Empires In The Northwest


Astounded by their first sight of a white man’s ship, the local natives flocked about in their canoes. They were fat, naked, unhandsome, and heavily armed. Though they were eager to trade, the whites remained cautious. It was well they did. There was a monstrous uproar on the beach that evening—war dances probably—and shortly after midnight several canoes took off across the moon-silvered water. Gray ordered a cannon fired over the heads of the paddlers. The craft kept on. One large one, holding at least twenty warriors, pressed within half a pistol shot of the Columbia . Exasperated by the Indians’ refusal to heed his warnings, Gray ordered a nine-pounder and ten muskets loaded with buckshot to fire point-blank. “We dashed her all to pieces and no doubt kill’d every soul in her.” At that the other canoes retreated. Amazingly enough, the Indians resumed trading the next day without apparent rancor.

Whatever doubts Gray may have had about a huge river to the south of him were dissipated by the information he now gleaned from the Indians. He doesn’t say so in his log. Yet he must have been looking for something definite. On the evening of May 10, 1792, he hurriedly quit the harbor and bore south, missing in the darkness the entrance to Willapa Bay. The next morning at 4 A.M. , so he noted in his log, “We saw the entrance of our desired port.” Out went a pinnace, groping for a way through the tumult of white water. Under short sail the Columbia followed into “a large river of fresh water, up which we steered. At one P.M. came to with the small bower, in ten fathoms, black and white sand. … Vast numbers of natives came alongside.”

For eight days the ship lingered inside the huge estuary of the mythical river that was no myth. Though trade was Gray’s primary aim, he was not unaware of the significance of what he had done, especially since he had learned from Vancouver that Spain was relaxing her pretensions. If Spain didn’t own the country, who did? Landing, he declared that the territory now belonged to the United States of America, three thousand miles away. Because he had run out of names, having applied those of his backers and of current politicians to other landmarks up and down the coast, he decided to call this majestic new river after his ship —Columbia’s River, a spelling form which did not long survive.

Gray’s thoughts about the countryside did not escape into his laconic log. Fortunately seventeenyear-old John Boit was more articulate: This River in my opinion, wou’d be a fine place for to sett up a Factory . The Indians are very numerous, and appear’d very civill (not even offering to steal), during our short stay we collected 150 Otter, 300 Beaver, and twice the number of other land furs, the river abounds with excellent Salmon, and most other River fish, and the Woods with plenty of Moose and Deer, the skins of which was brought us in great plenty, and the Banks produce a ground Nut [probably the wapatoo root] which is an excellent substitute for either bread or Potatoes, We found plenty of Oak, Ash and Walnut trees, and clear ground in plenty, which with little labour might be made fit to raise such seeds as is necessary for the sustenance of inhabitants, and in short a factory set up here and another at Hancock’s River in the Queen Charlotte Isles, wou’d engross the whole trade of the NW Coast (with the help of a few small coasting vessels).

[May] 20. This day left Columbia’s River and stood clear of the bars, and bore off to the Northward. The Men at Columbia’s River are strait limb’d, fine looking fellows, and the women are very pretty, they are all in a state of Nature, except the Females, who wear a leaf Apron (perhaps ‘twas a fig leaf), but some of our gentlemen that examin’d them pretty close, and near , … reported that it was not a leaf but a nice wove mat in resemblance.

The rest of Gray’s trip was, in a sense, anticlimax, though perhaps it did not seem so at the time. There were more prowlings in and out of inlets, two more brutal fights with the Indians, and in July, north of Vancouver Island, a shattering crash on a reef that split the Columbia’s keel, smashed her stem, and stripped away much of her sheathing. Pothering the leak with a topsail, Gray limped back to Nootka for repairs.

Friendly Cove had changed considerably since his last visit. Several ships of various nationalities were in the harbor, including Ingraham’s diminutive Hope . The Spanish settlement now numbered sixteen buildings, presided over with courtly charm by Juan Francisco de Bodega y Cuadra, the fiery don who had sailed these waters eighteen years before with Bruno Heceta. The friendship that had marked American relations with Martínez continued with Cuadra. The Spaniard offered Gray, free of charge, every resource at hand, had the Yankee captain live with him while the ship was out of commission, and invited the rest of the Columbia ’s, officers to a dinner that all but popped young John Boil’s eyes from his head: “Fifty four persons sat down … and the plates, which was solid silver , was shifted five times, which made 270 plates!” Real warmth must have lain beneath the formality, for after Gray had returned to Massachusetts and had married, he named his firstborn son Robert Don Quadra Gray.