Robert Gray

Robert Gray before the loss of an eye

Robert Gray (1755 -1806) was an American merchant captain who pioneered the American maritime fur trade along the northern Pacific coast. In 1790, he completed the first American circumnavigation of the world.

First Voyage to the Pacific Northwest

In 1787, Robert Gray and Captain John Kendrick left Boston, to trade blankets, knives, iron bars, and other goods for fur seal pelts along the north Pacific coast. Gray commanded Lady Washington and Kendric commanded Columbia Rediviva. They were funded by Boston merchants who had read of Captain Cook’s success trading pelts from North America’s northwest coast in China.

In January after passing Cape Horn, the two encountered a storm that separated their vessels and damaged the Columbia Rediviva, forcing her to sail for the nearest port, Juan Fernandez. Meanwhile, Gray reached the north Pacific coast in August where the ship ran aground attempting to enter a river and was attacked by natives, losing one of her crew before freeing herself. On September 17, 1788, Gray brought Lady Washington into Nootka Sound.

Columbia Rediviva arrived soon after and the two ships wintered at Nootka Sound. They were still in the vicinity when Esteban José Martínez arrived in early May of 1789 to assert Spanish sovereignty. A number of British merchant ships soon arrived, and conflict between the Spanish and British resulted in the Nootka Crisis, almost resulting in war between the two nations. The American ships were left alone, although Martínez captured a third American ship, the Fair American, when it arrived in the fall of 1789.

During their trading along the coastlines of what are now British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California, the two Americans explored the coast. In 1788, Gray attempted to enter a large river, the Columbia, but was unable to due to strong tides. Around this time Gray and Kendrick swapped vessels, putting Gray in command of the Columbia Rediviva. Kendrick stayed on the North American coast in Lady Washington, trading for pelts and furs, while Gray sailed their collected pelts to China. Gray arrived in Canton in early 1790, trading his cargo for large amounts of tea. He then continued west, through the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Atlantic, to arrive in Boston on August 9 of that year. With that voyage Columbia Rediviva became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe.

From profits realized by the voyage Gray set out for the north Pacific coast again later in 1790. Other New England sea merchants began to send vessels to take part in this lucrative new trade opportunity. By 1801, 16 American merchant vessels were involved in continuous trade to China on a triangular route. This vibrant trade would support American claims against the British for Oregon Country, and would contribute to limiting Spanish claims to California and Russian claims to Alaska.

Second Voyage of the Pacific Northwest

Gray embarked from Boston in 1790, reaching his destination in 1792 and Gray and Kendrick re-joined for a time. On this voyage, Gray, though a private merchant, was sailing under papers of the United States of America signed by President George Washington. Gray put in at Nootka Sound on June 5, 1791, and wintered at a stockade they built and named Fort Defiance. Over this winter, the crew built a 45-ton sloop named Adventure, the first ship to be built in the region. It was launched in the spring.

Gray, sailed Columbia Rediviva south from Clayoquot, while Gray’s first mate, Robert Haswell, sailed Adventure north to the Queen Charlotte Islands. As he departed, Gray ordered the destruction of the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) of Opitsitah, a village of about 200 houses with much carved work. He did so in retaliation for insults he thought he had endured, and in response to rumours of a plot against his men conceived by some local natives and a Sandwich Islander of his own crew. Fortunately, the village was deserted at the time. In 2005, descendants of Gray formally apologized for the destruction of Opitsaht. Gray ordered several other attacks during the 1792 voyage after finding the price of sea otter furs had increased dramatically since the late 1780’s. Gray was one of a number of captains who decided to use force to acquire furs.

On April 29, Gray encountered HMS Discovery commanded by Captain George Vancouver. The two met and discussed the geography of the coastlines. Gray told Vancouver about the large river he had attempted to enter in 1788, but Vancouver doubted a large river was at that latitude. Gray continued south, leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca on April 30, 1792, trading for more pelts as the ship sailed. On May 7, he took the Columbia Rediviva into the estuarine bay of Grays Harbour, Washington.

Entering the Columbia River

On May 11, his men discovered what he sought, and he ordered a small sailboat launched to find a safe channel. Columbia Rediviva sailed into the estuary of the river. Gray named the river Columbia, after his ship.

Upon entering the Columbia, they were met by many natives in canoes, while the crew prepared to take on fresh water. The ship and crew traveled about 13 miles (21 km) upriver trading items such as nails for pelts, salmon, and animal meat over a nine-day period. Gray explored upriver to what is now known as Grays Bay. George Vancouver’s lieutenant, William Broughton, who explored the Columbia in October 1792, named the bay. Gray had made a chart of the bay and the mouth of the river and a copy was acquired by Vancouver.

Gray’s achievement in entering the river would eventually form part of the basis of the successful American territorial claim to the Oregon Country. The claim forced the Hudson’s Bay Company to abandon Fort Vancouver on the shores of the Columbia River and move their headquarters to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island. The British had called the more southerly portion of the disputed area the Columbia District, which they derived from the river name chosen by Gray. The Columbia District eventually lent itself to the name of the mid-19th-century colony of British Columbia. When the colony joined Canada in 1871, it became the existing province of British Columbia.

On May 20, Gray and crew sailed from the Columbia, heading north to rendezvous with their sloop Adventure before setting sail for China.

Events at Nootka

On July 22, 1792 Gray sailed the Columbia into the Nootka. Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra was present as the commandant of the Spanish settlement there. Bodega was awaiting the arrival of George Vancouver so the two could implement the first Nootka Convention. Bodega had intended to turn over the entire establishment to Vancouver, but while waiting for Vancouver, he began to change his mind. Over the summer, Bodega had begun to realize that John Meares had not only greatly exaggerated his losses during the Nootka Crisis, but also had illegally operated British trading ships under the flag of Portugal. When Gray arrived at Nootka, Vancouver was still en route. Bodega took the opportunity to ask the Americans if they would give him their account of the events of 1789 that led to the Nootka Crisis. He was told in a letter Meares had made many false claims about the events of 1789. The ships were British ships pretending to be Portuguese.

Bodega was pleased to receive the account. When Vancouver arrived, Bodega used the report, along with other tactics, to force Vancouver into a diplomatic deadlock once negotiations had begun. Were it not for the American’s letter, along with Vancouver’s late arrival and several other factors, Bodega likely would have turned the entire Spanish establishment at Nootka over to the British. Instead, Bodega offered only to turn over the small cove where Meares had built his hut in 1789. Vancouver could not accept this. In the end, the two agreed to let their governments work it out. As a result, the settlement at Nootka remained Spanish for several years, until under the third Nootka Convention both nations agreed to abandon the port.

While Gray was at Nootka Sound, Bodega provided a small house near his own. In addition, Bodega had the Columbia repaired by Spanish caulkers, blacksmiths, and carpenters. Bodega also provided fresh vegetables and hot bread, every day. When Gray left, his crew was given large amounts of salmon, pork, eggs, butter, fresh bread, wine, brandy, cabbage and salad. Bodega refused any payment for any of his services.

In September, most of the ships that had visited Nootka Sound left, including Columbia, under Gray, along with the sloop Adventure. Bodega left on the Activa. Bodega and Gray met shortly after leaving and agreed to sail to Neah Bay where, in the last week of September, Bodega purchased the Adventure from Gray. Gray then took Columbia across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Port San Juan, today’s Port Renfrew where final preparations were made for the long voyage across the Pacific. Gray left North America on October 3, 1792, arriving in the Hawaiian Islands on October 29, and in Macau on December 8.

In November 1800, Gray left Boston in command of the schooner James, with a cargo of iron and stone ballast, bound for Rio de Janeiro and subsequent voyages to England and the southern United States. Gray died at sea in 1806, near Charleston, South Carolina. The cause of his death is believed to have been yellow fever. He left behind his wife and four daughters.

Gray did not publish his geographic discoveries on the Columbia River, nor those elsewhere along the Pacific coast. Captain Vancouver did publish Gray’s discoveries in England, along with his own explorations, and gave Gray credit. At the time, these discoveries by Gray did not gain him any renown nor were thought important.