John Ledyard: From Dartmouth "Drop-out" in 1773, to Bold Adventurer


Submitted 10 days ago
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Bob Totz

The Ledyard Bridge between Hanover NH and Norwich VT was named in his honor.

John Ledyard, the explorer, led a life of unbelievable adventure.  In his brief 37 years he traveled many thousands of miles.  His story begins in 1751, in Connecticut.  He was born in Groton, near New London, on the Thames River.

Mid-late 1700's Connecticut.  Thames River to right, Connecticut River to left.

     His father, with the same name, was a sea captain who died at the age of 35, leaving a widow and four children.  John Ledyard was the oldest.  After his father died, the Ledyard family moved to Southold NY on Long Island, to the home of John's mother's father.  After a few years, John's mother remarried, and  John moved to Hartford Conn. to live with his paternal grandfather. 

    The Connecticut River in Connecticut, showing Hartford Connecticut on both sides of the River

John’s grandfather happened to be good friends wth Eleazar Wheelock, who had founded Dartmouth College a couple years earlier.  In the Spring of 1772, John Ledyard accepted an offer to study at Dartmouth, to prepare for a life as a christian missionary among the Indians.

"The Bend"  Two miles above the Ledyard Bridge. (Photo courtesy of Edwin Bacon's "The Connecticut River and the Valley of the Connecticut")

    He was intelligent enough, but it seems he was impatient for adventure.   The tedium of the daily routine of college was probably too much for his restless soul. About four months after he started at Dartmouth, and without permission, or giving advance notice, he traipsed off to the north, into the wilderness for three and a half months. He wandered to the Canadian border to learn about the “Six Nations” of Indians and learn their ways.  Since he was thinking of becoming a missionary to the Indians, he was probably deciding if it was what he really wanted to do with his life.  When Ledyard returned to Dartmouth, he resumed his studies, but it was probably at this time that he realized college, and missionary work were not suited for him.  However he did realize his love of travel and adventure.

Upper Connecticut River Valley, Mid-late 1700's:  Notice no mention of "Vermont"

      Soon John Ledyard began planning a new adventure, an escape from Dartmouth!  With the help of some classmates, he started to manufacture a dugout canoe.  He had no training in this, but he figured that wouldn’t stop him.  They felled a large tree, down by the river, and they eventually turned that log into a 50 foot long dugout canoe.

Early map of New England in History Room at Baker Library, Hanover NH. 

(Courtesy of Dartmouth Libraries)

     One day in Spring 1773,  John Ledyard put his canoe into the Connecticut River at the spot where the bridge that bears his name stands today.  Wearing a bearskin, and floating in a canoe filled with provisions, John Ledyard started on a 140 mile journey down river to Hartford Connecticut, ill-prepared for the falls and rapids that lie ahead, and unaware of the many other adventures that soon awaited him.

Connecticut River, looking south

     As John Ledyard headed south in his homemade canoe, he had no idea that one day a bridge at that spot would bear his name.   
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      To be continued...

                                      The Ledyard Bridge today

Old Roads, Rivers and Rails is brought to you by me, Bob Totz.  I'm a retired Postmaster of Post Mills and Sharon, Vermont, graduate in Geography from University of Connecticut, former choir director, and composer and performer of folk songs on guitar and harmonica.  I write articles about local History, Geography, and occasionally include music videos, such as "The Montreal Express" Railway disaster of 1887 at dailyuv.com/971839
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