John Ledyard was the Connecticut-born son of a wealthy sea captain, but he was such a ne’er-do-well he was cut out of the family fortune. So he went to sea with Capt. James Cook on his third voyage.
Ledyard was born in Groton, Conn., in November 1751, and led a life of adventure. He briefly attended Dartmouth until he was expelled. He once paddled a dugout canoe 140 miles down the Connecticut River from Hanover, N.H., to Hartford. He was the first white man to make the trip; the Dartmouth Outing Club’s canoers take an annual trip in canoes down the river in his honor.
Ledyard then shipped out to a year-long voyage to Gibralter, the Caribbean and the Barbary Coast. He jumped ship in England on his next voyage, but was impressed into the British Navy as a marine. It was as a British marine that he joined Cook’s third voyage in 1776.
John Ledyard left two legacies from his voyage with Cook. He was convinced there was a fortune to be made selling sea-otter fur to China. He instigated the China Trade by persuading investors to finance a voyage to Canton in 1784. The success of that venture led to decades of lucrative trade with China that provided the capital for the expansion of commerce in the United States.
His other legacy was his diary during Cook’s voyage, published in 1783 and the first work to be protected by a U.S. copyright. On Aug. 14, 1777, he recorded landing on the island of Otaheite (now known as Tahiti) in the Society Islands:
On the 14th we stood in for the land and anchored in a small bay on the east side of the island called by the natives Otaheite-peha. We were immediately surrounded by the inhabitants in their canoes, and the little village within the bay was full of people dancing and running about with joy at our arrival, which was increased when they found it was Cook or Tutee as they pronounce it, who was known among them from a former voyage here…
Cook with other gentlemen and Omai went ashore, where they were very much surprised to find a large wooden cross about 9 feet high erected in the village, with an inscription in the latin language, importing that in February 1777 two Spanish ships had been there, ad taken possession of the island in the name of his Catholic Majesty. This was also confirmed by many subsequent appearances as well as from the informations of the inhabitants. At a little distance from this they found a house built with boards a little in the European style, and within it a large mahogany chest with a Spanish lock to it, this the natives readily opened and showed us several Spanish garments, which they said belonged to a man the Spaniards had left there, who was now dead — and gave us furthermore to understand that the Spaniards had taken three of the natives with them when they went away, and when we asked where they came from they pronounced the word Rema, which we made no doubt was Lima in Spanish America.
We also found afterwards that the Spaniards had left several American hogs and a bull and a cow, among them, but the two latter were dead. What the purpose of this visit from the Spaniards could be time must discover.
When our boat returned try brought off the cross the Spaniards had erected — erased their inscription, and after putting on one in favor of his Britannic Majesty erected it again in the place from which we took it.
John Ledyard died Jan. 10, 1789.