Robert Gray


In 1787 a trading company from Massachusetts sent out two ships to trade in sea otter pelts along the Northwest Coast. The Columbia was captained by John Kendrick, the Lady Washington by Robert Gray. In storms by Cape Horn the ships got separated, but reunited in Nootka (an island off Vancouver Island, by that time the center of the area), where they spent the winter. After having traded extensively that spring, Gray took over command of the Columbia and sailed it to China, where he traded his fur cargo for tea. In 1790 he had completed his first circumnavigation and returned to the States. Although he did not make much profit, being unexperienced in the Chinese trade, the Boston merchants for whom he worked were happy with the markets he had opened.

Only one month later he left for a new voyage to Oregon. Because he had instructions from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson not to enter any Spanish port, and Nootka at the time was being disputed between the English and Spanish, he did not trade in Nootka itself, but at various points along the coast of present-day British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.

In the winter, spent at Vancouver Island, he built a new ship, the Adventure, and in the next spring (1792), he himself went south, while the Adventure went north. It was on this voyage that he found a river, already seen by Hezeta in 1775, but having been sought for in vain since. Not being able to enter it, he sailed north, where he met Vancouver, to whom he denied claims that he had circumnavigated Vancouver Island, and entered Grays Harbour. However, he was still intrigued by the river he had found, went back, sailed 25 miles up the river, and named it Columbia after his ship. At the end of the trading season he left Oregon for China, and returned in Boston the next year (1793).


Source: Richard E. Bohlander (editor): World Explorers and Discoverers. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1984.