On April 28 (or 29), 1792, two of the first non-Indian navigators to explore significant parts of what is now Washington meet on the high seas off Cape Flattery, just south of the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) goes on to explore and name much of Puget Sound as well as Vancouver Island. Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806), an American in search of furs, soon finds the Columbia River, which Vancouver, like all prior European navigators, has missed, thus giving the young United States its primary claim to the lands of the Pacific Northwest.
Robert Gray, born in Tiverton, Rhode Island, on May 10, 1755, was on his second trading voyage to the Northwest. Reports from British Captain James Cook’s 1778 explorations, describing the riches in sea otter furs available on the Northwest Coast, inspired New Englanders to outfit trading expeditions to the region. In 1787, a group of Boston merchants led by Joseph Barrell outfitted two ships for a voyage around Cape Horn. Capt. John Kendrick, in command of the ship Columbia Rediviva, led the expedition. Gray initially captained the expedition’s second ship, the sloop Lady Washington. After a year of trading for otter and other furs on Vancouver Island, the captains switched ships, and Gray sailed for China in the Columbia to sell the furs and buy tea. From China, Gray continued on to Boston, becoming the first captain to carry the United States flag around the world. In September 1790, barely six weeks after returning home, Gray left Boston in command of the Columbia on his second voyage around the Horn to the northwest fur country.
Gray spent the summer and fall of 1791 trading along the coast, and the winter in Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island. In early April, Gray left anchorage and headed the Columbia south, exploring the coast of what is now Washington and Oregon to near the California border, before turning and heading back north. While passing the mouth of the Columbia River, Gray detected a strong current flowing outward, which he had also noted on his first voyage in 1788, and suspected the existence of a major river. Bad weather prevented him from investigating further, and he continued northward toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Meeting at Sea
Just before reaching the Strait, the Columbia met the British naval ships Discovery and Chatham, under the command of Capt. Vancouver. Vancouver’s expedition had left England in 1791, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, explored the South Pacific, and wintered in the Hawaiian Islands, before reaching the Northwest Coast in April 1792. Two days before encountering Gray, Vancouver sailed past the mouth of the Columbia. Like Gray, he noted signs indicating a river flowing into the ocean. However, Vancouver relied on the reports of an English captain named John Meares (1756?-1809), who investigated the purported river mouth in 1788 and concluded decisively (though wrongly) that no such river existed.
Gray’s crew recorded the date of the encounter with Vancouver’s ships as April 28, 1792, while Vancouver noted it as April 29. The discrepancy of one day is not uncommon in ship’s journals of that time, and may be accounted for by the fact that the two expeditions had sailed in opposite directions to reach the Northwest Coast. Vancouver sent two officers to get information from Gray about the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which he thought Gray had explored on his first voyage. Gray had only been a little way up the Strait, but he provided Vancouver the information he had.
Gray also told the British explorer about the great river he had tried unsuccessfully to enter, explaining that he was on his way to try again. However, Gray’s report reinforced Vancouver’s conclusion that no river existed, and the British captain proceeded with his plan to explore the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Although Vancouver’s expedition charted the Strait and Puget Sound, bestowing many of the place names found on Washington maps today, he and the British government missed the opportunity to claim the Columbia River, which Gray successfully entered, and named for his ship, within two weeks of his meeting with Vancouver.
After leaving the river, Gray continued trading north up the coast. In late June, his ship was damaged in a storm, and he spent a month at Nootka on Vancouver Island, repairing it with the aid of the Spanish garrison under the command of Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. Gray gave Bodega y Quadra a copy of his chart of the mouth of the Columbia River, which served to document his “discovery.”
Shortly after, Vancouver also visited Nootka, saw Gray’s chart, and recognized his error. In October 1792, Vancouver sent William Broughton (1762-1821) in the Chatham, with a copy of Gray’s chart, to explore the Columbia River. Broughton sailed farther up the river than Gray had, charting and naming many features along the way. It is because Broughton named a point on the north shore for his commander that (in addition to the island and city in Canada) Vancouver’s name is applied to a major city on the Washington shore of the lower Columbia despite his failure to enter the river. On his journey, Broughton purported to claim the entire territory of the river for England. He and Vancouver argued that what Gray entered was not the river itself but merely a bay.
Although they attempted to minimize it, the British made Gray’s achievement public knowledge. Gray himself, heading a private commercial expedition, did not publish charts or accounts of his voyage. Vancouver, on the other hand, led an official expedition of scientific discovery, and the accounts published soon after his return accurately described Gray’s visit as well as the British explorations.
Eventually, the British government acknowledged that Gray entered the Columbia first. This fact became the most important element in the United States’ case when both governments were claiming the vast Oregon territory — an expanse stretching from the California border at the 42nd parallel to the Russian boundary of 54 degrees, 40 minutes north. After years of dispute and joint occupancy, the two governments compromised by establishing the border at the 49th parallel. The border (and the name of the river) may well have been different if Vancouver, or Meares, had entered the Columbia River before Robert Gray did.
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Voyages of the Columbia to the Northwest Coast ed. by Frederic W. Howay (Oregon Historical Society, 1990), vi-ix, xiii; William Denison Lyman, The Columbia River (Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1963), 50, 53; Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946), 35-36, 40-42; Murray Morgan, The Last Wilderness (New York: Viking Press, 1955), 24-28; J. Richard Nokes, Columbia’s River (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1991), 50, 179-83, 193, 215-19, 319-20; Robert Michael Pyle, Wintergreen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996), 44-46.
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