August is the 231st anniversary of Capt. Robert Gray’s many discoveries on the Pacific Northwest coast. So who was this great man and why should we care?
Long before Lewis and Clark trudged across the heartland (17 years to be precise), Gray was exploring and charting the pristine lands and waterways of the North American continent.
His maiden voyage to the Pacific was a daring enterprise that started in Boston Harbor in October 1787 and ended in that same harbor on August 1790. During this passage, Gray and his crew of the sloop Lady Washington were the first non-Native Americans to set foot on the Pacific Coast. On Aug. 14, 1788, they discovered and named Tillamook Bay and the natives who thrived on its shore. Here they traded trinkets with the Indians for sea otter pelts. This they continued to do as they sailed up the Pacific coastline.
In 1789, now in command of the full-rigged ship Columbia Rediviva, he departed Nootka (Vancouver Island) with 1,300 prime pelts and sailed for China, via the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to trade the skins for Canton tea.
When he arrived back in Boston, this black-eye-patched captain became the first American to have circumnavigated the globe. For this accomplishment, he was paraded through Boston and attended a reception held in his honor by Gov. John Hancock.
While the commercial value of this first voyage was disappointing, due to damaged tea from sea seepage, Capt. Gray and the Columbia Rediviva would depart for a second historic voyage to the Northwest in just six short weeks.
With the Columbia Rediviva overhauled and made ready for sea again, he sailed from Boston Harbor in September 1790. After another long and treacherous trip around Cape Horn, Gray arrived at Clayoquot, an American trading post on Nootka in June 1791. Here he met up again with the quirky Capt. Kendrick and Gray’s old ship, the Lady Washington, which had been converted from a sloop (single mast) to a brigantine (double mast).
The two ships did not fare well during that summer of discovery. The Columbia sailed far north, trading with the natives, but some of his men were murdered by hostile Indians. The Lady Washington sailed for the Queen Charlotte Island and was also attacked when a few sailors went ashore. One among those slain was Capt. Kendrick’s son.
The two ships returned to the Clayoquot in September, and the Lady Washington, under the command of Kendrick, set out for China with the furs from both ships. With winter approaching, Gray and his crew went to work, erecting a log fort which they named Defiance, and building a small 45-ton sloop that he christened Adventure. This ship was put under the command of Haswell, Gray’s first officer.
The Indians around the tiny American outpost were not friendly, so Gray and his men were obliged to keep constant vigil during the long, dark and wet winter. In early April, both vessels finally departed Clayoquot, with the Adventure sailing north for trade and the Columbia sailing for the rich sea-otter waters south of Nootka. But Capt. Gray was not only searching for furs; he also explored many rivers, bays and inlets that he charted and named.
A few weeks later, after arriving at the southern reaches of the Oregon Coast, he turned north again, still seeking safe shelter for his ship and crew. Near the end of April, Gray sighted another ship and hove to for an exchange of greetings with Capt. George Vancouver, a British Naval officer commanding the ship Discovery. Using a voice-horn, Gray informed the captain that he had recently lain off for nine days at the mouth of a large river where the tides were so violent that he dared not attempt to cross the bar. Vancouver doubted this news but noted in his journal: “If any river should be found, it must be a very intricate one and inaccessible to vessels of our burden.” The Discovery pushed on northward.
Gray continued on his journey, trading along the way. As he sailed up the coastline, the lookouts kept a keen eye out for any safe harbor where the Columbia could lay over. On May 7, Gray noted in his log book the discovery of what would become known as Gray’s Harbor. After spending but a short time in the bay he had just discovered, Gray decided to sail south again to enter the mouth of the river he had sighted. This time luck and the tides were with him. A small yawl was launched to locate a safe passage across the treacherous bar which flowed with the strong, muddy current of a great river. According to the ship’s log, the crossing was made on May 11, 1792.
Gray had found the “Great River of the West” and yet described the event in his logs with one of history’s most understated comments: “So ends.” It is almost as if he considered this discovery unimportant. The Columbia sailed upriver, trading trinkets to the Indians for pelts, food and water. During this nine-day journey, Gray named many landmarks, bays and inlets. He also named the mighty river “Columbia,” after his ship. While on the river, Gray made a detailed chart of his discoveries, a copy of which was later acquired by Capt. Vancouver.
Gray sailed to China in 1793 and sold his furs. The venture must have not been profitable as he was not sent out to repeat it. Capt. Kendrick of the Lady Washington was killed in the Sandwich Islands in 1794. Gray’s many discoveries apparently impressed the public little more than they had impressed Gray himself, for he never sailed the far Pacific again. Neither recognition nor wealth befell him. With quiet despair he died in 1806 of yellow fever.
Yankee trader Capt. Robert Gray may have died in obscurity, while drawing the short straw of history, but his memory as a brilliant navigator and gifted sea captain with grit and vision lives on. So ends his many accomplishments.
This article was condensed from information in the novel, “Tillamook Passage,” by Brian D. Ratty. For more information on Capt. Robert Gray, visit the Garibaldi Maritime Museum or your local library.
Ratty is a retired media executive and graduate of Brooks Institute of Photography. He and his wife live on the North Oregon Coast.