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The Unwitting Wanderer

The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler by Edward Gray: Yale University Press, 2007, 240 pages, $35.00

In 1776, as Britain's colonies in America set out on their struggle for independence, a young man from Connecticut named John Ledyard wasn't there to help. Pressed into the British Navy as an alternative to jail and assigned to Captain James Cook's final voyage to the South Pacific, he unwittingly avoided combat and began his career as one of America's earliest travelers.

The so-called Age of Discovery was long over, the outlines of the world continents more or less charted. There was a need now not for discoverers but travelers—westerners who would penetrate the interior of still unknown lands and negotiate among the inhabitants and their mysterious ways. In his book, The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler, associate professor of history Edward Gray writes about a feckless young man and his largely unsuccessful yet intriguing career, finding significance in the ways that Enlightenment ideals and the empire-building spirit animated it.

The evidence is that Ledyard was a genial, intelligent and resourceful person who easily attracted people to him. Despite dropping out of Dartmouth College, in debt and disgrace with Eleazar Wheelock, its founder and president, Ledyard became close to Wheelock, one of the first of a number of influential men Ledyard would befriend.

Later Ledyard concocted a global trading scheme, teaming up with Robert Morris, an important American financier. Morris made a fortune while Ledyard's part fizzled. In France he became a confidant of Thomas Jefferson, who encouraged him to travel across America by way of Russia. He obtained financial backing from the Marquis de Lafayette and the botanist Joseph Banks but was kicked out of Russia by Catherine the Great. Banks and a British group called the African Association backed Ledyard's final attempt at distinction, a trip to explore Africa's Niger River. He died at age 37 of a stomach illness while in Cairo preparing to embark.

Whether it was ineptitude or ill fate, Gray is less concerned with that question than with tracing the tropes of the revolutionary age that can be found in Ledyard's adventures and his attitudes toward such subjects as ethnography, slavery, Old World failings and empire-building in an age of enlightenment.

-Nora Fitzgerald