Captain Robert Gray

Robert_Gray_Statue_Tillamook_County_Oregon_scenic_images_tilDA0054Gray claimed discovery of Big River (what the natives called it) and named it after his ship, the Columbia, in the spring of 1792. Vancouver was there a few weeks ahead of Gray but failed to cross the bar at the river’s mouth, which is always violent and dangerous. It is possible other ships were there before Gray, such as Russian, but no record of this has been presented. There is a record of the Spanish being at the river’s mouth earlier, but they did not land. However, the Natives had stories of strange white men, and also people that had to be Japanese or Chinese, who had landed along their coast before Gray made it into Big River. Some of these people were killed, others made slaves, and, at least, two lived among the Clatsop for a time and took wives, though this may have been a temporary arrangement at the whim of their hosts. On his first visit into Big River Gray did well in trading with the Chinook, but when he ventured into a bay a little north of the river he committed multiple murders under hazy circumstances and further north, at famous Nootka Sound, Gray used his cannon to level nearly an entire village.

On that trip, Gray acquired many sea otters and other skins he took to sell in Canton. From there he proceeded westward around the Cape of Good Hope and became the first American to take his ship all the way around the world. During the 1790’s Captain Gray was perhaps the most famous and successful American trader plying Northwest waters. An interesting aspect of that 1792 voyage, when he was first to take his ship on the Columbia river and the bay just north named for him, Gray’s Harbor, and found many Natives new to the business of trading with the “cloud ship” or “floats ashore” people that gave him an advantage later traders would not enjoy, and causing no small amount of bloodshed, then becoming the first American to sail clear around the world, for all of that, Gray’s actual profit for the trip was not great. Robert Gray is mentioned several times in When Wolf Comes, from a perspective you won’t see in school history books.

Posted in Pacific NW Notes

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