Discovering the Region: Commentary

5. Voyages of the Columbia

Sailing aboard the ship Columbia on two separate voyages, Robert Gray became the first American citizen to explore the Northwest Coast and circumnavigate the globe. In the course of his second expedition, during May of 1792, Gray steered his ship into the mouth of the Columbia River and thereby established a forceful claim on behalf of the United States to the surrounding territory. (The river came to be named after Gray’s vessel.) Included here are two accounts of the ship’s activities in and around the mouth of the river. The first is by John Boit, fifth mate aboard the Columbia; the second fragment, from the ship’s official Log-Book, is attributed to Gray.

The tone and focus of these writings from the Columbia differ substantially from those of George Vancouver. One reason is that these accounts were generally written aboard ship during the expedition to the Northwest Coast, rather than being composed after the ship’s return. Another reason is that Robert Gray and his crew did not consider themselves engaged in what Vancouver called “the noble science of discovery.” Rather, they were trading with coastal Indians for furs. Their voyage had been funded by investors who hoped to profit from the burgeoning commerce in sea otter pelts. Gray and his crew left Boston with goods for use in bartering with native peoples. Once they had arrived in the North Pacific, they would sail along the coast in search of Indians willing to trade furs with them. After they had acquired a cargo of fur, the traders would then sail to China, where they would exchange the furs for Asian goods, which they would in turn carry as imports back to Boston.

In the Pacific Northwest, the effort to find natives willing to trade, preferably at good prices, made fur traders into explorers of the coastline. And the fact that roughly forty trading vessels (mostly British) arrived between 1785 and 1794 (another 60 or so—mostly American, now—arrived between 1795 and 1804) meant that Northwest shores were getting fairly close inspection. But the idea of exploration itself was, for these traders, an afterthought; their first priority was commerce. Thus when John Boit noted that he and Gray went ashore inside the river’s mouth, he wrote, “I landed abrest the Ship with Capt. Gray to view the Country.” Only at some later point, and in a different ink, was the phrase “and take possession” tacked on to this entry in Boit’s account. Gray’s crews were more concerned with making money than with the international contest to claim territory, and their accounts of their days inside the mouth of the Columbia River reflected that orientation. (For more on the maritime trade, see Gibson 1992).

Naturally, the approach of Gray’s crew to the matter of discovery annoyed George Vancouver. The English explorer was on the Northwest Coast at the same time Gray was; indeed, Vancouver sailed around Puget Sound on the very days that Gray scouted the mouth of the Columbia River. In the autumn of 1792, Vancouver sent the Chatham, a vessel piloted by Lieutenant William R. Broughton, to explore the Columbia River, too. In sharp contrast to Gray, Broughton took his ship perhaps 85 miles upstream, nearly as far as present-day Portland. The English also left a considerably more detailed account of their trip, and unlike Gray took the trouble to name numerous features of the landscape. When composing his Voyage of Discovery after his return to England, Vancouver made a point of disputing Gray’s efforts. For example, Vancouver criticized a rough map of the river’s mouth that the American had offered: “Mr. Broughton had, for his guidance thus far up the inlet, a chart by Mr. Gray, who had commanded the American ship Columbia; but it did not much resemble what it purported to represent. This shoal, which is an extensive one lying in mid-channel, having completely escaped his attention.” The constant changes to the shoreline and channel of the Columbia River help us understand why in December 1792 Broughton found Gray’s chart unreliable. But for the Englishmen, devoted to the science of discovery rather than the commerce in fur, it seemed as if Gray had not been inside the river’s mouth at all. Before sailing back into the ocean, Lieutenant Broughton “formally took possession of the river, and the country in its vicinity, in His Britannic Majesty’s name, having every reason to believe, that the subjects of no other civilized nation or state had even entered this river before; in this opinion he was confirmed by Mr. Gray’s sketch, in which it does not appear that Mr. Gray either saw, or was ever within 5 leagues of, its entrance” (Vancouver 1798, III:53, 66). Note here that, in addition to challenging the competence of the American sailor, Vancouver also expressed a low opinion of Indians by excluding them with his reference to “the subjects of no other civilized nation or state.” Europeans and Americans assumed they had a right to claim the lands they discovered because the aboriginal inhabitants of those lands were not “civilized.”

See also: Indians and Europeans on the Northwest Coast, 1774–1812

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