Empires In The Northwest


Gray was in a quandary. By now Kendrick should have overtaken him—unless the Columbia had foundered. Meanwhile Meares was warning him not to tarry in Nootka. The Englishman swore that there was no trade (actually 750 skins were stored in Felice ’s hold), that the natives were hostile, the winters unendurable.

As he wandered about, postponing decision, Gray found plenty to absorb his attention: formal dinners exchanged with the English, the strange Indian village, and above all the trim sloop on the stocks. On September 20, four days after the Yankee’s arrival, the new vessel was ready for launching. At the appropriate moment she was christened North West America and, as the guns of the larger brigs roared in salute, she shot from the ways—almost from the harbor, for Meares in his exuberance had forgotten to provide either anchor or cable. The ship was soon retrieved, however, and the English settled down to a day of festivity. The Americans went back to loading wood and water.

A day or two later Meares left for China with the season’s furs. Busily Douglas in the Iphigenia and Robert Funter in the North West America cleared up the last loose ends preparatory to wintering in the Sandwich Islands. Quite possibly Gray would have followed them, had not the Columbia suddenly appeared, her topsails reefed and her topgallant masts down on the deck. Alarmed by these indications of trouble, Gray boarded the ship to hear Kendrick’s tale of woe.

Ever since the two vessels had separated off the Horn, the Columbia had been in jeopardy. Desperate, Kendrick had at last put in at the island of Juan Fernândez. There the Spanish commandant, Bias Gonzales, had succored him with food and water—a kindness, it later developed, for which Gonzales was sacked as soon as his superiors learned of it. But the help had not sufficed. As the Columbia toiled on northward, scurvy had killed two of the crew and, as Gray could see, had crippled most of the rest.

Once the English were gone, the natives flocked about to trade fish, whale oil, and venison. With their pelts they were more chary; only when the Americans refashioned some of their iron tools into “chisels”- bits of iron about eight inches long and one inch wide, with one end drawn down to a cutting edge—were the whites able to obtain many skins. None the less Kendrick determined to winter in the sound.

He escaped the freezing Meares had predicted. Very little snow fell, but rains were incessant and brought their own penetrating chill. To this the Indians seemed inured. They paddled unconcernedly about in anklelength, broad-belted mantles of cedar bark, their heads covered with conical bark hats decorated by tufts of feathers or tassels of hide. And of course there were always the magnificent cloaks of otter, handled with an infuriating negligence. One vexing native custom, for example, was to toss a cloak over a pot in which food was being boiled. The steam and heat brought swarms of vermin out of the seams for the owners to catch and eat.

Pettifogging details of daily living, broken by the brief excitement of a fire on the Columbia and thefts by the Indians, were enough to satisfy Kendrick. Gray, however, champed with impatience. In the spring he started out on his own.

As he cleared the headland, he encountered a Spanish warship, the s6-gun Princessa , commanded by Don Estévan José Martínez. Politely Martinez summoned the American captain aboard, spun a tale which Gray recognized as not completely candid, and asked searching questions about the other ships in the sound. It was all very mysterious—even ominous—and became more so when Gray learned that the i6-gun San Carlos under Gonzalo López de Haro was somewhere behind Martínez. Well, if it added up to trouble, let Kendrick worry. Gray had been sent here to trade, and trade he would. Accepting gifts of brandy, wine, and ham from the Spaniard, he sailed on northward.

Eventually he reached the maze of islands off southeastern Alaska. There his recklessness in pressing too close to shore nearly brought disaster. A sudden gust hurled the little Washington onto the rocks. Jib boom and bowsprit were carried away. “The next surf,” wrote Robert Haswell in his log, “took us far up into a nook in the rocks where we ware surrounded with huge craggy clifts nearly as high as our mast heads.” Some of the seamen jumped wildly for the slippery ledges. Finding footholds, they made fast ropes so that the heaving ship could not warp about, then hoisted out the boat and dragged her free. She was still tight, but so battered that Gray decided to return to Nootka for repairs. Along the way he had his first stroke of trading luck—200 prime pelts for one chisel each.

When he reached Nootka on June 17, Kendrick was still there. So were Martínez and Haro and with them a strange English ship, the Princess Royal , commanded by Captain Thomas Hudson. John Meares was in China but his two smaller ships, the Iphigenia and the North West America were trading along the coast. From the slopes of Hog Island a Spanish fort and three smaller buildings scowled out over Friendly Cove. Although the surface of things seemed cordial, Gray soon learned that there had been considerable trouble and, most likely, there would be more.