Cold Russian Shoulders

Ledyard’s earliest biographer called the period of waiting for permission as one where his patrons encouraged patience as attempting to cross Russia without permission would be unwise, while Ledyard chafed at the delay fearing denial. Both points of view were proven accurate in time.[1] Refusing to be deterred by diplomatic niceties, Ledyard left Paris for London with the goal of securing passage on a vessel bound for Nootka Sound. Ledyard found patronage and assistance from Sir James Hall and Sir Joseph Banks, as well as William Stephens Smith Secretary to the American Legation in England. His sailing plans were thwarted, so he took up his plans to cross Russia, with the intent of securing permission in St Petersburg.

            Smith informed Jay of Ledyard’s travels as well, writing Jay that he was convincing Ledyard to travel independently of his British sponsors, independently and in service of the United States. Smith also provided Ledyard with a Letter of Introduction to use on his travels, expounding on the scientific purpose and pursuit of knowledge of North America. [2]

            Failing in his endeavor to travel to Nootka Sound, Ledyard again embraced the idea of traveling overland through the Russian Empire, on foot. After various adventures and misadventures, he arrived in St Petersburg, having crossed parts of Sweden, Finland and Russia on foot. In St Petersburg, he met Dr. Peter Simon Pallas, adding the scientist and zoologist to his list of correspondents and helpers. The Pallas connection helped him join up with a doctor traveling to Barnaul with the post by kibitka, a covered sledge. He was also able to secure a passport from Grand Duke Paul as far as Moscow; Ledyard would use it as far as Ohkutsk prior to his arrest.




Pre (Peter) Simon Pallas

One of Ledyard's advocates in St Petersburg, Pallas was a correspondent of Banks and a member of the Royal Society.

Ledyard’s arrest and expulsion from Russia was a result of his not understanding the political climate as well as suspicion of his motives on the part of the Empress – who had already denied him passage through Russia --- and local officials and businessmen. Ledyard’s first error was entering Russia without permission, his second was securing passes from Grand Duke Paul, who was equally Empress Catherine’s rival as being her son. His scope of questions for the businessmen and official he met raised questions of his motivation and purpose for being in so far to the East in Russia. 

            Correspondence between Russian officials show a concern that Ledyard was potentially a spy. A lone, unauthorized traveler collecting and sending information on ethnography, flora, fauna and geology. His letter to his cousin Isaac regarding the Tartars and their similarities to the Native Americans Ledyard had encountered in his youth, was reprinted in several magazines. To the Russians, invested in developing the fur trade and establishing claims in the Kuril Islands, Aleutian Islands, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, his lines of inquiry appeared sinister. 

"Traveler in a Kibitka (Hooded Cart or Sledge)"

Kibitka, the covered sledge used to travel in Russia.

Notes on his visit attributed to Grigorii Shelikhov, a merchant from Irkutsk, demonstrate fears of his intentions. Shelikhov noted that Ledyard queried him on Russian ships working the fur trade, settlements on the Northwest Pacific Coast and the Russian population of the Kuril Islands, disputed territory between Russia and Japan in the late 18th century and today.[3] Both Shelikhov and Ivan Iocobi, the Governor General of Irkutsk and Kolyvan Provinces stated Ledyard claimed and interest in natural history, but sought information on matters related to trade, settlement and territorial claims, and trade. They both report a claim on his part that ten thousand Europeans were settled on the West Coast of Canada and the entire area was subject to British sovereignty.[4]

            Ledyard had briefly fallen in with the Billings Expedition, which sought to map the islands between Russia and Alaska and ensure Russia territorial claims were protected.[5] The Empress was dealing with an invasion from Turkey, a seditious son and deterioratijg relations with France and England, all of which cast a pall on Ledyard and made his motives questionable at best. Her fear for imperial claims was justified as the Billings Expediation noted the decline in sea otter population from the stresses of hunters from England, Russia, the United States, and Spain. He also recommended fortifying the Aleutian Islands, as he saw encroachment already occurring by the other nations onto her claimed land.[6]





Extracts from a letter...

Excerpts of a letter sent to his cousin, Isaac Ledyard. The letter describes the people of Russia and Ledyard's theory on a relationship between Tartars and Native Americans.


[1] Jared Sparks, The Life of John Ledyard, the American Traveler… (Cambridge: Hilliard and Brown, 1828) p. 169.

[2] Watrous, pp. 112-114.

[3]David F. Trask, and Nina N Bashkina, and United States. Department of State. The United States And Russia: the Beginning of Relations, 1765-1815. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1980.

[4] Trask, p. 244-247

[5] Jones, pp. 107-108.

[6] Jones, p. 109