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Subtopic : The Native Context and the Arrival of Other Peoples: The Coming of Robert Gray

Themes: People and the Environment, Exploration

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Captain Robert Gray
OrHi 586

The coming of United States sea captain Robert Gray to Pacific Northwest waters is another story. A privateer captain during the American Revolution, Gray was without a ship and looking for work in the mid-1780s when word arrived in Boston telling of the discovery by James Cook’s crew that sea otter pelts from the Northwest Coast could be sold for great profits in China. With the support of New England maritime investors, Gray set sail in 1787 for the Northwest, where he spent the winter trading for sea otter pelts. He sailed for Macao, where he sold his furs, and then returned to Boston in 1790. Within a month, Gray was freshly outfitted with Indian trade goods and was once again bound for the Northwest Coast.

After wintering at Adventure Cove in Clayoquot Sound, Gray headed out in search of sea otters. Eventually, he sailed south along the Washington coast. His ship, Columbia Rediviva, cleared the entrance to Gray’s Harbor on the evening of May 10, 1792, and continued south toward a bay where Gray had noted a strong outflow several weeks earlier. On the following morning, the ship crossed the bar into the river that Gray would name the “Columbia” in honor of his ship. Contrary to later arguments, Gray made no claims of possession but carried on a brisk trade with local Natives. He departed on May 20 with 300 beaver and 150 sea otter pelts. Gray was first and foremost a trader, and nothing in the historical record indicates that he was aware of the significance of the Columbia estuary.

In truth, the Bostonian was little interested in exploration and geography other than the prospect that such knowledge might enhance his investments. Historian Dorothy Johansen once characterized Gray as “a hard man, strictly attentive to the ‘two-penny objects’ of his business—to get sea otter skins and invest them in China goods.” The captain’s dealings with Native peoples, especially during his second voyage, were contentious, and on several occasions — with only the slightest provocation — he ordered his crew to destroy villages and blow Indian canoes out of the water. Before leaving his winter quarters in Clayoquot Sound in March 1792, for example, Gray directed his crew to destroy a village with some 200 dwellings. John Boit, a mate aboard the ship, confided to his journal: “am grieved to think Captain Gray should let his passions go so far.” Three days before the Columbia made its historic crossing of the Columbia bar, Gray’s ship directed musket and cannon fire on several canoes, sinking one large craft and killing all its occupants. In May, near Clayoquot, Gray’s ship destroyed another canoe, killing everyone on board. Although Gray’s discovery of the Columbia River would be treated in traditional accounts as one of the founding events of the region's history, there is ample reason to question his role as an explorer-hero.

By the close of the eighteenth century, the Northwest Coast had become a distant corner of an emerging global economy. Yet, the coastal areas of Oregon and elsewhere were places where Native people and westerners interacted, sought power and influence, and carried on complex exchanges of goods and services. For a considerable period of time, the maritime fur trade involved negotiations between equals, with each contesting for advantage in the exchange relationship. To Native people, there were fundamental differences between the maritime and land-based fur traders and the settlers who followed. The traders needed Native people to provide them with furs, for their local knowledge, to serve as a labor force in transporting furs, and to serve as guides through unfamiliar country. In distant places, however, imperial nations — especially England and the United States — were beginning to joust for advantage in the Northwest.

© William G. Robbins, 2002

Themes: People and the Environment,Exploration

Regions: Oregon

Date: 1700-1850

Author: William G. Robbins

Robert Gray was without a ship in the mid-1780s when word arrived in Boston telling of Cook’s discoveries in the Pacific Northwest.

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Haswell's Log of Sloop Washington, 1788
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Robert Gray's Sea Chest
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Exploration & Fur Trade by Robert Gray

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