Empires In The Northwest

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The Indians seemed amiable. Dusky maidens supplied berries, salmon, and other comforts; Gray cured a sick chief. On Christmas the whites amazed the Indians by bedecking fort, shops, and ship with evergreen boughs. Twenty geese were roasted on spits before a huge fire, and the local dignitaries and their ladies were invited to a feast on the ship. (Rather than board the Columbia the women sat outside in their canoes, waiting for whatever their lords tossed down.)

In spite of the festivities, ill will yet lingered because of Gray’s rough-handed treatment first of Attoo’s desertion and, later, of a case of stealing. One day various Indians were noted talking too long and too earnestly to the Hawaiian “prince.” On being grilled, Attoo confessed that the Indians had promised to make him a big chief if he smuggled them ammunition and, at a designated moment, wet down the whites’ powder. The savages would then attack the Columbia —an easy matter, for the vessel had recently been moored alongside a cliff and her guns unshipped preparatory to her being hauled ashore and graved. Forewarned, the whites had no difficulty frustrating the attack.

By the end of March Gray was ready to leave, but not before he let the natives feel his displeasure. On his way down the sound he bore in toward the Indian village. The inhabitants fled. John Boit, Jr., was then ordered out with a landing party to burn the entire settlement: houses, fish-drying racks, totems, everything.

When the ships separated outside the sound, the Adventure turning north and the Columbia south, Gray seems to have been actuated by a desire to find something more permanent than the haphazard trade that had satisfied him on earlier journeys. On this trip he kept trying to poke his way into various havens along the present Washington-Oregon coast. He couldn’t manage. “Currents and squally weather hindered,” young Boit wrote in his log, ”… however Capt. gray is determined to persevere in the pursuit.”

Probably Gray knew that somewhere to the south armchair geographers had long since placed Jonathan Carver’s Oregon, the great River of the West; and by now he had been trading off these coasts long enough to have perhaps picked up from the Indians an inkling that the stream existed in more than fancy. If it did, its estuary would be virgin ground for the first trader to reach it. Too, there might be prestige connected with the discovery, though in other cases Robert Gray’s cool Yankee blood seems not to have been unduly heated by the prospect of uncommercial exploration.

All this is speculation. It is known, however, that at latitude 46° 10’ he found an alluring entry but could not breach it because of its strong “reflux” and the tumultuous wall of breakers extending across it. Abandoning the attempt until weather and tides were more favorable, he drifted northward, anchoring finally off a village called Kenekomitt. There, toward sunset on April 29, the lookout descried two sails.

They were English ships, the 34o-ton, coppersheathed Discovery under Captain George Vancouver and the smaller armed tender Chatham under Lieutenant W. R. Broughton. From the Englishmen, Gray learned that Vancouver was to complete the exploratory work of the Northwest Coast begun by Captain Cook, with whom Vancouver had sailed as a midshipman. In the process he was to conduct still another search for the Northwest Passage.

To Vancouver, Gray sent such information as he possessed about Juan de Fuca. It was not much. Although he had once penetrated nearly fifty miles into the strait, he had no definite knowledge about where it ended; and because he had been avoiding Nootka, he did not know that the Spanish had recently been pushing explorations in those waters. So he mistakenly told Vancouver that the region around the strait was untouched. To this sparse data he added word of a river at 46°10’.

When the latter information was brought to Vancouver, he brushed it aside. He had seen the shoals and breakers and discolored water that Gray described. But he believed the discoloration resulted from spring freshets, and he had not learned from his master, Cook, that grea.t rivers characteristically pile up vast sandbars across their mouths. The unexplored Strait of Juan de Fuca, with its potential passageway through the continent, sounded far more exciting. Off he sailed.

Gray tagged after him for a way, then swung south again. At 46°58’ he saw another promising but difficult-to-reach harbor. “Stubbornly”—the word is Boil’s —he pushed through crashing breakers and over dangerous shoals into a commodious roadstead. This he named Bulfmch’s Harbor, after one of his backers. (Today it is more appropriately called Grays Harbor.) A river was there, but of no particular consequence.