Eighteenth century rumors of a large river emptying into the Pacific Ocean from the Oregon territory were confirmed in 1792 by the American fur trader Robert Gray.
During explorations of the Pacific Northwest coast in1775 by Spanish sea captains Juan Pérez and Bruno Heceta, Heceta had observed muddy currents flowing from an opening between present-day Washington and Oregon states and believed, rightly, that the spot marked a large river.
Should a large navigable river be found into the interior of the continent, it would open up vast trade opportunities. Conditions at the time, however, prevented Heceta from entering the river.
A few years later, British explorers Captain James Cook and Captain George Vancouver both steered their ships past the same spot; but unlike their Spanish counterparts, they concluded no large river could exist there.
It would be up to the American fur trader John Gray to confirm the existence of the Columbia River and set the stage for the United States to claim possession of the Oregon territory.
Gray Sails Around the World
Gray had been born in Rhode Island and served in the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War. After American independence in 1776, he began sailing for a group of Boston Merchants. In 1787 Gray and Captain John Kendrick were sent in two ships, the Lady Washington and the Columbia Redivivia, loaded with goods to trade for furs with the Pacific Northwest coast natives.
Returning with a cargo of sea otter pelts, Gray headed west to trade the furs in China for tea and other Asian goods sought by the Americans. From China he continued west to Boston, making him the first American merchant to circumnavigate the globe.
Gray Enters the Columbia River
On his second trading voyage to the Pacific Northwest, Gray harbored on the west side of Vancouver Island, where explorers and fur traders from several countries had created a small trading community. Here he met with Captain Vancouver and the two discussed the rumors of a great river further south. Vancouver held to his belief that eddies spotted at the mouth of the Columbia couldn’t be a significant river.
Gray, however, was determined to test the waters of this mysterious spot. Heading south and scouting for new trading bays, he became the first non-native to enter present-day Gray’s Harbor, now an important port on the Washington coast.
On May 11, 1792, Gray reached the mouth of the Columbia River. He steered his ship west, successfully crossing the notoriously treacherous bar that hampers entrance.
He named the river after his ship.
Gray explored the bay and a few miles up the river, trading with the many natives who came out in canoes to meet the American ship. He passed several villages during the week he spent trading in the river. He did not, however, follow the river to see how far it might extend inland.
Back at Vancouver Island, Gray again saw Captain Vancouver and told him he had entered the mighty Columbia: the “Great River of the West” existed!
Soon Lieutenant William Broughton, commander of Vancouver’s companion ship, the Chatham, would follow Gray’s lead and sail up the Columbia past present-day Portland, Oregon.
Gray’s discoveries firmly established the U.S. presence in the Pacific Northwest. Other U.S. traders and explorers would follow him along the Columbia River, leading to the eventual claim by the U.S. to the Oregon territory.
- Before the Covered Wagon, by Phillip H. Parish, Metropolitan Press, Portland, OR, 1931.
- Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Avenue, Portland, OR 97205.
- Oregon Blue Book, 1997-1998, revised 2009.
- Geribaldi Museum, Garibaldi, OR