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The Great Escape

James Zug '91 takes a new look at John Ledyard

He's been a Dartmouth legend since the end of his first year at the College, when he cut down a pine tree, hacked out a canoe and paddled away down the Connecticut River. That was in 1773. In 1955, poet Robert Frost, another Dartmouth dropout, dubbed him "the patron saint of runaway freshman."


American Traveler

For three generations after that celebrated canoe trip, John Ledyard was Dartmouth's most famous former student-a brilliant adventurer and traveler who sailed the Pacific with Captain James Cook, crossed the equator four times, was the first non-native American citizen to see the West Coast of North America, Alaska and Hawaii, spent time in Lapland, St. Petersburg and Paris and became a close friend of President Thomas Jefferson. He died in Cairo in 1789, in pursuit of his great dream-to travel around the entire globe on foot.  

For a hundred years after his death, Ledyard remained an icon-the subject of best-selling biographies, children's books and essays, remembered in the work of the nation's leading authors. Then his fame slowly faded until he was a celebrity only in the Hanover region, where a local bank, a canoe club and a bridge over the Connecticut River all bear his name.

Now, James Zug '91 aims to change all that.

Zug has published not one, but two new books about Ledyard.  American Traveler: The Life and Adventures of John Ledyard, the Man Who Dreamed of Walking the World (Basic Books), is the first Ledyard biography in more than six decades. The Last Voyage of Captain Cook, The Collected Writings of John Ledyard (National Geographic Books), which Zug edited, is the first collection to combine Ledyard's letters, journals and one published book (1783, reprinted in 1963). Zug aims to clear out 216 years of cobwebs, biographical sugarcoating and outright lies to reintroduce Ledyard to America.

"Every Dartmouth graduate knows about Ledyard's infamous exit from the college... ," said Zug. "As a traveler, I felt a deep connection to Ledyard. I have been to many of the same places he explored. I have undergone the same experience of traveling alone in a foreign country without much money, having not bathed in a week, wearing threadbare, patched clothes and wondering where I will sleep that night. I have depended upon the kindness of local villagers. So Ledyard's life reverberated with mine.

"Moreover, he was such an American. He thirsted for knowledge. He was an incorrigible debunker and delighted in trashing contemporary beliefs. He came from Connecticut gentry, yet he ignored class divisions and was completely comfortable either hobnobbing with Parisian aristocrats or overnighting in a peasant's hut. Above all, he yearned for fame and fortune as the American Traveler...If he lived today, you would see Ledyard with a website, corporate sponsors, a lecture circuit and a busy press agent."


This original 1787 diary of Ledyard's journey towards eastern Siberia and Kamtschatka is housed in Rauner Library.  Ledyard died in Cairo 1789 while pursuing his dream of traveling around the globe on foot. (photo by Charles Rountree '05)

In researching his book, Zug was "obsessed with tracking down every scrap of paper relating to Ledyard." He read Ledyard's surviving journals, tracked down letters at Dartmouth and the New-York Historical Society and dug up unpublished tidbits about Ledyard and his family in Groton, Conn., where he was born, and in Southold, L.I., where he grew up.

Like previous Ledyard researchers, Zug traveled to London in search of a diary from the Cook expedition, confiscated by British naval officials at the end of the voyage. The diary failed to reappear, but Zug did discover some Ledyard letters from Siberia, previously unknown to scholars.  These newly discovered letters became part of The Last Voyage of Captain Cook

"The Last Voyage lays out the thoughts, hopes and memories of one of the great explorers of the 18th century.  Anyone who has wondered what Ledyard really thought about subjects such as Siberian culture, dining in Paris with Thomas Jefferson or even Captain Cook's murder on a Hawaiian beach, can now read it in these books," said Zug.

Will Zug restore Ledyard to icon status?

Last January, Kirkus Reviews added its endorsement to the project: "He was courageous and sociable, but a loner. And he wanted to be famous. Thanks to Zug's fascinating re-creation of his adventuring, Ledyard is well on his way."

By PETER WALSH

James Zug

Ledyard biographer James Zug '91 to visit Hanover area

  • Wed., June 8: Reading at the Norwich Bookstore, 7 p.m.
  • Fri., June 10: Reading at the Dartmouth Bookstore, 7 p.m.
  • Sat., June 11: Signing at the Dartmouth Bookstore, 2 p.m.
  • www.jameszug.com

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08