History of Oregon by Oregon Historical Society
homeSection 2Subtopic: Early Coastal E...
Subtopic : Contact and Settlement: Early Coastal Explorations

Themes: Exploration

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Sand Dune and Rocks
South of Gold Beach

When European sea captains first glimpsed the Pacific coast, the vast and dense coastal forests caught their attention. The British sea captain John Meares, who came to the Northwest Coast in 1788, described the land along the Olympic Peninsula as “wild in the extreme...immense forests covered the whole of it within our sight down to the very beach....”

On his 1778 visit to Nootka Sound, Captain James Cook ordered his crew to fell trees for masts — making them the first white loggers in the Northwest. Captain Robert Gray’s first mate, Robert Haswell, recorded his impression of the landscape near Cape Blanco: “beautyfully divercified with forists and green verdent launs....” He also noted that “this Countrey must be thickly inhabited by the maney fiers we saw in the night and Culloms of smoak we would see in the Day time....”

Captain Gray, an American trader, was the first explorer to cross the Columbia River’s bar and penetrate the interior of the country by ship. The fleet of British explorer George Vancouver passed near the shore on April 27, 1792, and Vancouver noted the change in the character of the water that signified the mouth of a river. Vancouver, however, was a careful man, and he was under orders “not to pursue any inlet or river further than it shall appear to be navigable by vessels of such burthen as might safely navigate the pacific ocean.” He decided to drop the matter and continue north.

Two days later he encountered a ship, the first he had sighted in eight months. It was Captain Gray, in the Columbia Rediviva, heading south from his wintering port, Clayoquot Sound, where he had worn out his welcome with the Indians and had ordered a village destroyed shortly before he departed. Gray told Vancouver’s officers that on his way up he had passed a river’s mouth at the latitude of 46° 10', with a flow so strong he could not enter. Vancouver remembered the spot, but even after hearing Gray’s account, he again dismissed the river, if such it was, as being too small to be navigable.

Two weeks later, on the morning of May 11, 1792, Gray saw the same flume of muddy water coming from the shore. This time he decided to follow it, and the Columbia shot over the bar  in five to seven fathoms of water into the broad expanse of Baker Bay. Gray named the river after his ship. That Gray was the first Euro-American arrival strengthened the nascent claims of the United States on the Oregon Country.

© Gail Wells, 2006.

Themes: Exploration

Regions: Oregon Coast

Date: 1778-1792

Author: Gail Wells

Captain Robert Gray, an American trader, was the first explorer to cross the Columbia River’s bar and penetrate the interior of the Pacific Northwest by ship.

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