GRAY, Robert




Author Tags: 1700-1800, Haida Gwaii, Place Names

The first American to circumnavigate the globe, Robert Gray, played a significant role in the naming of British Columbia. It’s a bit complicated…

When Captain Gray ascended the mouth of the Columbia River in present-day Oregon in May of 1792, he named that waterway after his ship, Columbia Rediviva. Gray was sailing under a sea letter issued by President George Washington. Much earlier, the Spaniards Bruno Heceta in the Santiago and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra in the Sonora had arrived at the mouth of the same river on July 11, 1775, but they are rarely credited with its ‘discovery’ by Europeans or Americans. Five months after Gray found the same river, Lieutenant William Broughton aboard the Chatham as directed by Captain George Vancouver, sent two smaller boats up the Columbia River for 100 miles, making a map that would be copied, for posterity, by the British mapmaker Aaron Arrowsmith. This occurred after Captain Vancouver arranged for Broughton, as his ranking subordinate, to travel across New Mexico, as sanctioned by his friend Captain Bodega y Quadra, in order to take a ship to England and report on his recent meetings with Quadra at Nootka Sound. Broughton arrived in England in July of 1793.

The subsequent designation of the name Columbia on English maps for the main fur trading river and the main fur trading region of western North America became useful when England needed to supply a name for territories it wished to secure north of the 49th parallel in keeping with a new bilateral treaty. Queen Victoria was given various options from which to choose for the naming of this “North Columbia” area. New Cornwall was rejected, as was New Caledonia. She chose British Columbia.

This designation can be directly traced to the American sea captain Robert Gray, whose great-grandfather had settled at Plymouth in 1643. Gray’s full-rigged, three-masted, 213-ton ship Columbia Rediviva was originally captained by John Kendrick and named the Columbia when it was built in 1773 by James Briggs at Hobart’s Landing on North River, in Scituate, Massachusetts, with the same dimensions as the 83-foot-long HMS Bounty. Established in 1678, the Briggs Yard built ships for 167 years. The prefix USS was not affixed to Columbia because it was privately owned. Etymologically, the word Columbia is derivative of the Latin or Spanish word for dove, columbe. The word Rediviva was added to the ship’s name after a refit in 1787 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Rediviva is Latin for revived. Hence Columbia Rediviva could translate as “dove revived.” The assumption nowadays is that anything named Columbia probably refers somehow to Christofo Colombo, the Genoa-born sailor who reached some Caribbean Islands in 1492. But in the late 1700s, would an American merchant in Massachusetts name his sloop after a little-known Italian adventurer who had sailed for the Spanish? It is more likely the ship was originally named in honour of one of the three patron saints of Ireland, St. Columb, or St. Columba (521-597), a Gaellic missionary and accomplished sailor who introduced Christianity to the Picts (of Scotland). This seaworthy “Columba,” who had the gumption to found a monastery on the island of Iona in Scotland in the sixth century A.D., was also known as Colum Cille (meaning “Dove of the church”). He is not to be confused with another Irish saint from the same century, Saint Columbanus, whose his Irish name “Colum Ban” translates as “the fair Colum.”(Yes, the orbiting space shuttle Columbia was named after Robert Gray’s ship—that was decommissioned and salvaged in 1806—because it was the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe in 1790.)

The Briggs Yard at Hobart’s Landing, where the Columbia was built, was located on the North River in Scituate, Massachusetts, a settlement that was established five years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. It was the Pilgrims from Plymouth who recognized the potential of the harbour at Scituate and commenced settlement there in 1623. Hence the origins of Scituate, where the Columbia built at the Briggs Yard, were devoutly Christian. The first captain of the Columbia, John Kendrick, was from Scituate, as were most of his crew. It stands to reason the Columbia Rediviva was named for a saint, not an Italian.

Born in Tiverton, Rhode Island in 1755, Robert Gray is generally regarded as the first American to fly the Stars and Stripes of the 13 amalgamated colonies in the Pacific Northwest—although there are obscure claims that a New York brig called the Eleanora, commanded by Simon Metcalfe, might have preceded him. Gray has also been credited, rightly or wrongly, with the discovery of the Columbia River.

Having served in the navy during the American Revolution, probably as a privateer, Gray, along with Captain John Kendrick, born in Massachusetts around 1740, was hired by merchants in August of 1787 to explore the northwest coast of North America and to open a fur trade with China on behalf of New England. The merchants were likely encouraged to do so by John Ledyard, who had sailed to the Pacific Northwest with Captain Cook.

With the onset of a depression in New England, largely due to the cessation of war, New Englanders were seeking new markets by sea, having developed a substantial merchant navy in order to fight the British. In 1784 the Empress of China, commanded by John Green, had reached Macao from New York after a six-month journey via the Cape of Good Hope, reaping $30,000 profit from sales of wine, brandy, tar and turpentine. Hence the “Bostonians” made their first incursions into British Columbia.

Gray and Kendrick sailed two vessels, the 212-ton Columbia Rediviva and the 90-ton sloop Lady Washington, to the Falkland Islands via the Cape Verde Islands, parting company as they rounded Cape Horn and entered the Pacific. Gray’s black manservant was killed by Indians near Tillamook Bay, about 30 miles south of the as-yet unseen Columbia River mouth, whereupon Gray called the place Murderer’s Harbor. This incident contributed to his subsequent distrustful relations with the Indians at Clayoquot.

Gray proceeded to Barkley Sound, then onto Clayoquot Sound—which they called Hancock Harbor—where third mate Robert Haswell, age nineteen, recorded their attempts to trade: “The principle or superior chief of this tribe’s name is Wickananish he visated us accompaneyed by one of his brothers completely dressed in a genteerl sute of cloths which he said Capt Mears had given him, Capt. Mears name was not the only one they mentioned for they spoke of Capt. Barkley Capt Hannah Capt Dunkin and Capt Duglas what they said of them we now knew so little of there language we could not comprehend.”

As recorded by trader John Meares, Gray arrived at Nootka in command of the Lady Washington on September 17, 1788. He and John Kendrick were the harbingers of “American free enterprise” in British Columbia. Ultimately Americans would break the monopoly of the East India Company and become dominant in the Northwest fur trade. Upon his arrival, Meares tried dissuading them from trade.

Robert Haswell was not deceived by Meares. “All the time these gentlemen were on board they fully employed themselves falsicating and rehursing vague and improvable tales relative to the coast of the vast danger attending its nagivation of the monsterous savage disposition of its inhabitants adding it would be maddness in us so week as we were to stay a winter among them.... The fact was they wished to frighten us off the coast that they alone might menopolise the trade but the debth of there design could be easily fathemed.”

Captain Kendrick arrived at Nootka in the Columbia, having lost two of his crewmen to scurvy. Captain Gray assisted Meares in repairing his ships so that by early fall the Felice, the Iphigenia and the newly built North West America all left Friendly Cove to winter in Hawaii.

Gray and his cohort Kendrick exchanged ships in 1789. Taking charge of the Columbia, Gray took a cargo of sea otter skins to Guangzhou, but met with limited success. He sailed westward until he reached Boston in 1790, thereby completing the first American circumnavigation of the globe.

On September 28, 1790, Gray sailed from Boston on a second expedition to the Pacific Northwest, wintering over and arriving at Clayoquot, the American trading fort on Vancouver Island, on June 5, 1791. Sailing as far north as Portland Channel, some of Gray’s men on the Columbia were killed by Indians. Kendrick also made a return voyage, reaching the Queen Charlotte Islands where he and the crew of the Lady Washington were attacked and Kendrick’s son was killed. Both ships returned to Clayoquot. Kendrick left for China with his furs. He would later die in Hawaii from injuries suffered from a gun explosion.

Gray wintered with much difficulty at an encampment on Meares Island called Fort Defiance, where he built a sloop called the Adventure, a 30 to 40-foot trading sloop. Their winter encampment was located at a place Gray called Adventure Cove in Lemmens Inlet, located approximately three miles north of Tofino. Excavations of the site from 1968 onwards have unearthed more than 1500 artifacts from Fort Defiance and the construction of the Adventure. It is known from diaries kept by Robert Haswell, John Hoskins and Gray that their square-timbered blockhouse served as a fort, dormitory, cookhouse and blacksmith shop. The ship's painter, George Davidson, also produced a sketch of Fort Defiance.

The Indians at Clayoquot were far from friendly. Suspecting a plot against him, Gray took pre-emptive action and burnt their village at Opitsat. The Columbia and the Adventure left Clayoquot on April 2, 1792. The Adventure was sent north to trade for furs while Gray and the Columbia sailed south. During this voyage he lay for nine days off the mouth of a large river, but did not attempt entry.

Returning north, Gray met Captain George Vancouver on April 28, 1792 and exchanged information with him, mentioning this large river. Captain Vancouver was skeptical and wrote in his journal at the time, “If any river should be found, it must be a very intricate one and inaccessible to vessels of our burden.”

Gray headed south once more, reaching Gray’s Harbour on the coast of Washington State. (He called it Bulfinch Harbour after one of his sponsors, but Captain Vancouver renamed it after Gray.) Gray reached Cape Disappointment on the Oregon coast and once more found the mouth of the great river. On May 7, 1792, he wrote: “Being within six miles of the land, saw an entrance in the same, which had a very good appearance of a harbor.... We soon saw from our masthead a passage in between the sand-bars. At half past three, bore away, and ran in north-east by east, having from four to eight fathoms, sandy bottom; and as we drew in nearer between the bars, had from ten to thirteen fathoms, having a very strong tide of ebb to stem.... At five P.M. came to in five fathoms water, sandy bottom, in a safe harbor, well sheltered from the sea by long sand-bars and spits.” On May 12, 1792, Gray "saw an appearance of a spacious harbour abreast the Ship, haul'd our wind for it, observ'd two sand bars making off, with a passage between them to a fine river. Out pinnace and sent her in ahead and followed with the ship under short sail, carried in from ½ three to 7 fm. And when over the bar had 10 fm. water, quite fresh." He named the waterway after his ship on May 18, 1792 although the Spanish mariner Bruno de Hezeta, sailing aboard the Santiago (used the year before by Juan Peréz), had established the location of the river mouth in 1775.

Later the Columbia River would be used as the main interior route for the fur trade in the western U.S. but in 1792 Gray described what he saw without much enthusiasm. After his explorations of the Pacific Northwest, Gray sold furs in China in 1793 and returned to a career of sailing on the east coast of the United States. He died poverty-stricken in Charleston in 1806.

BOOKS:

Scofield, John. Hail, Columbia: Robert Gray, John Kendrick and the Pacific Fur Trade. (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1993)

[BCBW 2004] "American" "1700-1800" "QCI" "Place Names"