Empires In The Northwest

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Finally, on August 14, Gray sighted what was probably Tillamook Bay on the Oregon coast and consented to stop. As the anchor plunged down, curious natives swarmed out to the ship. Many of them were loaded with berries and ready-boiled crabs, manna to the scurvy-stricken crew. Though a brisk trade in skins sprang up, Gray’s main concern was taking on wood and water for the men, grass and “shrubs” for the livestock. In pursuit of the latter occupation, First Mate David Coolidge and Second Mate Robert Haswell landed a boatload of men and then wandered up to the village to see what they could see. It wasn’t much —just a haphazard jumble of small wooden huts, “intolerably filthy.”

A dance began, which young Haswell described in his log as “long and hideous accompanyed with frightfull howlings. It Chilled the bludd in my veins.” Uneasy now, the mates walked back along the beach to where the men were cutting grass.

Suddenly one of the workers, a Cape Verde Island Negro named Marcus Lopius (as Haswell spelled Lopez), let out a yell and began to chase an Indian who was making off with a cutlass. Coolidge, Haswell, and a sailor pursued the runners on foot while the remaining men piled into the boat and followed along the shore. Nearing the village, the horrified whites saw several Indians “drench there knives and spears with savage feury in the body of the unfortunate youth. He … stagered toward us but having a flight of arrows thrown into his back,” he collapsed.

At this Haswell and his companions began wading out to the boat. Until now the mates, who alone carried weapons, had held their fire because of Gray’s strict orders to avoid bloodshed. But when the shrieking savages splashed into the water after them, hurling spears and arrows, they figured enough was enough. Each shot, killing a man. This slowed the others sufficiently for the whites to climb into the boat, though not unscathed. The unarmed sailor with them was critically wounded and each mate was nicked. As they pulled for the ship, the Indians launched their own canoes, but two or three shots from the swivel guns on the Washington soon routed the pursuit. An abortive attack later that night was easily dispersed, and the next morning the Washington warped out of the harbor.

In the fog Gray missed the mouth of the vast river which Bruno Heceta had sensed thirteen years before. Though the Americans saw the Strait of Juan de Fuca (named four months earlier by an English trader, John Meares), they sailed on by, coasting Vancouver Island. Nearing the latitude of Nootka, they turned toward the rocky shores, hunting landmarks which would identify the sound. A rolling swell almost threw the Washington onto a reef. As the frightened men groped away from it, they were surrounded by huge native canoes, some of whose occupants cried up words of English. Yielding to gestures of friendship, Gray let the canoes help tow the Washington into a nearby harbor —it was Clayoquot Sound—and there they found Chief Wicananish, “dressed in a genteel sute of Cloths.”

The Yankees were late on the scene. During the past four years a growing number of ships, principally English, had been beating back and forth off the coast. The parade had started with James Hanna, who had sailed from China in 1785 with a diminutive sixty-ton brig and after killing a few Indians had netted $20,600 worth of pelts during a six-week stay. Other English ships pausing at Clayoquot shortly before Gray’s appearance had drained off the best skins. Acceptable ones could still have been purchased, however, if the Americans had possessed suitable goods. But the Indian taste, unpredictable at best, had been rendered completely capricious by the dazzling trinkets offered by these strange, pale sea peddlers for what seemed to the savages a very ordinary sort of commodity indeed, mere furs. Disdainfully they rejected Gray’s ill-chosen gewgaws. With more than a little foreboding the empty-handed Captain left Clayoquot to search for Nootka, his appointed rendezvous with the Columbia .

On September 15 he descried a long boat under sail putting out of an inlet. Its crew boarded the American ship and the next day helped tow the Washington into Nootka Sound and around the southwestern tip of Nootka Island. There, in a semicircular harbor called Friendly Cove, Gray anchored beside a pair of twomasted, square-rigged brigs flying what Haswell called “Portogees Coulers.” The flags were a blind, however. As Gray soon learned, actual command resided in a former officer of the British Navy named John Meares, as engaging a scoundrel as ever sailed the Northwest Coast.

[ John Meares was another sailor of fortune drawn to the bleak waters of the North Pacific by tales of the rich sea-otter trade. For two pistols he had bought from the Indian chief, Maquinna, a plot of ground on the shore of Nootka Sound and built a log house. When Gray arrived Meares had two ships, the Felice under his own command, and the Iphigenia under William Douglas—both registered under Portuguese colors to secure preferential port charges. A third vessel was under construction at Nootka. ]