New-York Historical Society

The Traveller and the Stone: John Ledyard and the Central Park Obelisk

Titlepage for Ledyard's account of Cook's third voyage, 1783. Y1783.Ledy Numb

John Ledyard’s far from a household name in his own country even though he’s arguably the United States’ first explorer, and, had Catherine the Great not abruptly ended his circumnavigation of the globe in 1787-1788, could very well have achieved what Lewis & Clark accomplished fifteen years later. Ledyard also attended Dartmouth, participated in Cook’s Third Voyage, knew Thomas Jefferson, earned Sir Joseph Banks’ support and saw more of the globe than most people could imagine — even in the 21st century. And that’s just a fraction of his story. But while an investigation of his life is completely worthwhile — it’s  beyond remarkable — there isn’t nearly space here to chronicle them properly. Instead, we’ll have a look at how Ledyard, in Egypt in 1788 describes a sight many New Yorkers see on a daily basis.

After Catherine the Great quashed his circumnavigation bid, Ledyard set his sights on Africa, travelling under the auspices of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa. This newly formed group counted Banks, the famed naturalist, botanist and patron of exploration, among its members and was intent on investigating the continent that it described as “still in a great measure unexplored.”

First page of 'Mr. Ledyard's Subscription" for his trip " to cross the continent of north America from Nootka to New York," November 1786, with Sir Joseph Banks' name included. AHMC - Ledyard, John

Ledyard arrived in Alexandria in August 1788 but died tragically in Cairo on January 10, 1789 at the age of thirty-eight while awaiting the next leg of his trip. As sad as his death was, Ledyard left behind quite an epistolary legacy, including a letter from Alexandria on August 15, 1788 to Thomas Jefferson, whom he had previously met in Paris. In it, Ledyard provides a fascinating, though hardly flattering reflection on the city. For our purposes the most interesting comment  regards its ancient ruins:

A pillar called the pillar of Pompey, & an Obelisk called Cleopatra’s are now almost the only remains of great antiquity — they are both & particularly the former noble subjects to see & contemplate & are certainly more captivating from the contrasting deserts & forlorn prospects around them.

Selection from Ledyard's letter to Thomas Jefferson from Alexandria, August 15, 1788. AHMC - Ledyard, John

If you frequent Central park, it probably won’t be news to learn that it boasts a 3,000 year old Egyptian obelisk, colloquially known as “Cleopatra’s Needle”; however, it might be surprising to learn that Ledyard’s letter is almost assuredly referring to the very same one. The “Obelisk called Cleopatra’s” as he puts it, was one of two in Alexandria when Ledyard visited, both having been moved there in 18 A.D. from Helipolis where they were erected in 1450 B.C.

Photograph of Central Park's obelisk in 1881, shortly after it has been erected. PR 20 Geographic File

Sadly, as Bob Brier points out, nowadays obelisks are something of an endangered species in Egypt since the Romans began an unfortunate trend of removing them as symbols of their military feats. By the later nineteenth century more modern sensibilities had similar results, bringing Alexandria’s pair to London and New York, in 1878 and 1880 respectively.

The saga of their removal and re-erection is another story altogether but the obvious question arises, how can we be sure that Ledyard is describing the New York one over the London one? Well, Rev. James King’s 1884 book Cleopatra’s Needle: a history of the London Obelisk indicates that through erosion “about 300 years ago, the colossal stone fell prostrate on the ground.” It’s clear that Ledyard is only referencing one obelisk but, even by 1788, the one destined for London had already lain on its side for two centuries, and sources indicate that sand had at least partially obscured it in that time. It’s safe to conclude then that Ledyard was then writing about the most prominent of the two, which would presumably have been the standing obelisk, the same one any visitor to Central Park can still find behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

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