Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Ledyard, 7 February 1786

From John Ledyard

Saint Germain Feby. 7th 1786


A gentleman in this town informs me that the Indians who have been asked their opinions about those large bones found in America, say, that tho they had never before seen such bones or an Animal large enough to have them, yet all the indians knew their fathers had seen such bones and the very animal itself but that it had always been found dead. They called it the mole because like the common little animal of that [nam]e it resides in the earth; […] operations and movements we […] mole differing only as the great m[ …] did from the other in magnitude: that these operations had been but rarely seen and the perfect form of the animal still more rarely, but when seen was found to resemble the little mole in its form.

Perhaps I was wrong, but I observed to Mr. de Carel who gave me this account, that I had frequently observed that when an European queried a savage about a circumstance that perhaps he was totaly ignorant of that he was nevertheless unwilling that the European should know it or even think that he was ignorant and to divert his suspicions would make use of the most wily arts and rather than appear to be less informed of the common affairs of his country than the European would say any thing to make the European think favourably of him by thinking otherwise.

But whether the asserted fact exists in nature, or whether it is only the tale of superstition or craft I thought it worth communicating to you; but whether true or false the savage has been more modest than Count Buffon for in accounting for the phenomenon he has not denied its present existance.

I have the honour to be with the warmest esteem & respect [Sir your most ]bliged [& humble S]ervant,

J[oh]n Ledyard

RC (DLC); MS mutilated, apparently when the seal was broken. Noted in SJL as received 25 Mch. 1786 “while in London.”

“In 1786. while at Paris,” TJ wrote in his Autobiography, “I became acquainted with John Ledyard of Connecticut, a man of genius, of some science, and of fearless courage, and enterprise…Ledyard had come to Paris in the hope of forming a company to engage in the fur trade of the Western coast of America. He was disappointed in this, and being out of business, and of a roaming, restless character, I suggested to him the enterprise of exploring the Western part of our continent, by passing thro St. Petersburg to Kamschatka, and procuring a passage thence in some of the Russian vessels to Nootka Sound, whence he might make his way across the continent to America; and I undertook to have the permission of the Empress of Russia solicited. He eagerly embraced the proposition, and M. de Semoulin, the Russian Ambassador, and more particularly Baron Grimm the special correspondent of the Empress, solicited her permission for him to pass thro’ her dominions to the Western coast of America.” Though Catherine promptly denied this permission, Ledyard persisted, “pursued his course to within 200. miles of Kamschatka,” and was arrested and taken back to Poland, where he was released. TJ believed for over a quarter of a century that Catherine had granted permission and later retracted it, and so stated in writing his notes on the life of Meriwether Lewis. But on reviewing his correspondence, he discovered his error and wrote in his Autobiography: “I must therefore in justice, acquit the Empress of ever having for a moment countenanced, even by the indulgence of an innocent passage thro’ her territories, this interesting enterprise” (Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, “Letterpress Edition,” N.Y., 1892–1899 description ends i, 94–6)

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