Empires In The Northwest

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Robert Gray’s stay in Boston lasted only seven weeks. Even before settlement of the Nootka controversy he was again sailing the Columbia toward the Northwest in an effort to recoup the losses of the first voyages and stir the dilatory Kendrick to action.∗ This time he was equipped with more suitable trade goods: woolen cloth; trousers, pea jackets, and shoes; racks of ancient muskets and blunderbusses; 14,000 nails, 143 sheets of copper, 4,261 quarter-pound “chissells.”

∗In even less time Gray’s ex-mate, Joseph Ingraham, had been employed by rival New Englanders and had hurried back toward Nootka in the tiny seventy-ton brig Hope .

Eight months and five days out of Boston, the Columbia reached Clayoquot Sound, a quicker trip by nearly four months than the one under Kendrick had been. There had been trouble, none the less. Violent storms off the Horn had helped kill Nancy, the Cape Verde Island goat who had circumnavigated the globe with Gray; and on April 23, 1791, at 5 P.M. , she was committed to the deep, “much lamented,” wrote the new fifth mate, sixteen-year-old John Boit, Jr., “by those who’d got a share of her milk.” Later scurvy struck. As soon as the Columbia limped into Clayoquot, the sick were hustled ashore and buried in earth up to their hips. According to Boit the treatment helped, though perhaps the greens the men devoured and the berries they bought from the Indians were even more beneficial.

There was no word of Kendrick at Clayoquot, and because Gray did not know what the situation might be in Nootka, he stayed away from that strife-torn sound. For a time trade went well. Then Attoo, the “crown prince” of Hawaii, tried to desert to the Indians. Duty-bound to return Attoo to his home, Gray took severe measures to get the boy back. Luring one of Clayoquot’s principal chiefs aboard, he imprisoned the man and threatened him with death unless Attoo was returned. The chief’s frightened people complied, whereupon Attoo was publicly flogged—to the Indian mind an unheard-of and abhorrent punishment. Gray then announced that if any more of his men deserted, they must straightway be returned by the natives; otherwise he would flog, in the deserter’s stead, the first Indian chief he caught.

The whole performance bewildered the savages. In time the animosity it aroused would bear dangerous fruit, but the Indians’ initial reaction was simply to turn sullen and quit trading. Finding business slow, Gray quit the harbor and beat haphazardly up and down the coast, bearing at length for the Queen Charlotte Islands, where he had so successfully traded chisels for furs two years before. The natives here had peculiar customs. For one thing, the women bossed the men. For another, the softer sex cut incisions into their under lips and by inserting labrets, pieces of wood as large as a goose egg, “boomed” the mutilated member as much as two inches out from their chins. They were not, young Boit confided to his log, “very Chaste, but their lip pieces was enough to disgust any Civilized being, however some of the Crew was quite partial”—an intercourse Gray endeavored without success to restrain.

Cruising about, the Columbia fell in with Joseph Ingraham’s tiny Hope . Ingraham, it developed, was turning into one of the canniest traders on the coast. Finding that the Indians, well supplied by now with unadorned cloth, turned up their noses at his offerings, he sewed brass buttons on his goods and got rid of every stitch. When Gray’s freehanded bargaining depreciated the value of chisels, Ingraham converted his iron into seven-pound collars, somehow made the monstrosities fashionable, and peddled them at the rate of three skins for a single collar. In 49 days he collected 1,400 sea-otter pelts, one of the most successful ventures, day for day, on record.

Leaving Ingraham, Gray threaded the complex islands off southeastern Alaska, lost his second mate and three hands to Indians, and on August 29, 1791, returned to Clayoquot. A strange log house stood on the shore and in the bay rode a strange brig—no, not strange. It was the Lady Washington , transformed from a sloop into a brig. Leaning over the rail, watching as the Columbia hove to, was her former master, John Kendrick.

For more than a year Kendrick had stayed in Macao. Part of the time he had been desperately ill; part he had spent refitting the Washington as a brig. He had also sold the ship to himself, a sham transaction, he explained unconvincingly, to avoid Chinese commercial regulation. Gray noticed, however, that Kendrick treated the vessel as if it really did belong to him. As for returns to the owners from either the sale or from his pelts, there were none.

Deciding to winter in Clayoquot, Gray located a landlocked cove, had his men chop out a clearing on its shores, and there built a two-story log fort 18 feet wide by 36 feet long. Aping Meares, he now set up shipways, blacksmith forge, and sawpits for building a 75-foot schooner, the Adventure , whose frame he had brought with him from Boston.