by Jay Evans ’49
Over the past 230 years, Dartmouth has been blessed with a remarkable roll-call of famous former students, but only a few have risen to the level of becoming enduring legends. Except for the college’s founder, Eleazer Wheelock, John Ledyard stands out as the college’s first truly legendary figure of the 18th century. Some of today’s hallowed Dartmouth customs and traditions can be traced back to John Ledyard
His name lives on in the shadowy periphery of the college’s consciousness. The name is perpetuated everywhere: a canoe club, a bridge, the first steamboat on the Connecticut River, Ledyard Lane, Ledyard Street, Ledyard Road, the Ledyard well, and Ledyard Bank.
John Ledyard is also part of Dartmouth’s valued heritage. Historically, Fred Harris, Class of 1911, is known as the person who, after hearing students grumble about the cold Hanover winters, founded the Dartmouth Outing Club. But, it was John Ledyard, a full 136 years earlier, who led a group of student adventurers on a hike out to Velvet Rocks and spent a long frosty February night wrapped in bear skins. Ledyard was truly Dartmouth’s first outdoorsman.
Today it is common for students to take a term of leave away from the campus, but Eleazer Wheelock, in the summer of 1772, sent young Ledyard northward to spend four months near Canada living among the Iroquois of the Six Nations hoping to encourage their youth to enroll at Dartmouth. During those four months he studied the natives’ way of life with great intensity writing copious notes. In later years he did the same while visiting dozens of islands in several oceans as well as in Asia, and published some of his observations. It can be argued that he became the college’s first anthropologist.
The Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts was established in the early 1960s, but John Ledyard arrived as a freshman in April of 1772 in a broken down two wheel sulky with a trunk full of bolts of velvet and calico cloth from which he made costumes for theatrical exhibitions which he organized and led. Ledyard also petitioned Wheelock to include in the spare curriculum ball room dancing and fencing, but these activities were disallowed.
Ledyard’s college career was a short and restless one. He chafed at the narrow academic offerings. In the spring of 1773 he chopped down a huge white pine near the banks of the Connecticut River and hacked out a fifty-foot long, three-feet wide dugout canoe — having learned this skill while living with the Iroquois. One of his Dartmouth Indian classmates carved him a paddle and with it he shoved off down the river carrying with him only two books for casual reading: the Greek Testament, and Ovid. Shortly after he left he wrote a letter to Wheelock in which he said, “Farewell, dear Dartmouth, may you flourish like the greenbay tree.” His wish has certainly come true. Yet, he never returned to the college. In all he had spent less than one year at Dartmouth.
It can be said with some certainty that he travelled farther on land and sea around the globe than any other human being of the 18th century. At Gibralter he enlisted then deserted from the British Navy; served in the British Army and later as a British Marine. He sailed to the Barbary Coast, to the West Indies, and reported for duty with the famous scientist and explorer Captain Cook in Plymouth, England. With Cook he saw the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Island, the Cape of Good Hope, Tasmania, New Zealand, Tahiti, and what was later to become California and Oregon, Nootka Sound, the Bering Sea, Unalaska Island, the eastern coast of Siberia, China, and Java, all the while absorbing as much as he could of the native cultures. On land he walked through some of Scandinavia and almost two-thirds of the way across the vast Russian land mass before being arrested, returned under guard, and evicted to Poland.
In all these travels he met many kinds of people, and was inspired to write a seven stanza poem entitled: “In Praise of Women” which closed with:
Her courteous looks, her words caressing,
Shed comfort on the fainting soul,
Woman’s the traveler’s general blessing,
From sultry India to the Pole
One may argue that he was Dartmouth’s first poet.
Finally he joined an expedition to explore northern Africa but died on November 26, 1788 near Cairo of an overdose of vitriolic acid. No trace of his grave has ever been found. There is an old saying: “A candle that burns twice as bright burns only half as long.” John Ledyard was only 37 years old.
Today a bronze plaque is anchored to a large granite stone along the river bank next to the canoe club that bears his name where Ledyard chopped down that pine tree — it reads:
In 1773 a freshman at Dartmouth College
on this spot felled a giant pine
from which he made a canoe
and in it descended the river to Hartford, Connecticut.
He was a traveller among the Indians
an associate of John Paul Jones
an officer under Captain Cook
traversing all oceans and penetrating remote lands.
He foresaw and foretold the riches
of the Pacific Coast and the advantages
of commerce with the far east.
When about to cross Africa he died in Egypt
at the age of 37.
He too heard the voice crying in the wilderness
HIS WAS THE DARTMOUTH SPIRIT