name in other works, but actually knew little of him or his exploits. This work changed that.

As the author so well points out, not many have heard the name John Ledyard recently. As a bit of a test, I asked three advanced high school history classes if anyone could give me an idea of who he was and what he did. Not one answer did I get. What a pity. The young Ledyard, shortly after dropping out of Dartmouth (have you ever noticed how many great men of note have dropped from Dartmouth and gone ahead and led quite interesting lives?), and began his restless wondering that did not cease until his death at the early age of 37 in a sort of pest hole in Cairo, Egypt, from an apparent over zealous self-medication overdose of one of those medications which were more poison than anything. In his years of wondering that he did, he was on the crew, acting as a Royal Marine, of Captain Cooks' third voyage. He drifted from the United States to Europe and then travel well into Siberia, alone, until he was arrested as a spy by the agents of Catherine the Great. His plans were to take a trading ship, sail to the North American Continent and walk from the west coast to the east, doing what Lewis and Clark did about fifteen years later, but going in the opposite direction and completely alone with no support staff what-so-ever. Did I mention that Ledyard was a bit of a dreamer? He was on his way to explore Africa, again alone, when he met his untimely death.
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Format: Hardcover
John Ledyard was one of the most extraordinary 18th-century Americans. He was an adventurer who sailed with Captain Cook (and saw him killed in Hawaii), who made an initial attempt to explore the interior of North America (15 years before Lewis and Clark), and who also attempted to explore the interior of Africa--then a giant empty spot on most maps. He was also a picaresque: he lived by his wits and his fists, he womanized, he spied for Thomas Jefferson, and he had powerful connections in both Europe and America. He is also, as author Bill Gifford points out, largely unknown today. When Ledyard died in 1789 his death was lamented in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. Now Gifford's `Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer' attempts to resurrect him.

Gifford does a good job of making the case that Ledyard was the first American explorer (at least of any modern significance). Ledyard was lucky (and gutsy) enough to get involved in some of the numerous European scientific expeditions begun in earnest in the late 1700s, and who reported back with his uniquely American perspective. (Gifford even spends time sailing aboard the 'Endeavour'--a replica of Cook's 'Resolution'--to give his readers a feel for what Ledyard had experienced.) But Gifford also suggests that Ledyard was the "first modern American," by which he means Ledyard was the first to look beyond the small world of the American colonies, and even to adopt "modern" views (e.g., that unchristian "savages" on pacific islands were not the natural inferiors of Europeans). On this count, Gifford is perhaps reaching too far.
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Format: Hardcover
If you have ever backpacked across Europe sleeping on the floors of locals you had met along the way, or if you have ever spent your last peso, lira, franc or kopeck on a beer only to find that you didn't have enough money left over to pay the exit fee to leave the country then John Ledyard is your patron saint. John Ledyard would be writing for Lonely Planet and living on someone's couch were he alive today.

I met the author, Bill Gifford, on the deck of the HMS Endeavour, a replica of the ship Captain Cook had used to explore the Pacific. John Ledyard had traveled with Cook on the HMS Resolution on a later voyage. As paying crew, we were sailing from England to Norway by way of the North Sea at the break-neck speed of 9 knots. We had been riding gale-force winds for two days; the bow pitched up and down and rotated as we made our way through the rough sea. Sailing in darkness, the waves peaking well above the deck, Bill turned to me and said eloquently, "This is so cool!" which is probably what John Ledyard said during his trip in some comparable 18th century slang.

What makes this book such a great read is that this story is told by someone who walked (sailed, paddled and rode) in the footsteps of John Ledyard. Bill Gifford does a great job of presenting John Ledyard as an almost-successful explorer who was driven more by his heart than by his head. Enjoy this book...I did.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a great account of the life of a very interesting character. As an avid follower of the adventure/explorer genre, I found this account of Ledyard to rank among the best. What makes this book so compelling is the work the author did in retracing Ledyard's steps, a technique which breathes life into the story, making it much more interesting than a straight historical account.

Don't let the picture on the cover of Ledyard in 18th century formal wear fool you, this guy was as rugged, and at times crazy, as anyone you will find in a Krakauer book.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who marvels at the exploits of the early explorers or who wonders what would compel someone to want to walk across a continent.
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