- Historic Sites
A Voyage On The River Of The West
The United States established its claim to the Pacific Northwest in 1792, when a fur trader named Robert Gray became the first man to sail up the Columbia River. Almost two centuries later the author made his own voyage of discovery.
April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
The water around my boat began to stir, and flow lines around the base of the buoy indicated a change to a flooding tide. I looked at my watch. The time was right: 8:00 A.M. And then I checked the compass. Course: East-northeast. I turned and headed for the river entrance, hoping to cross the bar as closely as I could to the time and course of the ship that first entered the Columbia River and later gave it its name. The ship was the Columbia Radiviva , under the command of Robert Gray, an American trader on his second voyage to the northwest coast. His practice was to sail close along the shore, seeking out small bays and openings that might shelter natives willing to trade. It was a practical Yankee interest in furs, not exploration, that prompted him to hazard the crossing of the shallow bar on the morning of May 11, 1792. The tide was just right, the wind was in the right quarter, and the sea was calm. Because of these chance conditions the Columbia River entered history with this brief log entry: “At eight, a.m., being a little to windward of the entrance of the Harbor, bore away, and ran in east-northeast between the breakers, having from five to seven fathoms of water. When we were over the bar, we found this to be a large river of fresh water, up which we steered.”
I followed, crossed the bar, and up the river I steered. I had started my voyage at the beginning of the river and its history.