John Ledyard’s Journal: Using Personal Narratives to Teach World History
For teachers of world history, the question of how different peoples encounter each other is a central concern because these experiences often reveal how interactions and perceptions shape broader patterns of historical change. John Ledyard’s journal account of his Pacific Ocean voyage in the late 1770s is an excellent example of how Europeans perceived the indigenous peoples of “other” worlds as they were encountered through journeys of exploration.1 Ledyard’s journal also offers a perspective that tends to remain peripheral to world history textbooks and curricula.
Although Ledyard called himself a European, his emerging identity as an American produced appraisals of the Pacific coastline and concerns about indigenous peoples that differed from those of his English shipmates. At the same time, this journey into the northern Pacific Ocean brought Ledyard into contact with Russians exploring the far eastern reaches of their empire.2 The mutual fascination between these two sets of explorers revealed not only how “European” power was increasingly global, but also how previously dominant world powers, especially England, had to contend with emerging regional powers in the United States and Russia. Given this combination of significant themes and unique perspectives, Ledyard’s Journal is thus appropriate for any world history course that seeks to understand interactions between European and indigenous populations.
Before teaching a primary source, I often present students with background information and questions. When I used this source, I prepared a handout that included both biographical information and a set of analytical questions. Even a brief biographical discussion of Ledyard, who was later described by President Thomas Jefferson as “a man of genius, of some science, and of fearless courage and enterprise,” indicates why he was a person of world historical significance.
Ledyard was born in Connecticut in 1751, the son of a sea captain. In 1776, after leaving Dartmouth College and traveling to the northern coast of Africa, Ledyard joined the British Marines with the intention of serving on Captain Cook’s mission to the Northwest Passage. After sailing around Africa and through the southern Pacific, the expedition reached the Northwest coast of America, present-day Oregon, in the spring of 1778. This background sets up the assigned pages of the journal, in which Ledyard describes the voyage along the American coast and the Aleutian Islands.
Understanding the broader historical context of this era helps students understand Ledyard’s experiences. Captain Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific were the culmination of more than three centuries of European oceanic exploration, even as they introduced new conceptions of cultural difference and initiated a long process of conquest. For indigenous peoples, these voyages brought new patterns of interaction, exploitation, and ultimately devastation. From the American perspective, Ledyard’s journeys showed the way to subsequent explorers such as Alexander Mackenzie, who reached the Pacific Ocean by land in 1793, and Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who performed the same feat on behalf of the United States government. The Pacific Northwest was also a point of contact between the European and American expeditions moving west and the Russian Empire’s expansion eastward. The immediate context in which Ledyard was traveling and writing was thus a time of extensive exploration of this region and intensive interest in interactions between peoples and cultures.
When I used this source, I asked students to read the selection covering March to November 1778 (pp. 68-100 of Ledyard’s Journal). To prepare them for class discussion, I gave them a writing assignment with three forms of analytical questions. Version I consisted of an “open-ended” question designed to encourage a broad overview of the materials. Version II included five questions directed at specific passages. Version III asked more imaginatively about the present-day implications of the issues raised by Ledyard. A few students answered the broader question, most responded to the questions focusing on specific passages, and none attempted the role-playing assignment. When asked, students indicated that questions about the meaning of specific passages were the “easiest” to complete because they knew exactly what to look for.
An important goal of the writing was to prepare for in-class discussion that ensures, first, that students have comprehended the content of the reading, and second, that they can use this knowledge to think critically and creatively about the implications of these materials. Given that most of my students chose the questions they perceived to be the easiest, in future semesters I will structure a classroom discussion that differs from the writing assignments, so that students are manipulating, rather than simply reiterating, the knowledge acquired through reading and writing assignments.
One example would be having students write their own accounts of the interactions between Ledyard, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific coastline, and the Russian traders. Another would be having students engage in role-playing in which small groups could take on different identities: Ledyard, the indigenous peoples of different regions, the Russians, other members of Captain Cook’s crew, and so on.
A third approach, might seek to connect Ledyard’s travel account to students’ own experiences with cross-cultural interactions. For example, students might be asked to remember a time when they encountered a group of people with seemingly different values—and a time when they were part of such a cohesive community and a “stranger” appeared among them. In the course of discussing these personal experiences, students would be encouraged to think of their experiences not only in terms of feelings, but also of preconceived assumptions, power relations, and resource allocations. This discussion would encourage students to engage critically with the text, historicizing their own experiences even as they develop a more empathetic understanding of multiple participants in a historical situation.
Version III of the writing assignment asked students to explore these very issues. While students in my course avoided this assignment (when given a choice), in class they were more interested in discussing issues related to cross-cultural interactions and observations. Given this experience, I would be more likely to address these issues in classroom discussion than in the written format I used previously.
If the primary goal of reading Ledyard is a better understanding of this text, then exercises and class discussion will focus on “mastering” content. When I teach world history courses, however, I am also looking for ways to position this knowledge in terms of past, present, and future global relations. Ledyard’s journal is especially suited because historical interactions between “European” and “indigenous” peoples remain at the very foundation of contemporary political relations. Students can ask how Ledyard’s presumptions of the superiority of European civilization justified the expansion of imperial power in the 18th century, determined patterns of political subordination and economic dependence in 19th-century colonial regimes, shaped 20th-century struggles over independence, and continue to influence the distribution of poverty and wealth in the 21st-century “underdeveloped” and “developed” worlds.
Most importantly, perhaps, Ledyard’s Journal demonstrates the importance of thinking comparatively about changes over time. We now know so much about the world that it is virtually impossible for anyone to assume Ledyard’s self-defined role of discovering the “uncivilized world.” Yet students should always be asked how much or how little they know, even in the age of the Web, global MTV, and cellular phones, about everyday life in the rest of the world: What do people do to acquire the necessities of life? What are important values in particular cultures? What are causes of conflict and sources of cooperation between communities? What effect does the outside world have on individuals, families, and societies? In this sense, getting students to think critically about the kinds of questions that motivated Ledyard to explore “unknown” worlds could well be the most important outcome of reading this kind of primary source.
1 The 1783 edition of John Ledyard’s journal is available in a full-text version on the Meeting of the Frontiers website, hosted by the United States Library of Congress and the Russian National Library. See “Mutual Perceptions” section: (). This website also has a timeline, brief biographical sketch, and related primary sources. A more recent published edition is John Ledyard’s Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage edited by James Kenneth Munford (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1963). Biographical information about Ledyard in this essay is taken from Sinclair H. Hitchings, “Introduction,” in the 1963 edition of John Ledyard’s Journal, pp. xxi-l. Thomas Jefferson’s appraisal is cited in John Ledyard’s Journey Through Russia and Siberia 1787-1788. The Journals and Selected Letters edited by Stephen D. Watrous, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1966) p. 260.
2This “meeting of frontiers” is dealt with in detail in a web exhibit of the Library of Congress at: .