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After Captain Cook’s murder by an angry mob of native Hawaiians Captain Charles Clerke, Cook’s second in command, took over command of the expedition. Clerke made another unsuccessful attempt to find the Northwest Passage before the expedition slowly started back to England.
News of Cook’s death reached England in January 1780. It was a huge story; England had lost its greatest explorer. A year after Cook’s death Captain Clerke died from tuberculosis on his 38th birthday and was buried in Kamchatka, Russia. Lieutenant John Gore took command of the expedition as Captain of the Resolution. The expedition then sailed via China and the Sunda Strait to Cape Town, returning to England in August 1780. The British Admiralty had suffered another failure in its quest to find the famous passage.
To his great surprise, John Ledyard found out that his country was at war with the country he wore the uniform of. His notes from the journal he’d been keeping throughout the voyage were confiscated pending publication of the official account. Ledyard continued to serve another two years in the British Navy but refused to fight against Americans. Ledyard was sent to Canada to fight in the American Revolution but he deserted.
After the war, he was able to come home at last. He visited Groton in 1782 and spent time in Hartford. While in Hartford he wrote his account of Cook’s voyage, Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage. The printer Nathaniel Patten bought his manuscript for a small sum and it was published in 1783, five years after he had visited Hawaii. The book became an instant bestseller and Ledyard was already planning his next adventure.
The voyage convinced Ledyard that America’s future lay on her northwest coast and he worked at finding a ship and investors to go to the northwest to establish a fur trading post. Ledyard suggested trading furs for Chinese silk and porcelain, which could then be sold in the United States. His idea did lay the pattern of the subsequent China trade.
He tried to get financing in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York but couldn’t get anyone to invest. Finally, he went to France in 1785 where he tried to convince Thomas Jefferson, then Ambassador to France, and John Paul Jones of his scheme and although they were impressed financing still eluded him.
When there seemed no way to get to the coast of North America Jefferson suggested that Ledyard explore the American continent by proceeding overland. The route would take him through Russia, across the Bering Strait, and south through Alaska and then across the American west to Virginia. This would be a distance of over twelve-thousand miles, mostly through the unexplored wilderness. The fact that Jefferson thought Ledyard could accomplish such an incredible journey says a lot about the faith he had in him.
Jefferson agreed to ask Catherine the Great for permission for Ledyard to cross Russia but the blessing did not arrive in time. By December he could wait no longer and set out. In 1786 he traveled on foot to Hamburg, Copenhagen, then across to Sweden.
His route to get to Finland and then St. Petersburg in Russia crossed the Gulf of Bothnia, a 50 mile wide treacherous passage over frozen ice flows. However, in some winters the ice is not thick enough to cross and such was his fate. The only other route was far to the north over twelve-hundred miles of trackless snows, across Lapland and the Arctic Circle then down the length of Finland to St. Petersburg. He knew this setback would cost him another year of travel but he didn’t hesitate and set out for Finland.
Seven weeks later he arrived in St. Petersburg having averaged 200-miles a week through the arctic winter. He again waited for the promised passport and then on June 1 set out without it. He had traveled another 3,000 miles, over half the distance across the continent, when he was arrested by order of the Empress at Irkutsk.
He was taken into custody on the pretext of being a French spy and transported all the way back to the Polish border. The Empress then banned him from Russia. The reason for his arrest has always remained a mystery but many think that a Russian-American company did not want Ledyard reaching the coast where they were trying to establish a fur trade.
His hope gone and his health weakened, Ledyard eventually made his way back to London where he arrived penniless and ragged. Looking for another opportunity he found employment with a group of noblemen who needed someone to travel through Africa exploring the interior of the Dark Continent and locating the source of the Niger River.
With a new adventure before him all his cares, defeats, and disasters appear to have been forgotten. In a letter to his mother before he left for Egypt, he wrote, “Truly it is written that the ways of God are passed finding out and his decrees are unsearchable. Is God thus great? So also is he good. I am an instance of it. I have trampled the world under my feet, laughed at fear, and derided danger. Through millions of fierce savages, through parching deserts, the freezing north, the everlasting ice and the stormy seas, have I passed without harm.”
But this was to be his last adventure. John Ledyard died in Cairo, Egypt in 1788 at the age of 38 far from his friends and family. The cause of his death remains somewhat of a mystery. He had certainly been weakened by his trip across Siberia. Some theories say he died from bilious fever, others say from an overdose of vitriolic acid which was used at the time to treat stomach problems.
In his last letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson he asked, “Do not forget me,” and when Jefferson became president he did not forget him. In 1803, 15 years after Ledyard’s death, Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the great northwest that Ledyard had told him so much about. The main objective was to find a practical route across the western half of the continent and to establish an American presence on the northwest coast before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it.
John Ledyard, the celebrated traveler and adventurer, was buried in the sand dunes lining the Nile River 10,000 miles from home having never fulfilled his dream. The location of his modest grave is unknown today.