1792 Two Hundred Years Ago

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Sailing on behalf of a Boston trading company, Capt. Robert Gray came upon the headwaters of the Great River of the West on May 11 and then did what earlier explorers had not: he entered.

A month after his Columbia Rediviva had become the first American vessel to sail around the world (from Boston around the Horn to the Northwest and on to Canton), Captain Gray sailed his sloop from Boston in September 1790, searching for new fur markets in the Pacific Northwest and in the belief that these markets could be linked with those of China. His expedition halted in Clayoquot Sound long enough to meet up with a second ship. Then the two vessels sailed south, and Gray’s Columbia happened on the entrance to the Great River of the West. The river had been suspected by previous explorers and implied by cartographers but, until Gray’s ship crossed the bar that day, had been mostly the secret of the Chinook Indians. In fact, a scout for the British explorer Capt. George Vancouver had surveyed his way right past the river’s entrance the month before, explaining away a change he observed in the sea water’s color as a “probable consequence of some streams falling into the bay.…”

With a relatively calm sea and sustaining wind, Gray’s ship cleared the breakers that had long masked the river’s mouth and then sailed inland twenty-two miles. The Yankee captain gratefully called this elusive discovery “Columbia’s River” for his ship, supplanting earlier, less wieldy names such as the Spaniard Bruno Heceta’s suggestion, Bahía de la Asumpsión. Gray was later honored with a bay of his own, however, a few miles north.