February 24: Connecticut Adventurer John Ledyard Arrested in Russia for Spying


John Ledyard, one of America’s first celebrity adventurers, was born in Groton, Connecticut in 1751.  The son of a sea captain, young John had acquired plenty of shipboard experience — as well as an insatiable appetite for travel and a flair for the dramatic — by the time he was a teenager.  Heeding his family’s wishes, he was sent to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire at the age of twenty-one, where he enjoyed the opportunities to explore the nearby wilderness but found the curriculum and behavioral code much too strict for his liking.  One year later, he bid Dartmouth farewell with an elaborate “escape” that involved sailing down the Connecticut River to Hartford in a 40-foot dugout canoe that Ledyard had fashioned himself.

After his failed college experiment, Ledyard sought his fortune on the high seas, only to be captured and pressed into military service by the British navy in 1775 on the eve of the American Revolution.  The next year, as a British marine, he accompanied Captain James Cook on his famous third (and final) Pacific expedition that ended in 1780 following Captain Cook’s death at the hands of Hawaiian natives.  In 1783, still serving as a British marine, Ledyard was transported back to the United States, but instead of taking up arms against his countrymen in the final year of the Revolutionary War, he deserted once he reached American shores.

John Ledyard.

Later that year, Ledyard became a minor celebrity after writing and publishing his best-selling personal recollections of Captain Cook’s ill-fated voyage, titled A Journal of Captain Cook’s Voyage to the Pacific Ocean.  He leveraged his newfound fame as an explorer to gain audiences with influential politicians who he hoped could sponsor new excursions, eventually meeting with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and the Marquis de Lafayette in France in 1785.  Jefferson was especially taken with Ledyard’s far-fetched schemes to explore the far reaches of the world, and encouraged him to explore the Alaskan frontier via an overland route through Russia for the twofold purpose of surveying geographic borders and expanding the young United States’ fur and sealskin trade in the region.

In the summer of 1787, Ledyard set out on his great Russian excursion, traveling nearly 4,000 miles eastward over the mountains and steppes of north Asia over the course of eight months.  During that time, however, news of the outgoing and gregarious American explorer raised suspicions among Russian authorities who feared he might be gathering intelligence on their hunting and trapping techniques.  On February 24, 1788, they finally caught up with Ledyard, who was then in the east Siberian port town of Yakutsk, and arrested him by order of Catherine the Great.  Charged with spying, Ledyard was forced to retrace his steps westward and was promptly expelled from the country.   It was one of the few times Connecticut’s most famous explorer was ever forced to turn back during one of his journeys, but Ledyard took it in stride, immediately planning a new expedition — this time to Egypt to try and find the source of the Nile River.  There, his itinerant life of fearless exploration finally came to an end after he died from an illness in Cairo.  Only 37 years old at the time of his death, John Ledyard had experienced enough encounters to fill several lifetimes — certainly enough to brand him as one of the most famous and well-traveled adventurers in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

David Drury, “John Ledyard, Connecticut’s Most Famous Traveler,” connecticuthistory.org

Ben Gammell, “The Adventure of a Lifetime: John Ledyard and Captain Cook’s Last Voyage,” Connecticut Public Radio/WNPR

Bill Gifford, “The Amazing Life and Times of John Ledyard,Dartmouth Alumni Magazine