August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
Excerpts from Land of Giants
The English were still nursing the dream of a Northwest Passage to the Orient. The Spanish were trying to nail down the ancient edict of Pope Alexander VI which made the whole Pacific a Spanish lake. The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, thought it would be a neat coup if he could beat the maritime powers at their own game of exploration.
Thus it was that the power drives of three European empires converged, in the middle of the Eighteenth Century, on the Northwest Coast of America. They found no Northwest Passage, and no gold, but they found the sea otter. This was the rich prize which brought more ships, and the threat of worldwide war, to the remote waters of Nootka Sound. It brought, too, a fleet of Yankee traders, who snatched the prize, and one of whom discovered the great River of the West.
This story of exploration and conflict comprises the first part of David Lavender’s forthcoming Land of Giants: The Drive to the Northwest, 1750-1950 . The book is one of the “Mainstream of America” Series, published by Doubleday & Company. Mr. Lavender, who is head of the English Department at the Thacher School in Ojai, California, wrote Bent’s Fort , a best seller two years ago. On the following pages A MERICAN H ERITAGE presents excerpts from his new book.
In the Year of Salvation 1579 Spanish concern over an enemy-controlled entry into her private ocean, as she deemed the Pacific, took on frightening substance. Red-bearded Francis Drake, materializing out of nowhere in his Golden Hind , fell first on the ports of Valparaiso and Callao de Lima. Next he seized a treasure galleon bound for Panama and from her stripped strongboxes full of emeralds and pearls, thirteen chests of coined silver, eighty pounds of gold ingots, twenty-six tons of silver bars. Glutted with plunder, the Golden Hind then vanished toward the north.
North! What attraction, the ravaged Spaniards wondered, could lie in that direction … unless it was the Strait of Anian, western end of the long-sought Northwest Passage through America. Had Drake found it? Was he now planning to escape through the same alarming channel?
Other circumstances added to the fear. As Spanish agents in London were well aware, a reformed semi-pirate named Martin Frobisher had already made two trips across the North Atlantic, hunting among the icebergs beyond Greenland for the eastern end of the passage. Was it only coincidence, then, that shortly before Drake’s raids Frobisher had embarked on a third expedition? To be sure, his ostensible purpose was to dig for Arctic gold. But what of the inlet whose mouth Frobisher had discovered on his earlier trips, an inlet reputedly pointing straight in the direction of Spain’s Southern Sea? Did he and Drake plan to meet and concoct more devilment somewhere up in those bleak waterways?
The Spanish were, of course, jumping at bogies. Drake had entered the Southern Sea through the Straits of Magellan. He had, however, no intention of returning that way. On his outward journey Cape Horn’s “hell-darke nightes and the mercyless fury of tempestuous storms” had swallowed one of his accompanying ships while sending another scudding in terror back to England’s green and pleasant land. Only the Golden Hind was left, and now the aroused Spaniards, as well as the wind-racked seas, awaited any attempt to retreat via the south. Escape to the north was preferable—if a navigable northern waterway back into the Atlantic indeed existed.
Drake tried to learn. Quite probably his own desires were fortified by secret orders he carried, enjoining him to search for the far end of Frobisher’s inlet. We cannot be sure, for no record remains beyond Drake’s own enigmatic remarks. But we do know that something prompted him to sail doggedly northward for more than three thousand miles and so become the first white man to glimpse the lower reaches of what we today call the Pacific Northwest.
The landfalls he made dismayed him. Although his means for determining longitude were crude, they none the less showed him that he had gone far to the west. Central America might be relatively narrow, but this part of the continent was enormous. Frobisher’s inlet lay thousands of miles off, and the likelihood of a strait spanning so tremendous a distance was remote indeed.
Equally discouraging was the weather: “extreame gusts and flaws … most vile, thicke, and stinking fogges.” Their tropic-thinned blood chilled by one of the Northwest’s infamous mists, the English buccaneers decided to abandon the search for the passage, particularly since they now possessed captured Spanish charts showing the way to the Philippines.
Yet Drake could not ignore his secret orders without giving good cause. Voicing those causes became the work, in part, of Parson Francis Fletcher, the ship’s chaplain. Piously Fletcher wrote that as the Golden Hind gave up her northward cast and turned south, seeking a bay where the men could careen the ship before tackling the open ocean, every hill they passed “though it was June … [was] covered with snow”- this in a California spring! Only fools, of course, would push ahead under such circumstances. And as for the Strait of Anian, “wee conjecture that either there is no passage at all through these Northerne coasts (which is most likely) or if there be, yet it is unnavigable.”
Having thus invoked weather and probability to witness the correctness of his actions, Drake refurbished his leaky vessel in a pleasant California haven, named the land New Albion in defiance of Spain’s prior claims, and sailed on around the world toward home. Nearly 200 years—years which saw the rest of America’s geography take shape—would pass before other men of European stock looked again on the Northwest.
Though Drake might doubt the existence of the Strait of Anian, Martin Frobisher never did. Today we know that Frobisher’s inlet, discovered in 1576 during his first North Atlantic journey, opens into a deep bay and that the marching icebergs at which he marveled were floating on the tide rather than on an ocean-to-ocean current. To Frobisher, however, the chill white parade brought kindled anticipation. The fabled short cut to the Orient lay at his fingertips!
The season being late, he hurried back to England to report and to prepare for further exploration the following spring. Unfortunately he took with him a heavy piece of black rock that one of his men had picked up near the entrance to his inlet. This rock fell into the hands of Michael Lok, Frobisher’s spokesman at court.
Lok, about fifty years old at the time, was a merchant-adventurer in the full, stirring Elizabethan sense of the term. He had sailed over much of the known world, spoke most of its major languages; as a director of the Muscovy Company he traded with mysterious Russia through the far-off White Sea. In spite of his experience, however, he remained so gullible that he spent much of his lifetime fooling himself. As soon as he saw Frobisher’s black rock he became convinced that it was loaded with gold.
His fixation epitomizes a yearning that filled all Europe. Bullion from Spain’s American colonies was ballooning prices; the only answer jealous nonSpaniards could offer to the resultant economic chaos was an attempt to find still more gold somewhere else. Although several London assayers told Lok that Frobisher’s ore was iron pyrites, the stubborn merchant kept on shopping around until he turned up an alchemist who told him what he wanted to hear.
Gold! Promptly the Company of Cathay was chartered, Michael Lok as governor. Though the organization’s name implied that the company would press the search for the Northwest Passage, Frobisher’s next two journeys dwindled, to his disgust, into golddigging expeditions. To complete the anticlimax, the ore he brought back from the trips proved worthless, the Company of Cathay went bankrupt, and Michael Lok spent most of the rest of his life petitioning the court for relief.
During one of his stays in debtors’ prison, Lok whiled away the time completing a map of the world. On it he clearly showed Frobisher’s passage lying north of a curiously misshapen North America. Since Lok presumably believed his own fantasy, he naturally was ready to believe the tales of any mariner who wanted to claim firsthand knowledge of the route.
In 1596 such a man appeared. Lok was in Venice at the time, trying to collect certain moneys he felt were due him. Through an English friend he met a Greek pilot—bronzed, long-bearded, sixty years old—who professed to have passed much of his life in the service of the viceroy of Mexico. The fellow’s real name, so he told Lok, was Apostolos Valerianos, but for the sake of his Spanish masters he had invented the pseudonym Juan de Fuca.
The viceroy of Mexico, according to Juan de Fuca, was convinced that Drake had sneaked into the Pacific by a secret route north of California. He had sent three ships “to discover the Straits of Anian … and to fortifie in that strait, to resist the passage and proceedings of the English Nation.” The attempt collapsed but Juan, who had served as pilot on the expedition, refused to give up. Off he had gone again, Anno 1592, in command of “a small Caravela and a Pinnace.” This time, he claimed, between 47° and 48° of latitude, he had found the strait.
For twenty days, said he, he had sailed in the strait, reached the North Sea, and returned to Mexico, “hoping to be rewarded greatly of the Viceroy.” But both there and in Spain he was welcomed “in wordes after the Spanish manner” but with nothing else.
Through Lok he now appealed to Queen Elizabeth, guaranteeing with his life that he could quickly relocate the passage. Lok wrote eager letters to England’s lord treasurer, to Sir Walter Raleigh, and to “Master Richard Hakluyt that famous Cosmographer,” urging that they bring Juan to England. The court, however, was used to the extravagant tales of self-seekers, and nothing came of the plan.
Nothing official, that is. Unofficially, the tale found its way into Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes . There it stayed, fascinating the curious and beclouding the advance of geography. It is but one of history’s many ironies that the prevaricating old Greek was more right than he realized. Between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula, frequently shrouded by fogs so dense that the first authentic explorers never guessed its presence, lies a true strait at almost the exact latitude where Juan de Fuca said a strait did lie. Meanwhile his legend, embellished mightily, persisted in various forms until finally it brought the first cool-eyed searchers to the Northwest. These men found no Strait of Anian. But they did discover furs whose value rivaled the vaunted mines of Mexico. It was this serendipity that watered down Spanish pretensions north of California and helped prepare the way for Lewis and Clark. And so perhaps the lovely passage that leads into the rich new empire of the Pacific Northwest deserves Juan de Fuca’s name, after all.
[ The dream of a Northwest Passage stirred men’s minds for another two centuries. In 1742 an expedition of the British Admiralty, sent to search the shores of Hudson Bay, returned a flat denial that any passage existed. Still the dream lingered on, but by the middle of the Eighteenth Century Americans were thinking less of a sea passage than of a river route across the continental land mass. One of those who responded to this later vision was Major Robert Rogers, the fabulous hero of the French and Indian Wars. ]
In 1765 Rogers wangled an appointment as commander of Michilimackinac on the strait between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Meantime he had tied up with Jonathan Carver, who in 1766 set out to explore to the westward and did reach as far as the vicinity of present St. Paul, Minnesota. Both men postulated a short portage from the headwaters of the Mississippi (and later from the Missouri) across a slight height of land to the upper tributaries of a great River of the West. This river Rogers first called Ouragan, then Ourigan. He probably got the name from Carver, who, however, spelled it Oregon when finally, in 1778, he got around to publishing his Travels through the Interior Parts of North America .
Where Carver picked up the name is unknown, though various ingenious suggestions have been offered. As for the great River of the West, he plucked it from sheer myth. Carver’s travels did not bring him within a thousand miles of the Columbia. The fact that the Columbia actually does lie in the approximate vicinity of his River Oregon is a coincidence comparable to that which led Juan de Fuca to locate a fanciful strait in the vicinity of a real one. And, just as Juan’s name stuck, so did Oregon, though not to the river. For this carry-through the Northwest can thank young William Cullen Bryant, who relished the sound of the word and so wrote into his precocious poem “Thanatopsis” the resonant phrase:
… in the continuous woods Where rolls the Oregon. …
The very fact that Rogers and Carver could dream up their schemes of pushing west with government help to the Pacific underlined what had become a poignant new worry to Spanish policy-makers. This was England’s emergence, after the 1763 Peace of Paris, as the dominant force in North America. By terms of the Peace, French Canada and Spanish Florida were handed outright to the spreading British Empire. As a sop for the loss of the Floridas, Spain was then repossessed of Cuba and, by the Treaty of San Ildefonso, given Louisiana. The gift, its extent largely unknown, was not entirely welcome, for it created in the Mississippi Valley a common boundary with England, a mortal enemy that at any time might cast covetous eyes toward the silver mines of Mexico. Or perhaps the expansion to the Pacific would come farther north, through Canada.
This last danger, however, was in 1770 still somewhat dimmed by distance. The immediate threat that finally aroused Madrid to take a closer look at the New World’s long-neglected Northwest Coast was a challenge from a most unmaritime and hitherto ignored quarter—Russia.
Within the space of a man’s lifetime, in a land 3ccupation as extraordinary as Spain’s in America, the Russians swept eastward from the Urals to the Pacific. The headlong push was initiated by a river pirate named Yermak. Driven from his favorite fields beside the lower Volga by soldiers of Ivan the Terrible, Yermak led nearly a thousand Cossacks north along the western slope of the Ural Mountains to salt mines being operated by the Stroganov family. Uneasy in the company of such uninvited guests, Grigori Stroganov got rid of them by telling them of rich fur grounds beyond the mountains.
In 1581, the year after Francis Drake brought his treasure-laden Golden Hind back to England, Yermak crossed the Urals and fell ferociously on the Tartars of Khan Kuchum. Utterly overwhelmed, Kuchum abandoned his capital, Isker, sometimes called Sibir.
Within fifty years the name of that little city—Sibir —had spread across the entire continent. In the van of this wild rush went the incredible promyshleniki , the more than half-wild, fanatically reckless Siberian counterpart of the American mountain men. Close behind came the fur merchant. With him, invariably, rode the gatherer of yassack , annual tribute in furs for the Tsar. Separately and in concert this threesome—hunter, merchant, and tribute gatherer—subjected the natives to a merciless grinding. If a tribe’s quota of furs was not met, hostages were killed, chiefs tortured, villages put to the torch by forerunners of a people who later cried shame over the Americans’ treatment of the Indians. Resistance brought decimation to entire groups. Humbly, therefore, the precious sable and marten and ermine furs were delivered; and as fast as the animals were exterminated in one district, the exploiters hurried on to the next.
Southward the insatiable promyshleniki ran into resistance from the Chinese in Outer Mongolia. One countermeasure used by the Orientals was the stopping of all shipments of tea, silk, and medicinal herbs into Russia. Quickly the tea-thirsty Russians pulled the promyshleniki back behind the border and negotiated a treaty that designated an official boundary point where Russian traders would be allowed to meet Chinese caravans from beyond the Gobi Desert. Since by Chinese law only silver or fur could be received in exchange for the caravans’ goods, fur became the principal base of Siberia’s silverless economy.
Meanwhile the eastern wilderness of Siberia, including the gigantic peninsula of Kamchatka, remained mysterious land. The primitive Chukchi of the northeast Asian coast, for example, did not seem to know that a continent reached its end in their territory; and so long as the promyshleniki found a profitable supply of sable, they did not care where they were, scientifically speaking. The Russian throne, however, had passed, toward the close of the Seventeenth Century, into the hands of a man who did care. He was Peter the Great, westernizer of his nation and almost the first Russian to have any interest in creating a workable navy.
One of Peter’s last acts, as he lay dying in agony from the effects of his mammoth debaucheries, was to call out of self-imposed retirement, late in 1724, one of his sulky foreign naval officers, a methodical, heavyset, 44-year-old Dane named Vitus Bering. Bering was ordered to go across the almost trackless continent to Kamchatka, build a vessel where neither shipways nor supplies existed, discover whether a land bridge linked Asia to America, and then explore the coast of the neighboring continent. If the Dane chanced to find the Northwest Passage along the way so much the better; for the dying Peter was tantalized by the possibility that his non-seafaring nation might accomplish what had eluded the great maritime countries of the world.
Nearly three and a half years of staggering labor and dreadful suffering passed before Bering at last launched his sixty-foot vessel, the St. Gabriel , from the eastern coast of Kamchatka, and bore northward, hugging the shore line. One month and a dozen degrees later, the hitherto north-trending coast swung sharply westward. Bering now guessed that he had passed the farthest reach of Siberia. But it was a guess only. To quiet his scientific conscience he sailed northward two more days, to 67° 18’. No land was visible. Afraid to continue lest unfavorable winds result in fatal delay, he jumped to the conclusion that America and Asia were not joined, then turned back. Though on the return journey he reportedly stayed well out to sea, he failed to see, in the dense mists, the new continent he was supposed to examine.∗
∗History has been kind to Vitus Bering. Bering Strait was probably discovered by a Cossack, Simon Dezhnev, who embarked from the Arctic coast in 1648, eighty years before Bering’s trip. Bering’s was the official venture, however, and so it is by his name that the strait is known. Also, immediately after Bering started home for St. Petersburg, an untrained army officer named Michael Gvosdev took the St. Gabriel within sight of Alaska. But again the trip was unofficial; again there was no proper credit.
On March 1, 1730, five years after his departure from the capital city, Bering returned to St. Petersburg. There the academicians pointed out from the comfort of their studies how inconclusive his findings were. Intensely annoyed, the Dane stubbornly demanded that a second expedition be dispatched to check on what he said.
Surprisingly enough, his record considered, Bering was given charge not only of this expedition, but of three more interlocking ones as well. Before he had time even to be bewildered, he learned that he was now supposed to study the natural resources of Siberia, chart the entire Arctic coast, explore from Kamchatka southward toward Japan and eastward toward the mythical continent of Gamaland. Finally, he was directed to look into the matter of America.
Five hundred and eighty laborers, mechanics, priests, soldiers, traders, scientists, and whatnot were assigned to him. Many, Bering included, took along their wives and children. Out in the wilderness more hundreds of reluctant natives had to be impressed for transporting food and clothing, books and instruments, necessities and trivia. Scores of barges had to be built at each waterway, thousands of pack horses readied at each portage. Local officials, appalled at the requisitions placed upon them, had to be won or forced into compliance. Bering’s own men bickered and dueled among themselves, built up resentments among the natives, bore tales to their commander, sought his favors, and then intrigued behind his back.
Not until 1740, seven years after leaving St. Petersburg, was the Dane able to cross the Sea of Okhotsk to the new port of Petropavlovsk on the eastern coast of Kamchatka Peninsula, jumping-off point for America. Along the way one of his supply barges ran aground, losing its cargo. As a result Bering in the St. Peter and his lieutenant, Alexei Chirikov, in a companion vessel, the St. Paul , left Avacha Bay with only five months’ supply of food aboard instead of the two-year quota on which they had counted.
Aboard Chirikov’s vessel was Louis Delisle, one of two map-making brothers in the Russian Academy of Sciences. The maps prepared by this pair showed (as did other maps of the period) a continent known as Gamaland. Whether Gamaland was a separate land mass or an extension of America was hotly debated. One of Bering’s assignments was to find out.
Southeast the two vessels sailed, to latitude 46°, or approximately level with the mouth of the Columbia River. About the time that even Delisle was being forced to admit that Gamaland did not exist, a storm separated the St. Peter and the St. Paul . For a few days, while short supplies and shorter water dwindled still lower, the two captains beat back and forth looking for each other. Then, taking responsibility into his own hands, Alexei Chirikov dismissed Gamaland as impossible and sailed northeast.
On July 15, near present Sitka, he sighted land. Two days later a watering party was sent ashore. The men vanished. Another party rowing out to investigate likewise disappeared. Probably these first white men to set foot on the soil of northwestern America were slain by Indians, although Russian fable later told of red-headed, light-complexioned descendants of the lost sailors being found along the coast.
Possessing no more small boats in which to hunt for the men, Chirikov sailed on. Storms and fogs enmeshed the St. Paul ; supplies gave out. When at last Kamchatka was sighted, Chirikov had to fire a distress signal to summon enough able-bodied rescuers from land to bring the ship in. Louis Delisle, whose dream of Gamaland was partly responsible for the debacle, expired as he was being carried ashore.
Meanwhile Bering, too, was trapped in the uncharted seas. After their separation he, like Chirikov, had borne northeast. On July 16, a day later than Chirikov’s landfall, he detected through a rift in the clouds an unbelievable snow peak towering above a wonderland of islands, inlets, forests, and gleaming icebergs. To this monstrous mountain he gave the name it still bears, St. Elias. But he could not share the elation of the scientists aboard his vessel—scientists he had labored so strenuously to bring so far. Vitus Bering was sixty years old now, thick-bodied, flabbyfleshed. The Siberian crossing had exhausted him. He was suffering, moreover, from the lassitude and the terrible sense of depression that accompany the initial stages of scurvy. Glumly he hove to and watched his naturalist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, leave for shore with a watering party.
Suddenly, while half the water casks remained unfilled and Steller was grubbing joyously through an abandoned Aleut fireplace, Bering gave orders that the ship weigh anchor. Dumfounded, Steller asked whether ten agonizing years of preparation were going to dwindle off into less than ten hours of exploration. Bering ignored him. Unspeakably disgusted, the naturalist gathered up such artifacts as he had had time to collect and returned aboard.
Fog closed in as the ship crept westward behind the uncharted swell of the Aleutian chain. The sea seemed haunted. Strange bird and animal voices wailed through the gray wrack. Then rain turned to sleet; rotten rigging began to snap. The dread specter of scurvy stalked unchecked; nearly every day someone perished in his fouled hammock, until a dozen men had died.
Finally, early in November, bitter weather cleared the skies and the cry of land went up. “It would be impossible,” Steller wrote later, “to describe the joy created by the sight of land; the dying crawled upon the deck to see with their own eyes what they would not believe; even the feeble commander was carried out of his cabin. To the astonishment of all a small keg of brandy was taken from some hiding place and dealt out in celebration of the supposed approach to the coast of Kamchatka.”
But it was not Kamchatka. As the desperate knowledge began to dawn, a gale struck. Long combers rolling before the Arctic wind parted one of the ship’s anchor cables, then another. A foaming breaker picked up the vessel and hurled it, with a dismal crunching of the hull, into a quiet cove. Here, willy-nilly, the crew would spend the winter.
While preparations were being made for a landing, Steller led out a scouting party. Blue foxes swarmed everywhere. Off shore in the kelp beds grazed huge sea cows 25 feet long and up to three tons in weight. But not a tree was to be seen. Adding to the desolation was inescapable proof that they had been marooned on an absolutely unknown stretch of sand and rock, since called Bering Island.
Returning to the cove, Steller started the men digging pits in the sand. These were lined and covered with driftwood and sailcloth, chinked with moss, mud, and fox skins. As fast as the shelters were completed, the sick were carried to them. Nine of the men were so far gone that they did not survive the transfer.
The blue foxes were a maddening nuisance. They had to be driven from the corpses. They bit the invalids, scattered provisions, carried off hats and boots. They were so unawed that during the first day of work on the huts Steller and another man killed sixty with their axes. Carcasses and skins were useful, however, for food and clothing, though later on better furs were obtained from sea otters and seals, better provender from the sea cows and from a dead whale cast up on the beach.
Before the huts were completed, a hurricane broke. For three weeks it roared so furiously that men could venture forth only on hands and knees. The St. Peter was driven ashore and demolished. Fine sand sifted endlessly into the huts. Steller tried to keep it brushed away from Bering, but the commander whispered to let it be; it kept him warm. On December 8, 1741, he died.
Twelve of the original 76 crewmen had perished before the landing, nine during it. Ten more, including Bering, succumbed by the first of the year. Mysteriously then the others improved; by spring everyone was up and about. The problem now was to escape. The St. Peter was wrecked beyond repair; the crew’s carpenters were dead. But a Cossack was found who had once labored in a shipyard, and under his uncertain supervision work began on a new vessel. There were few tools, no wood but wreckage, no rigging but rotting hemp. None the less, by mid-August the survivors had floated a clumsy craft forty feet long, thirteen of beam, six deep. Its upper part was caulked with tallow from the sea cow, its under with tar salvaged from the hull of the St. Peter . It wallowed. It leaked. But it held together long enough to reach Avacha Bay on Kamchatka.
Although the miraculous return occasioned rejoicing in Petropavlovsk, the Russian court remained indifferent. The enthusiasm that had launched the expedition had died with the ascension of a new empress. Worse, very few of the scientists who had made the different voyages remained alive to press for publication in the face of current inertia and antiforeign bias. (Steller, for one, died while crossing Siberia.) Such news of their findings as did leak out was largely unofficial and against the wishes of the government.
In eastern Siberia, however, there was one item of information that could not be suppressed. This was the knowledge that the survivors had brought back with them 900 sea-otter skins.
Bobri morskie , sea beaver, the Russians called the five-foot-long, web-toed animal. The fur is a dark, dark brown, almost ebony in the water, but with enough underlying silver to impart an unmatchable sheen when it is stroked. The underfur, so dense it sheds water, is silky soft. For such a pelt the Chinese merchants at the edge of the Gobi Desert were willing to pay up to 100 gold rubles.
The news spread like wildfire. The promyshleniki stampeded for Bering Island as once Yermak’s men had stampeded after sable. Their first craft, modeled after the barges employed on the rivers, were the “woven” boats, the shitika , mere flat-bottomed log frames covered with green planks held together by deerhide thongs and willow withes, caulked with moss and tallow. The men who risked their lives to these unseaworthy vessels could scarcely reef a sail or plot a course. It is said that of every three crews that embarked during the early days of the rush, only two came back.
Results, however, were sometimes fabulous. The first man out after the return of Bering’s crew, a Cossack sergeant named Basov, sailed into Petropavlovsk with a cargo worth 112,000 rubles—in today’s currency not much less than a million dollars. This was just the beginning. A decade later a single ship reputedly grossed nearly $2,500,000.
The exploitation which resulted was as brutal as any the world has known. First the bobbing ships put in at Bering Island, where the gentle sea cows were slaughtered and cured as a supply of meat, with such ruthless efficiency that soon the animals were extinct. Next the hunters steered for the Aleutians. As fast as one island was stripped, the men moved on to the next. As they ventured farther and farther east, ships of necessity grew larger and piloting better. No surveys were made, however, and few records kept. The promyshleniki and their savage commanders were interested only in furs—and in women.
At first the Russians did their own hunting. Soon, however, they learned that the amiable Aleut natives would do it for them, in sea-tight little skin bidarkas , in return for the cheapest trinkets. When at last the Aleuts grew less ingenuous and more demanding, the promyshleniki invoked refined methods of persuasion originally developed among the natives of Siberia. Hostages, principally young women, were seized and held on shipboard as an incentive to production. Obediently then the husbands went forth to hunt. The safe way was for them to use Russian-supplied traps for foxes, nets across tidal channels for otter. Another way, but slow, was for a ring of bidarkas to surround an otter and keep it diving until its supply of oxygen ran out and it could stay beneath the surface no longer. But the most productive way was to wait until one of the inevitable hurricanes drove the otter herds onto the reefs for shelter. The Aleuts then followed through the tumult of white water, clubbing the animals if possible fom the pitching bidarkas , or, more often, disembarking and running up on them undetected in the crashing surf. Casualties were high, but that did not bother the Russians, snugly ensconced with the waiting women.
Outrage followed outrage. Massacre Bay on Attu received its name when Russian hunters killed all fifteen males of a small settlement in order to make off with the women. On another occasion, after some female hostages had committed suicide rather than endure further oppression, the commander tied up the rest of the group and threw them overboard to drown rather than leave witnesses alive to talk. Eventually, on the island of Unalaska in 1764, the Aleuts struck back, killing in a series of winter-long skirmishes most of the hunters from five different ships. It was a useless spasm. In retribution trader Ivan Solovief wiped out settlement after settlement, even those offering no resistance. Once, so it is said, Solovief bound a dozen Aleuts in a row and fired into them merely to see how many persons a single musket ball could kill. Eight men sagged dead; the bullet stopped in the body of the ninth.
Gradually echoes of the wanton cruelties reached St. Petersburg, and a few perfunctory gestures were made toward reform. More important to America’s Northwest Coast, however, was the decision of Catherine II to resume the exploratory work started by Peter the Great.
Immediately Spanish secret agents in St. Petersburg forwarded garbled word of the projected expeditions to Madrid. By letter of January 23, 1768, the visitador general of New Spain, José Gâlvez, was ordered “to observe such attempts as the Russians may make there, frustrating them if possible.” This suited Gâlvez. Well-educated, unscrupulous, vindictive, and insatiably ambitious, he had already determined to foster his personal glory by colonizing California. Now he had official sanction. Promptly he sent out several expeditions by land and by sea. None of these got very far northward, but they prepared the way for more sweeping efforts under the direction of Gâlvez’s successor, Antonio Bucareli. When fresh alarms about Russia reached Mexico in 1773, Bucareli directed the founding of San Francisco as a defensive outpost for New Spain’s northern flank. He also ordered a naval survey of the Northwest by Juan Perez, onetime commander of the Manila galleon and veteran of earlier California experiments.
Ferez was supposed to sail as far north as 60°, landing here and there along the way to take possession of the best places for settlement. Actually he made no landings, missed both the Columbia River and Juan de Fuca Strait, and at 55° turned back because of scurvy and bad weather. On his way south he anchored by chance on the west coast of what is now called Vancouver Island in a lovely, mountain-girt sound that he named San Lorenzo. When he did not offer to come ashore, several canoes loaded with curious natives paddled out to greet him. Some of these Indians soon grew bold enough to board his vessel, and one of them stole from the ship’s pilot, a man named Estévan José Martinez, two silver spoons. Neither Martínez nor Ferez could foresee, of course, that in sixteen years those spoons would become a matter of international concern or that another name for their remote little anchorage—Nootka—would reverberate angrily through the courts of Europe.
[ The Spaniards explored the coast again in 1775 and again barely missed discovering the Columbia. Bruno Heceta, the Spanish commander, suspected a great river mouth from the churning currents of discolored water, but dared not stop to explore. His sailors were so sick from scurvy that their officers feared they would not be able to lift the anchor, once they let it go. The Spaniards did, however, plant the flag of Spain at points on the Olympic Peninsula and near the southern tip of what is now Alaska. Spanish sovereignty, they thought, was at last solidly rooted. ]
Unknown to the Spaniards, the Russians were already nearby, out in the Aleutians, and in London the English were making plans to search once again for the Northwest Passage, this time from both coasts of America. Thus in 1775, the year of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, three European powers were extending (or were about to extend) their American claims to include the far-off shores of the Pacific Northwest.
It seems strange that the dream of a trans-Canadian waterway should be so persistent. In 1771 Samuel Hearne had gone with a group of murderous and sometimes uncontrollable Indians from Hudson Bay westward across the tundra to the Coppermine River. This river he had followed to the Arctic Ocean. By June go, 1772, he was back at Fort Prince of Wales with the knowledge, as he wrote, that the trip “has put a final end to all disputes concerning a North West Passage through Hudson’s Bay.”
Dispute still lingered, none the less. Even granting Hearne’s deductions as true, so argued England’s die-hard geographers, there might well exist a passage from the Pacific into the Arctic Sea (Bering Strait is, of course, such a passage) and the Arctic might well be free enough of ice to allow at least summertime sailing to the Orient. Finally, in 1776, the Admiralty determined to settle the matter. Once again a ship was sent across the Atlantic into Baffin Bay to explore possible northeastern approaches. Then, as capstone to the effort, Captain James Cook was delegated to examine the American Northwest with his famous ship Resolution and an attendant sloop, Discovery .
That name—Cook—shows how seriously the admiralty took the venture. England had no finer navigator. Cook’s painstaking work in charting the St. Lawrence River (he was with Wolfe at the capture of Quebec) and his surveys of the Newfoundland coast had led to his being sent on his first great voyage, a trip into the South Pacific to observe the transit of Venus. While there, he had developed, though he was no physician, revolutionary plans for controlling the dread killer of the seas, scurvy. On his second voyage he finished the charting of the southern oceans. He also proved his dietary and sanitation theories, defeating scurvy in spite of objections by his sailors against staying alive at the cost of eating sauerkraut, drinking broth, and airing their bedding.
For his trip to the Northwest Cook was given detailed instructions. After completing various incidental errands he was to strike the coast of Drake’s New Albion and sail northward along it, wasting no time “exploring rivers or inlets, or upon any other account,” until he reached latitude 65°. From that point on, however, he was “very carefully to search for, and to explore such rivers or inlets as may appear to be of a considerable extent, and pointing towards Hudson’s Bay or Baffin’s Bay.”
Shortly before sailing Cook signed on as corporal of his marines a Connecticut-born Yankee who was in some ways as remarkable as his commander. This was fortune’s favorite fool, John Ledyard. Fatherless at ten, John had been raised first by a grandfather, then by an uncle, who sent him off to newly opened Dartmouth College. Chafing under discipline, he persuaded several friends to help him chop down a tree and hollow it into a clumsy fifty-foot dugout. Alone in this oversized creation, he fled Dartmouth by sailing down the Connecticut River to a job as a common sailor with a shipload of mules bound for Africa. Seafaring brought him to London, aged 24. There he enlisted with Cook.
The Resolution and Discovery sailed eight days days after the Declaration of Independence but well before news of the event reached England. The voyage to western America was uneventful enough, even counting an idyllic interlude in Polynesia and the rediscovery of the Hawaiian Islands, which Cook named for the Earl of Sandwich. On March 7, 1778, the ships raised the coast of New Albion. Contrary winds kept the mariners from seeing very much of the land, which in any event Cook had been instructed to waste no time exploring. Thus he missed both the mouth of Bruno Heceta’s river and, later, Juan de Fuca Strait.
On March 29, beating landward after still another storm, he found his vessels confronted by snow-covered peaks. Heavily wooded, these dropped abruptly to a rocky, serrated shore. Dead ahead, but separated by several miles of rugged littoral, were two deep inlets. As Cook later found, these sea arms, embracing triangularly, formed a small island tucked snugly into what he thought was the mainland. Actually it was the coast of Vancouver Island, though the geography would not be straightened out for several years. The southern inlet, toward which Cook now steered and which Juan Ferez four years earlier had designated as San Lorenzo, the English mariner called King George’s Sound. Later, because of some mistaken notion rising from the gabble of the natives, he changed the name of both the small island and the sound to Nootka, though actually there was no such word in the language of the local Indians.
As the storm-buffeted ships drew in toward the sound, three canoes approached, the occupants flinging out feathers, red dust, and occasionally bursts of oratory by way of welcome. More canoes followed, until there were 32, loaded with both men and women. They were singular craft, light of weight and instantly maneuverable, though some were as much as forty feet long and seven wide, each manufactured with infinite labor, fire, and steam, from the trunk of a single huge cedar tree.
The rowers were equally singular. A few of the men shouted stark naked up at the staring sailors; the women, more decorous, wore garments woven from the inner strands of cedar bark. Such men as were dressed sported a blanket of mixed bark and dog’s hair, the whole skillfully decorated, Corporal Ledyard noted, with paintings of whale hunts or other aquatic scenes. Over these blankets some of the men negligently draped robes of ill-treated fox or seaotter skin. Many of their blankets were also edged with fur. They showed neither surprise nor awe at the sight of the great winged ships, though later they told Cook (or so he interpreted their gestures) that they never before had encountered European vessels. (Yet what of Ferez?) Indeed, the only thing that ruffled the Indians’ aplomb during the white men’s stay was the firing of a musket through six folds of the heavy leather garments they used as protective armor in warfare.
Knowing they were bound for the Arctic, the English sailors traded trinkets for “the skins of various animals, such as bears, wolves, foxes, deer, racoons, pole-cats, and martins, and, in particular, that of the sea-otter,” planning after they had used the articles to sell them at the first civilized port the ships reached.
Although Cook believed that the Nootkas had never before encountered Europeans, they were none the less familiar with certain articles of European origin. They had chisel-ended bits of strap iron that they inserted into wooden handles and pounded with stone mallets. They possessed copper for ornament—they were wild to obtain the brass button rings off the sailors’ clothes for nose bobs—and one native was found wearing two silver teaspoons on a cord around his neck. The spoons, Cook decided, were of Spanish origin—and he caused future trouble for England by noting the fact in his journal. The other metal, he concluded, must have followed aboriginal trade routes across Canada from Hudson Bay, a notion he clung to even up in Alaska amidst signs of Russian penetration. Actually, assuming that the iron had indeed crossed the continent, a starting place with voyageurs working for the North West Company out of Montreal might have been a better guess than the traders of Hudson Bay. Whatever its source, the metal planted in Corporal John Ledyard’s mind seeds for future speculation. If a white man’s goods could cross America, why couldn’t a white man?
[ Leaving Nootka, Cook pushed north along the coast, through the Aleutians and into Bering Strait, where he was stopped by ice. With winter coming on, he turned back and made for the Sandwich Islands. It was there, in February, I1JJc1, that he met his death in a skirmish with natives. Command devolved on Captain Clerke, who took the fleet north again the next summer, doggedly following Cook’s orders until he too died, of consumption, off the icy coast of Kamchatka. The fleet then repaired to the Macao Roads below Canton. ]
In search of supplies, Lieutenant King of the Discovery went upriver to Canton, taking with him twenty sea-otter skins. The effect on the Chinese was electric. To King’s amazement he was paid $800 for twenty low-quality pelts and besieged with requests for more.
His sailors, he said, might have a few. Promptly, through the English merchants in Canton, arrangements were made for an auction on shipboard in Macao. The few prime skins available brought $120 each.
In the official journal he had been keeping since Cook’s death, King wrote: “When … it is remembered, that the furs were at first collected without our having any idea of their real value; that the greatest part had been worn by the Indians, from whom we purchased them; that they were afterwards preserved with little care, and frequently used for bed-clothes, and other purposes, during our cruise to the north; and that, probably, we had never got the full value for them in China; the advantages that might be derived from a voyage to that part of the American coast, undertaken with commercial views, appear to me of a degree of importance sufficient to call for the attention of the public.”
Meanwhile Corporal John Ledyard was developing his own variations on the same theme. Nothing could be done at the time, of course. Ledyard was almost penniless, and his enlistment had three more years to run. Furthermore, the explorers now knew that war was raging between England and her American colonies, supported by France. Though each belligerent had issued orders that Cook’s ships were not to be molested, the officers prudently added more armament before beating on around the Cape of Good Hope to England.
In England Ledyard managed to sit out all but the tag-end of the war. When at last he was sent against the land of his nativity, his transport anchored off Long Island. Promptly Ledyard deserted, made his way to a boardinghouse run by his mother, and then fled to Connecticut. There, buried in his uncle’s law office during the greening April days of 1783, he scribbled off at white heat his own story of Cook’s third voyage.
Exactly five years had passed since his first sight of Nootka Sound. In those five years Yorktown had ripped the British Empire apart; and although the formal terms of peace remained to be announced, there was no doubt that a new nation had risen in the New World.
How big was that nation? To Ledyard’s warweary Connecticut neighbors, the Appalachian Mountains, or at most the Mississippi, were far enough. The Pacific, if they thought of it at all, was a Spanish ocean, too remote for meaning. Ledyard, however, alone of all his countrymen, had stood on that distant shore. Southward, as he knew, Drake had taken possession for England. North and south, as perhaps he did not know, Heceta had erected crosses and had buried bottles for Spain. Northward, too, a Russian fur trader named Grigori Shelekhov was already talking to his empress about Russian colonies, Russian sovereignty. But these men were outsiders. Only Ledyard had returned home to “the shores of that continent which gave me birth.”
Always he was a romantic and highly emotional man. As his pen paused over the paper and his mind cast back to that exotic day when the welcoming savages had flung out their handfuls of feathers and red dirt, his remembered feelings became inextricably mixed with his feelings here on the eastern seaboard, so that with complete conviction he could write of that distant day: ”… though [I was] more than 2,000 miles from the nearest part of New-England, I felt myself painfully affected.∗ All the affectionate passions incident to natural attachments and early prejudices played round my heart and I indulged them because they were prejudices. I was harmonized by it.”
∗Actually, as Ledyard should have known from Cook’s calculations, he was more than 3,000 miles away.
Harmonized in Nootka—for the first time continental unity as an emotional as well as a geographic fact had entered an American’s thinking. The Pacific was not something apart. Its shore, too, was America.
On those shores, moreover, a new source of wealth awaited the man bold enough to seize it. For the unabashed sake of patriotism and profit, John Ledyard hoped to be that man.
He spent the rest of his life trying—and failing. He almost talked Robert Morris of Philadelphia into promoting an expedition, but the postwar depression had left American merchants chary of untried ventures. Unable to secure additional financing, Morris switched his interest to the tea trade with China. Disgusted, Ledyard went to Europe. For a time John Paul Jones flirted with the idea, but that hope too collapsed. Thomas Jefferson, the United States representative in France, now helped the onetime corporal further a wild scheme whereby Ledyard proposed to cross Siberia to Kamchatka, catch a ship from there to the Northwest Coast, and then hoof across America, even as he supposed trade goods crossed the continent from tribe to tribe. It was a fantastic idea, fantastically begun. After a series of exhausting ordeals, including a i,5oo-mile hike in the dead of winter around the Baltic Sea, Ledyard reached east-central Siberia, only to have the suspicious Russians drag him back. Brokenhearted then, he turned to African exploration. In Cairo, aged 37, he died.
He should have come home. As he lay mortally ill in Egypt, two Boston ships, whose captains had each read his journal, were wallowing through stormy seas off Cape Horn. Their destination—Nootka Sound.
In 1785 there arrived in New York with a profitable cargo of tea and silk the Empress of China , a ship that might have been Ledyard’s had not the caution of Robert Morris and her other backers shifted her from Nootka to Canton. One year later the Grand Turk of Salem returned to New England with an equally exotic and even more remunerative lading. To traders struggling out of the doldrums left by the Revolution the effect of these arrivals was galvanic. The only limit to the new commerce, apparently, was what the Orientals would accept in exchange. Silver was one medium; ginseng was another (aging mandarins had a notion that a powder from ginseng’s bifurcate root would restore virility), but American supplies of both commodities were small. A more likely possibility, as revealed in the recently published journals of James Cook and John Ledyard, was sea-otter fur.
Promptly the alert imagination of merchant Joseph Barrell added up the various elements into what soon became the famous three-cornered trade of the Yankees: Massachusetts gimcracks to the Northwest; northwestern furs to Canton; and Chinese goods on around the world to Boston. Barrell interested five other merchants. Together they subscribed fourteen shares of stock, each share worth $3,500. With the proceeds they outfitted two ships. One was the fourteen-year-old Columbia Redeviva , 83 feet long, 212 tons burthen, mounting ten guns and manned by thirty men. The other was a go-ton sloop named the Lady Washington . Almost immediately the sailors contracted the names to Columbia and Washington .
No precedent other than Cook’s brief account existed to tell the owners what sort of goods would most appeal to the Nootka Indians. As a result the ships were filled with quantities of such unlikely objects as snuffboxes, rattraps, and jew’s-harps, together with items favored by East Coast savagespocket mirrors, iron tools, and cooking utensils.
To command the expedition the owners selected John Kendrick. He should have been a good choice, for he had been on the sea for a quarter of a century and had commanded, during the Revolution, three different privateers. He was a huge man, tempestuous, brave, persuasive. But he was 47 years old, almost ancient for those times and that trade; and age may help explain the strange indolence, even lethargy, that so often sapped his effectiveness. But age alone can hardly explain the dishonesty which later closed his career.
As Kendrick’s subordinate, in charge of the sloop Washington , the proprietors placed an obscure captain named Robert Gray. Like Kendrick, Gray was rough, hot-tempered, and brave to the point of foolhardiness. There resemblances end. Fifteen years younger than his superior, Gray possessed a restless, driving energy and, so far as his employers’ interests were concerned, a scrupulous honesty.
Not until the first day of October, 1787, were the two ships able to cast off on the initial step of their journey, a month-long crossing to the Cape Verde Islands. There they paused to fill their water casks and take on fresh food in the form of live cattle, hogs, and a milk goat named Nancy. It should not have been a lengthy job, but Kendrick’s dilatoriness made it so. Sourly Gray wrote to Barrell, “We lay forty one days, which was thirty six more than I thought was necessary.”
Because of the delays, the two ships approached Cape Horn at the worst season of the year. On April 1, 1788, huge seas and a blinding snowstorm separated them. As Gray dryly put it in his report to Barrell, “I had the good luck to part Company s… and I made the Coast six weeks sooner by being alone.”
Finally, on August 14, Gray sighted what was probably Tillamook Bay on the Oregon coast and consented to stop. As the anchor plunged down, curious natives swarmed out to the ship. Many of them were loaded with berries and ready-boiled crabs, manna to the scurvy-stricken crew. Though a brisk trade in skins sprang up, Gray’s main concern was taking on wood and water for the men, grass and “shrubs” for the livestock. In pursuit of the latter occupation, First Mate David Coolidge and Second Mate Robert Haswell landed a boatload of men and then wandered up to the village to see what they could see. It wasn’t much —just a haphazard jumble of small wooden huts, “intolerably filthy.”
A dance began, which young Haswell described in his log as “long and hideous accompanyed with frightfull howlings. It Chilled the bludd in my veins.” Uneasy now, the mates walked back along the beach to where the men were cutting grass.
Suddenly one of the workers, a Cape Verde Island Negro named Marcus Lopius (as Haswell spelled Lopez), let out a yell and began to chase an Indian who was making off with a cutlass. Coolidge, Haswell, and a sailor pursued the runners on foot while the remaining men piled into the boat and followed along the shore. Nearing the village, the horrified whites saw several Indians “drench there knives and spears with savage feury in the body of the unfortunate youth. He … stagered toward us but having a flight of arrows thrown into his back,” he collapsed.
At this Haswell and his companions began wading out to the boat. Until now the mates, who alone carried weapons, had held their fire because of Gray’s strict orders to avoid bloodshed. But when the shrieking savages splashed into the water after them, hurling spears and arrows, they figured enough was enough. Each shot, killing a man. This slowed the others sufficiently for the whites to climb into the boat, though not unscathed. The unarmed sailor with them was critically wounded and each mate was nicked. As they pulled for the ship, the Indians launched their own canoes, but two or three shots from the swivel guns on the Washington soon routed the pursuit. An abortive attack later that night was easily dispersed, and the next morning the Washington warped out of the harbor.
In the fog Gray missed the mouth of the vast river which Bruno Heceta had sensed thirteen years before. Though the Americans saw the Strait of Juan de Fuca (named four months earlier by an English trader, John Meares), they sailed on by, coasting Vancouver Island. Nearing the latitude of Nootka, they turned toward the rocky shores, hunting landmarks which would identify the sound. A rolling swell almost threw the Washington onto a reef. As the frightened men groped away from it, they were surrounded by huge native canoes, some of whose occupants cried up words of English. Yielding to gestures of friendship, Gray let the canoes help tow the Washington into a nearby harbor —it was Clayoquot Sound—and there they found Chief Wicananish, “dressed in a genteel sute of Cloths.”
The Yankees were late on the scene. During the past four years a growing number of ships, principally English, had been beating back and forth off the coast. The parade had started with James Hanna, who had sailed from China in 1785 with a diminutive sixty-ton brig and after killing a few Indians had netted $20,600 worth of pelts during a six-week stay. Other English ships pausing at Clayoquot shortly before Gray’s appearance had drained off the best skins. Acceptable ones could still have been purchased, however, if the Americans had possessed suitable goods. But the Indian taste, unpredictable at best, had been rendered completely capricious by the dazzling trinkets offered by these strange, pale sea peddlers for what seemed to the savages a very ordinary sort of commodity indeed, mere furs. Disdainfully they rejected Gray’s ill-chosen gewgaws. With more than a little foreboding the empty-handed Captain left Clayoquot to search for Nootka, his appointed rendezvous with the Columbia .
On September 15 he descried a long boat under sail putting out of an inlet. Its crew boarded the American ship and the next day helped tow the Washington into Nootka Sound and around the southwestern tip of Nootka Island. There, in a semicircular harbor called Friendly Cove, Gray anchored beside a pair of twomasted, square-rigged brigs flying what Haswell called “Portogees Coulers.” The flags were a blind, however. As Gray soon learned, actual command resided in a former officer of the British Navy named John Meares, as engaging a scoundrel as ever sailed the Northwest Coast.
[ John Meares was another sailor of fortune drawn to the bleak waters of the North Pacific by tales of the rich sea-otter trade. For two pistols he had bought from the Indian chief, Maquinna, a plot of ground on the shore of Nootka Sound and built a log house. When Gray arrived Meares had two ships, the Felice under his own command, and the Iphigenia under William Douglas—both registered under Portuguese colors to secure preferential port charges. A third vessel was under construction at Nootka. ]
Gray was in a quandary. By now Kendrick should have overtaken him—unless the Columbia had foundered. Meanwhile Meares was warning him not to tarry in Nootka. The Englishman swore that there was no trade (actually 750 skins were stored in Felice ’s hold), that the natives were hostile, the winters unendurable.
As he wandered about, postponing decision, Gray found plenty to absorb his attention: formal dinners exchanged with the English, the strange Indian village, and above all the trim sloop on the stocks. On September 20, four days after the Yankee’s arrival, the new vessel was ready for launching. At the appropriate moment she was christened North West America and, as the guns of the larger brigs roared in salute, she shot from the ways—almost from the harbor, for Meares in his exuberance had forgotten to provide either anchor or cable. The ship was soon retrieved, however, and the English settled down to a day of festivity. The Americans went back to loading wood and water.
A day or two later Meares left for China with the season’s furs. Busily Douglas in the Iphigenia and Robert Funter in the North West America cleared up the last loose ends preparatory to wintering in the Sandwich Islands. Quite possibly Gray would have followed them, had not the Columbia suddenly appeared, her topsails reefed and her topgallant masts down on the deck. Alarmed by these indications of trouble, Gray boarded the ship to hear Kendrick’s tale of woe.
Ever since the two vessels had separated off the Horn, the Columbia had been in jeopardy. Desperate, Kendrick had at last put in at the island of Juan Fernândez. There the Spanish commandant, Bias Gonzales, had succored him with food and water—a kindness, it later developed, for which Gonzales was sacked as soon as his superiors learned of it. But the help had not sufficed. As the Columbia toiled on northward, scurvy had killed two of the crew and, as Gray could see, had crippled most of the rest.
Once the English were gone, the natives flocked about to trade fish, whale oil, and venison. With their pelts they were more chary; only when the Americans refashioned some of their iron tools into “chisels”- bits of iron about eight inches long and one inch wide, with one end drawn down to a cutting edge—were the whites able to obtain many skins. None the less Kendrick determined to winter in the sound.
He escaped the freezing Meares had predicted. Very little snow fell, but rains were incessant and brought their own penetrating chill. To this the Indians seemed inured. They paddled unconcernedly about in anklelength, broad-belted mantles of cedar bark, their heads covered with conical bark hats decorated by tufts of feathers or tassels of hide. And of course there were always the magnificent cloaks of otter, handled with an infuriating negligence. One vexing native custom, for example, was to toss a cloak over a pot in which food was being boiled. The steam and heat brought swarms of vermin out of the seams for the owners to catch and eat.
Pettifogging details of daily living, broken by the brief excitement of a fire on the Columbia and thefts by the Indians, were enough to satisfy Kendrick. Gray, however, champed with impatience. In the spring he started out on his own.
As he cleared the headland, he encountered a Spanish warship, the s6-gun Princessa , commanded by Don Estévan José Martínez. Politely Martinez summoned the American captain aboard, spun a tale which Gray recognized as not completely candid, and asked searching questions about the other ships in the sound. It was all very mysterious—even ominous—and became more so when Gray learned that the i6-gun San Carlos under Gonzalo López de Haro was somewhere behind Martínez. Well, if it added up to trouble, let Kendrick worry. Gray had been sent here to trade, and trade he would. Accepting gifts of brandy, wine, and ham from the Spaniard, he sailed on northward.
Eventually he reached the maze of islands off southeastern Alaska. There his recklessness in pressing too close to shore nearly brought disaster. A sudden gust hurled the little Washington onto the rocks. Jib boom and bowsprit were carried away. “The next surf,” wrote Robert Haswell in his log, “took us far up into a nook in the rocks where we ware surrounded with huge craggy clifts nearly as high as our mast heads.” Some of the seamen jumped wildly for the slippery ledges. Finding footholds, they made fast ropes so that the heaving ship could not warp about, then hoisted out the boat and dragged her free. She was still tight, but so battered that Gray decided to return to Nootka for repairs. Along the way he had his first stroke of trading luck—200 prime pelts for one chisel each.
When he reached Nootka on June 17, Kendrick was still there. So were Martínez and Haro and with them a strange English ship, the Princess Royal , commanded by Captain Thomas Hudson. John Meares was in China but his two smaller ships, the Iphigenia and the North West America were trading along the coast. From the slopes of Hog Island a Spanish fort and three smaller buildings scowled out over Friendly Cove. Although the surface of things seemed cordial, Gray soon learned that there had been considerable trouble and, most likely, there would be more.
Today it is possible to unravel the sequence of those distant events. But it is not always possible to reconstruct motives. The actors were passionate, autocratic men, far from home. None of their orders had been designed to meet the situations that developed. They improvised as they went; and as a result their deeds seem more frequently the result of caprice than of plan. Surely they would not have behaved as they did if they could have foreseen the international complications which their whimsies would later produce in the startled courts of London and Madrid.
Key man in the situation was Estévan José Martínez —the same Martínez who had anchored in Nootka Sound with Juan Ferez fifteen years before and from whom two silver spoons had been stolen. As had been the case with that earlier voyage, suspicion of the Russians lays behind Martínez’s present sailing. Three years before, in 1786, a French admiral, returning from an examination of the North Pacific, had put into Monterey, California, with reports of Russian expansion toward the American mainland. This word was relayed to Mexico City, and in 1788 Viceroy Flórez dispatched Martínez and L’f6pez de Haro to investigate. What the two Spaniards heard from the Russians on Kodiak and Unalaska islands sent them hurrying home in high excitement. The Empress Catherine, it was said, planned to send four frigates south to occupy Nootka.
Actually this was garbled rumor of an entirely different expedition recently authorized by the Russian empress, but Fl’f4rez had no way of knowing that. Not daring to wait until he could receive instructions from Madrid, the Viceroy ordered Martínez and Haro to take over Nootka ahead of the Russians. Nor was this to be a mere token occupation. Martínez carried with him, as Spanish colonial expeditions always did, priests for converting the Indians, as well as the artisans and soldiers necessary for establishing a garrison. A supply ship was to follow shortly; and as soon as possible (indicative of Spain’s ignorance of the coast she claimed) a land force would march along behind! If foreign ships did put in at Nootka, Martínez was to show them, politely but firmly, the superior claims of Spain to the district. He was also “to prevent as far as possible their intercourse and commerce with the natives.”
So much for the immediate threat. There was a more distant one. With a flash of prescience it was recognized by Flórez, who had recently removed the commander of Juan Fernández Island for aiding Kendrick in the Columbia . Writing his home government on December 23, 1788, the Viceroy said, “We ought not to be surprised that the English colonies of America, being now an independent republic, should carry out the design of finding a safe port on the Pacific and of attempting to sustain it by crossing the immense country of the continent. … It is indeed an enterprise for many years, but I firmly believe that from now on we ought to employ tactics to forestall its results.” Lewis and Clark, Astoria, the Oregon Trail—all are immanent in those words. And that, too, is another reason why Spanish armor was sent to Nootka, where Americans already had arrived in the persons of Robert Gray and John Kendrick.
Though Flórez might be suspicious of the Americans, Martínez was not—at least not when it came to making common cause against the English. From his meeting with Gray outside the sound, the Spanish commander had learned that one sizable English vessel was already in the harbor, a small schooner was coasting around the neighborhood, and at least one more ship was due shortly from China with supplies. Meanwhile Martínez was alone, his consort vessel not yet having come up. Consequently he entered Friendly Cove all smiles. He wined and dined both Douglas and Kendrick on his ship, and each returned the favor. Soon Kendrick was won completely—or perhaps it was the other way around. The Yankee captain had no love for the English, against whom he had helped fight a war not long before, and he could hardly be expected to grieve if an English rival now ran afoul of the Spanish. Indeed, there were ugly whispers later among the English that Kendrick’s gloved hand pushed Martínez into some of the radical moves the Spaniard made. But none of that can be proved.
At last Martínez’s supporting vessel, the San Carlos , appeared. Kendrick being safely neutralized, Martínez now demanded the Iphigenia ’s papers, kept them overnight for translation, and then peremptorily ordered Douglas and Viana, the Iphigenia ’s ostensible captain, aboard his ship—for Douglas was still pretending to be operating for the firm of Cavalho & Co. Flinging the Englishman’s instructions on the desk, Martínez demanded explanation of a clause which his interpreter had translated as follows: If any Russian, Spanish, or English vessel tried “to divert you from your voyage … resist by force. … If, perchance, in such conflict you should have the superiority, you will take possession of the vessel and its cargo, conducting them, with the officers, to Macao in order that they may be condemned as legal prizes and the officers and crew punished as pirates.”
Martínez’s lip curled. He was a pirate, was he? Or would it not be more accurate to say that Douglas, operating under such orders, was the one open to the charge? Furthermore, what about these false Portuguese colors and registration papers?
Squirming, Douglas said that the translation presented matters in a false light, that——
Interrupting contemptuously, Martínez ordered Douglas and his officers imprisoned.
A few days later the Spaniards abruptly switched. Admitting that perhaps the translation had been inaccurate, he freed the English officers, entertained Douglas at a sumptuous banquet aboard the Spanish flagship, then escorted the Iphigenia out of the harbor, and politely told the English captain to go straight to China. Douglas agreed, but as soon as darkness cloaked his movements, he turned north to trade.
Later Martínez stated that he had not held the Iphigenia because he lacked crew enough to man her. The truth may be, however, that he devised the maneuver as one whereby he could retain the fruits of the seizure without the worry of countermoves by the imprisoned English. In any event, no Iphigenia was on hand to interfere on June 8 when Robert Funter sailed the tiny North West America back into the sound with 215 skins aboard. Promptly Martínez pounced on her, rechristened her Gertrúdis, and then tried to inveigle the outraged English into continuing their trading trip under Spanish colors! When they refused, Martinez turned to the Americans. Blandly agreeing to go into a trading partnership with the Spaniard, Kendrick sent over the first mate of the Washington , David Coolidge, to take charge of the appropriated ship.
Martínez’s next moves were devoted to nailing down his country’s claims to Nootka. With Kendrick sitting in as witness, the natives were asked to describe the clothing and flag of the first Europeans they had seen. Spanish! And what about the passage in Cook’s Voyages —an English account—that described an Indian wearing two spoons on a cord around his neck? Those spoons had been stolen from Martínez himself, years before any Englishman had come within hundreds of miles of Nootka.
Besides all that, had not Alexander VI’s papal bull of 1493 awarded the entire western world to Spain?
These points made, Martínez staged a triumphant pageant of possession. While his soldiers and sailors knelt with him on the beach, the friars sang Te Deum Laudamus . After this Martínez announced in a loud voice, “I take, and I have taken, I seize, and I have seized, possession of this soil … for all time to come.” As he spoke he pointed his sword at various trees, distributed stones, then hoisted a cross on his shoulders and led a chanting procession along the sandy shore. Afterwards, he served a great banquet aboard his ship (attended by the Americans Gray and Kendrick, and a somewhat bewildered Captain Hudson of the Princess Royal ) and closed the day with a 21-gun salute from the fort.
What the Indians thought of all this to-do over land rights is not on record.
A few days later an English ship, the Argonaut , arrived under command of Captain Colnett. According to Colnett’s subsequent accusations he was lured into Friendly Cove by Martmez’s solemn promises of immunity and then was refused permission to depart. Be that as it may, a violent quarrel soon developed in Martínez’s cabin aboard the Spanish frigate. During the altercation Colnett perhaps drew his sword, as is charged, and threatened Martínez. Colnett later denied it, and said he was struck unconscious to the cabin floor by men slipping secretly up behind him. Martínez denied this charge. Whatever happened, it left Colnett in such a passion that he went temporarily insane. Imprisoned, he jumped from his cabin window into the sea and was saved from drowning only after considerable difficulty. The Argonaut and the Princess Royal were seized and sent to Mexico as prizes.
The drama of Nootka so fascinated John Kendrick that he could not tear himself away. Gray, however, grew restive. At last he must have gotten on Kendrick’s nerves, for abruptly the superior officer ordered that they switch vessels. Such supplies as remained were placed aboard the Washington ; the furs were loaded on the Columbia . Gray was ordered to sail the latter ship to Canton, sell the pelts, buy tea, and continue to Boston. He must have been surprised. The management of the business in Canton and the eventual accounting with the owners at home would seem the duty, even the privilege, of the senior officer. But evidently John Kendrick, who was his own man out here in the middle of nowhere, did not want to go home, although a wife was waiting for him in New England.
On July 30 Gray sailed the Columbia out of Nootka. Four weeks later, in Hawaii, he picked up two young natives eager to see the world, Opie and Attoo, the latter of whom would be called by the Boston newspapers “the crown prince of the islands.” Reaching Macao in November, Gray went on up the river to Whampoa, fantastic anchorage of foreign ships. Robert Gray was a green hand in the devious ways of the China trade. Though he sold his skins and pieces of skins for $21,404.71, he had to pay out nearly half the sum for fees, bribes, and repairs to his ship. The $11,241.51 remaining to him he invested in 21,462 pounds of bohea tea. Unfortunately 12,000 pounds of this would be damaged on the way home.
All in all, the single returning ship did not bring a profitable return on the owners’ original $49,000 investment. Still, there was prestige. The Columbia was the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe. When she entered Boston Harbor on August 9, 1790, the fort on the hill gave her a federal salute of thirteen guns and “three huzzas” rose from a “great concourse of citizens assembled on the various wharves.” Governor Hancock held a reception to which the leading men of Massachusetts came. Gray went in state, marching down the middle of the street, followed closely by “crown prince” Attoo, who was described as a living flame, clad in a crested feather helmet and a feather cloak of golden suns set in scarlet.
The seafarer had many a tale to spin at that reception. To his listeners not the least interesting was his eyewitness version of the squabble at Nootka.
Because of that squabble the western world was on tenterhooks. Seven or eight months before Gray’s arrival in Boston, Viceroy Flórez had written to Madrid a somewhat inaccurate account of Martínez’s seizure of British property. Picking up rumors of this, the outraged British chargé d’affaires in Madrid communicated with Prime Minister Pitt. Promptly there followed an exchange of stiff notes between the powers, but the bristling was done in diplomatic privacy until all at once egregious John Meares interjected himself into the furor with his famous Memorial of April 30, 1790.
The first inkling that something might be amiss in Nootka had been brought to Meares in Macao by William Douglas of the Iphigenia . The sailors of the North West America , returning to China on the Columbia , added the rest of the details. In fury and alarm Meares rushed to London to try enlisting the support of his government. Sanguine though he was, he none the less must have been surprised to find the Foreign Office already carrying a huge chip on its shoulder, and to be ushered straightway into the presence of no less a personage than Pitt himself.
The basic issue, of course, was not over one sea peddler’s tubs in the distant Pacific. Rather it was over the right of the Spanish to claim that whole ocean on the basis of a papal bull three hundred years old and to exclude, or try to exclude, ships flying the English flag. At stake also was the definition of what constituted effective discovery. With a confident show Spain trotted out indisputable evidence, including Martínez’s silver spoons, that her mariners had visited Nootka at least four years prior to Cook. But England had published the results of Cook’s explorations; Spain had kept her information largely secret. In open dispute before the world, which gave the stronger right? Spain called for help on Louis XVI of France under terms of the Family Compact between the two nations. Pitt countered by evoking the new Triple Alliance between England, Prussia, and the Netherlands. Ordering her fleet to mobilize, Spain received from Louis XVI a promise of fourteen ships of the line. The English Parliament reacted by voting a war chest of£1,000,000 and dispatching troops to the West Indies, close to Spain’s rich colonies. Prussia promised to stand by the Triple Alliance, and Holland sent ships to join the most formidable assemblage of naval armament the world had yet seen.
A this point one of history’s big “ifs” intrudes. If the French Revolution had not been gathering headway … but it was. The states general, scowling on Louis XVFs offer to help Spain, began a long debate on whether the right to make war lay with the people or with the king. As the summer passed and the rush of events in France made it obvious that no aid could be expected from that source, Spain took another look at the massed English fleet and began to back down. England, likewise worried by the happenings in France, decided to be gracious. Finally, on October 28, 1790, the Nootka Sound Convention ended the dispute —and, in effect, Spain’s pretensions as a colonial power in North America.
Though nowhere explicitly stated, the Nootka Convention’s most important point was the tacit abandonment by Spain of her former claim to exclusive control of the Northwest Coast. For in granting the right of British subjects to trade or settle on lands not currently occupied by Spanish subjects, Spain also granted by implication the same right to the peoples of other countries. England’s signature to the convention also held the same implication. Sovereignty, in other words, became a matter of occupancy—the hinge on which, before another half century was out, the whole Oregon question between the United States and Great Britain would swing.
None of this was lost on Thomas Jefferson. Always he had been keenly interested in the West. Now he became convinced that to keep the United States from being drawn into European wars, this country must drive a wedge between the quarrelsome neighbors on her flanks. In short, the west bank of the Mississippi, at the very least, must become American. And so faroff Nootka planted one of the seeds, though only one, that shortly would blossom into the Louisiana Purchase.
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.
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.
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.
[ 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.