Empires In The Northwest

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[ From Friendly Cove, Gray sailed for Canton, where he traded his furs for Chinese goods, and returned to Boston. The voyage was a profitable one and enabled the owners to cover the losses of the first venture. But they did not send Gray back and he sank into obscurity. Supposedly he died of yellow fever at sea in 1806. Some time later his wife appealed to Congress to rescue her from poverty. ]

At least Gray returned home. His onetime superior, John Kendrick, never did—and never returned a solitary dime to the owners. In 1793 and again in 1794 he was back on the coast in the Lady Washington , apparently trading for himself in his usual unhurried fashion. China-bound late in 1794, he stopped at Hawaii and with a Captain Brown of the ship Jackal meddled in an intra-island feud. Their faction being successful, Brown and Kendrick proposed to salute each other. By oversight one of the Jackal ’s guns was not unshotted. Its load of round and grape pierced the side of the Washington , wounded several of the crew, and blew off Kendrick’s head as he sat at his table.

All this was learned by John Boit shortly after the accident. At the ripe age of nineteen Boit had signed on as commander of a sixty-foot, 89-ton sloop, the Union , and had sailed her back to the Northwest. In Puget Sound he had fought a bloody but successful battle with several hundred savages, and later he had tried to enter Columbia’s River but had been baffled by wind and breakers. At Hawaii native canoes (“the females were quite amorous ”) greeted him with hogs, pineapples, and gossip of Kendrick’s demise. On July 8, 1796, having just attained voting age, he sailed the Union into Boston Harbor, the only sloop-rigged vessel, it is said, ever to circle the globe.

Meanwhile, George Vancouver was methodically exploring the intricate channels of the island that bears his name. By the next summer he had at last nailed the ghost of the Northwest Passage firmly in its coffin. Putting back into Nootka for the last time on September 2, 1794, Vancouver learned that Cuadra had died in Mexico and that no instructions had yet arrived as to what to do about their dispute over sovereignty. After waiting vainly for six weeks, he sailed home. Meanwhile representatives of the two powers, conferring in Europe, had agreed on mutual abandonment of the district. Pursuant to this accord two commissioners met in Nootka on March 23, 1795, destroyed the decaying houses of the already deserted settlement, and turned the sound back to Maquinna’s people.

[ Thus, by the end of the Eighteenth Century, two of the European powers had relinquished their claims to the Oregon region. Spain’s withdrawal was made official in 1819 when she waived all claims north of California, and the shadowy Russian threat was ended in 1824 when the Tsar’s government renounced any ambitions south of Alaska. The British and Americans were left to contest the territory through the first half of the Nineteenth Century. In the end it became a race between fur traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company from Canada and settlers who followed the Oregon Trail from the United States. Not until 1846, after a near brush with war, would the boundary between British and American territory finally be drawn along its present line. ]

The sea-otter trade was slowly being destroyed by ruthless exploitation, and the day of the sea peddler on the Oregon coast was drawing to a close. In November, 1805, however, Captain Samuel Hill took the brig Lydia of New York across the foaming bar of the Columbia River and dropped anchor off the northern shore. He knew the district; the previous April he had anchored there for a month while taking a small boat upriver. Now he was back to cut some spars and to pick up whatever trade he might have missed.

The Indians who visited the Lydia brought with them medals stamped with a likeness of President Jefferson. They said they had got the objects from two captains named Clark and Lewis, who recently had come down the river with several men from the United States, wherever that was.

Hill understood from the broken talk that Lewis and Clark had just departed the estuary on their return journey overland. For reasons never divined, however, the Indians were not telling the truth. Only a few days before, the expedition had left this exposed northern shore for the sheltering woods on the south bank. They were over there now, out of sight in the trees, searching out a site for the miserable winter quarters they would name Fort Clatsop. They would much rather have gone home by ship. They certainly could have used supplies.

The Lydia never knew this. Without having noticed in the gray mist the smoke from his countrymen’s fires, Captain Hill put back to sea, unaware that he had missed a rendezvous with history.