merchant sea-men

Robert Gray (sea captain)

Robert Gray (May 10, 1755c. July, 1806) was an American merchant sea-captain and explorer. He captained the first American ship to circumnavigate the world, in 1790, and also entered and named the Columbia River, in 1792. His trading voyages to the northern Pacific coast of North America pioneered the American sea-borne fur trade there.

Gray was born in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and though little is known of his early life, he is said to have served in the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War.

Gray's priority in entering of the Columbia estuary was later used by the United States as a basis for its territorial claims to the "Oregon Country", as it was called by Americans. To the rival British claimants, the most nearly equivalent term was "Columbia District", deriving from the river-name chosen by Gray. This eventually lent itself to the name of the mid-19th century British colony of British Columbia, a province of Canada since 1871.

Gray died at sea in 1806, near Charleston, South Carolina, possibly of yellow fever.

Early life

Gray was born in Tiverton, Rhode Island. Little is known of his early life. It is said, but not documented, that he served in the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War. He is known, however, to have served in the Triangular trade of South Carolina, aboard the Pacific.

Voyage to Pacific Northwest Coast 1787-1790

On September 30, 1787, Robert Gray and Captain John Kendrick left Boston in two ships, to trade along the north Pacific coast. The ships’ cargo included blankets, knives, iron bars, and other trade goods. Both ships had official letters from Congress and passports from Massachusetts for their trading voyage. Kendrick and Gray sailed around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, first stopping at the Cape Verde Islands and the Falkland Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. In January after passing Cape Horn, the ships encountered a storm that separated the two vessels and damaged the Columbia. The damage forced Kendrick to sail for the nearest port, Juan Fernandez. Juan Fernandez was a Spanish port under the control of Don Blas Gonzalez commandant of the garrison. There the Columbia was repaired before sailing for the northwest coast. Meanwhile Gray reached the coast in August. Upon reaching the coast, Gray ran aground attempting to enter a river near 46° in latitude. Here the ship was attacked by natives, with the ship losing one crew member before freeing itself and proceeding north. On September 17, 1788 the Lady Washington with Gray in command reached Nootka Sound.

The Columbia arrived soon after and the two ships wintered at Nootka Sound. They were still in the vicinity when Esteban José Martínez arrived in early May, 1789, to assert Spanish sovereignty. A number of British merchant ships soon arrived as well, and conflict between the Spanish and British resulted in the Nootka Crisis, which almost resulted in war between the two nations. Martínez seizing a number of ships, including the Princess Royal. The two American ships were left alone, although Martínez captured a third American ship, the Fair American, when it arrived at Nootka Sound in the fall of 1789. Robert Gray witnessed much of the Nootka Incident.

They were sent by Boston merchants including Charles Bulfinch. Bulfinch and the other financial backers came up with the idea of trading pelts from the northwest coast of North America and taking them directly to China after Bulfinch had read about Captain Cook’s success doing the same. Bulfinch had read Cook’s Journals, published in 1784, that in part discussed his success selling sea otter pelts in Canton, and thus the American merchants thought they could copy that success. Prior to this, other America traders, such as Robert Morris, had sent ships to trade with China, notably the Empress of China in 1784, but had had trouble finding goods for which the Chinese would trade. Bulfinch’s learning of Cook's pelt-trading solved this problem, so that New England sea merchants could trade with China profitably.

Gray circumnavigated the globe in between 1787 and 1790, in the course of a trading voyage out of Boston, first to the north Pacific coast of North America, to trade for furs, and then to China, to trade the pelts for tea and other Chinese goods. During his first voyage to the northwest coast, Gray was accompanied by Captain John Kendrick, who had remained in the Pacific, in command of the Lady Washington, while Gray traded in China and returned to Boston. During their trading up and down the coastlines of what is now British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California the two explored many bays and inland waters. Gray then encountered Captain John Meares of England. Meares subsequently published reports and maps of the Pacific Northwest that included a voyage by Robert Gray through a large, imaginary inland sea between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Dixon Entrance. When George Vancouver asked Gray about this in 1792 Gray said he never made much a voyage.

In 1788 Gray had attempted to enter a large river, but was unable to due to the tides, this river being the Columbia River. At the outset of the voyage, Gray captained the Lady Washington and Kendrick captained the Columbia Rediviva, but the captains swapped vessels during the voyage, putting Gray in command of the Columbia. After the switch, Kendrick stayed on the North American coast trading for pelts and furs, while Gray sailed their existing cargo of pelts to China, stopping off at the Sandwich Islands en route. Gray arrived in Canton in early 1790. In China he traded his cargo for large amounts of tea. Gray then continued on west, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and arriving back in Boston on August 9, 1790. As such, the Columbia became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe. Although the commercial venture was disappointing, Gray was paraded through Boston for the circumnavigation accomplishment. Accompanying Gray was a Hawaiian native, dressed in traditional Hawaiian dress, that took passage on the Columbia. Gray then attended a reception held in his honor by governor John Hancock.

Also on this voyage, Kendrick and Gray were instructed to purchase as much land as they could from native Indians in the region. Kendrick did so on at least two occasions, including on August 5, 1791 when he purchased from a native tribe, near latitude 49°50′N, this purchase occurring while Gray had completed his voyage and since returned.

The success in profits realized by this voyage had the most immediate effect of Gray's setting out for the north Pacific coast again, only six weeks after returning thence. The further effect was that other New England sea merchants began to send vessels of their own thither, to take part in this new trade opportunity, including the dispatch of the Hope in September 1790, under the command of Joseph Ingraham, Gray's first mate on his first voyage. Within a few years, many Yankee merchants were involved in the continuous trade of pelts to China, and by 1801 sixteen American vessels were engaged in this triangular route. These mercantile activities encroached upon territorial claims by other nations to this disputed region, notably those of Spain and of Russia, and in the coming years they would be used in support of American claims the Oregon Country, and would contribute to the limiting to California and to Alaska, respectively, the Spanish and Russian claims.


Gray crossed the Pacific to China in 1790, and traded his furs for tea and other Chinese goods. He then carried on westerly, through the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Atlantic, back to Boston. His return there, August 9, 1790, completed the first circumnavigation of the world by an American vessel.

Return to Pacific Northwest Coast, 1790-1793

Gray set sail for the northwest coast again in the Columbia on September 28, 1790, reaching his destination in 1792. Gray and Kendrick rejoined each other for a time, after Gray's return to the region. On this voyage Gray, though he was still a private merchant, was sailing under papers of the United States of America signed by President George Washington. Gray put in at Nootka Sound on June 5, 1791, and wintered at a stockade they built and named Fort Defiance. Over this winter the crew built a 45-ton sloop named Adventure, which was launched in the spring with Gray’s first mate, Robert Haswell, in charge. He sailed as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands during this voyage.

Once April came Gray and the Columbia sailed south while the Adventure sailed north. After wintering on Vancouver Island, Gray set sail again on April 2, 1792 when he left the trading post of Clayoquot.. As revenge for a foiled plot against his men conceived by some local natives and a Sandwich Islander of his own crew, as he departed, Gray ordered the destruction of 200 homes in the local village of Opitsitah (Opitsaht), an act that the keeper of his own ship's log considered having let his passions go too far. On this journey aboard the Columbia Rediviva Gray noticed muddy waters flowing from shore and decided to investigate whether he might have encountered the "Great River of the West."

While waiting for favorable weather, on April 29 Gray spotted a ship and exchanged greetings with her. This ship was the HMS Discovery commanded by British Naval officer Captain George Vancouver. The two captains met and discussed the geography of the coastlines: Gray told Vancouver about the large river he had attempted to enter in 1788, but Vancouver doubted there was a large river at that latitude. So Gray continued south, leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca on April 30, 1792, trading for more pelts as the ship sailed. On May 7, he took the Columbia into the estuarine bay of Grays Harbor, Washington. (Gray himself actually named this Bullfinch Harbor, but Vancouver's after-the-fact choice was the name that stuck.)

Entering the Columbia

Afterward, Gray carried on south to what was, he rightly suspected, the mouth of a great river, and looked further for a way into it. On May 11 his men discovered what he sought, and he took his ship through it, into the river's estuary. He named it the Columbia River, after his ship, and his discovery would eventually form part of the basis for U.S. territorial claims to the Oregon Country.

The treacherous and shifting sand bar at the mouth of the Columbia River estuary presented a challenge to any ship that attempted to enter the river. In April, Gray attempted to enter the mouth of the river, but bad weather forced him to give up. After sailing north, meeting Vancouver, and spending a time in Grays Harbor, as it later became known, Gray returned to the river. This time he ordered a small sailboat launched to attempt to find a safe passage across the sand bars in the process known as sounding. Finally in the evening of May 11, 1792, Gray's men found a safe channel, and so ship and crew sailed into the estuary of the Columbia River. Once there they sailed upriver and Gray named this large river Columbia after his ship. The natives called the river Wimahl which translated to Big River. Once entering the Columbia’s estuary, according to the ship’s log, they were met by many natives in their canoes, while the crew prepared to take on fresh water. Trading with the locals consisted mainly of exchanging nails and other small iron products for pelts, salmon, and animal meat such as deer and moose. During the nine day trip on the river, the ship traded amongst the natives and collected fresh water while traveling approximately upriver. Trading with these natives led to a collection of over 450 animal pelts to be traded in China. In addition to naming the river, Gray also named other landmarks such as Adams Point and Cape Hancock. However, many of these places have since been re-named.

Captain Gray went ashore with his first mate Mr. Hoskins on May 15 where they buried coins and other identifying items to claim the river and surrounding land for the United States. Finally on May 20, Gray and crew sailed from the Columbia, heading north to rendezvous with their sloop Adventurer before setting sail for China.

Return to Boston

Gray then finished filling his cargo hold with pelts and set sail for China. In Canton, Gray again traded his cargo for tea. He then returned to Boston. Gray returned to Boston in 1793, after again circumnavigating the globe. On February 3, 1794, he took a wife named Martha, in a marriage performed in Boston by the Reverend John Eliott.

A short time after entering the Columbia River and trading with the natives, ship and crew sailed to China to sell the pelts before returning to Boston in July 1793. Gray's entering of the Columbia eventually was used in support of American claims to the Oregon Country, together with the later Lewis & Clark Expedition. These claims led, ultimately, when the consequent Oregon boundary dispute with Britain was resolved by the Oregon Treaty of 1846, to undisputed American possession of the Pacific Northwest south of what became British Columbia. Upon Gray’s return, though, little was thought of his discovery. He did not publish it and the long-term consequences to which it contributed were unforeseen.

Role in the Quasi-War

Later in his career, Gray was involved in the Franco-American Quasi-War of 1798–1800, an undeclared and purely maritime conflict related to the Napoleonic Wars.

On September 10, 1798, Gray set sail from Salem in command of the bark Alert, on another trading voyage bound for the Northwest Coast, where he was meant to spend a season or two fur-trading, and thence for Canton and home again, as before. This voyage was cut short while yet outbound, though, by the capture of Gray's ship in the South Atlantic, by a French privateer. Alert was taken by La Republicaine on November 17, about east of Rio de Janeiro, then sailed by a prize crew (though under Gray's command) to the Spanish port of Montevideo, on the River Plate, arriving on December 14. There, Alert and its cargo were sold as prizes of the French ship. Alert left port on January 11, with a Spanish crew under the Spanish flag, bound for the Pacific. Gray returned to the United States and went on with his sailing career.

In 1799, Gray commanded the privateer Lucy in the continuing issue with the French. The Lucy was a 12-gun ship with a crew of twenty-five.

Later voyages and death

On November 21, 1800, Gray left Boston in command of the schooner James, with a cargo of iron and stone ballast, bound for Rio de Janeiro, where he arrived on April 18, 1801. He also made subsequent voyages to England and the southern United States.

Gray died at sea in 1806, near Charleston, South Carolina. The cause of his death is believed to have been yellow fever. He left behind his wife and four daughters, who later petitioned the U.S. Congress for a government pension, based on his voyages and a claim that he was a naval officer for the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War.


Gray did not publish his geographic discoveries on the estuarine Columbia, nor those elsewhere along the Pacific coast (although Vancouver did so, in England, along with his own explorations, and giving Gray due credit), and at the time they neither gained him any renown nor were thought greatly important. However, the trading opportunities that Gray had pioneered (with regard to his own countrymen, that is) were soon followed up by other New England merchants, with the result that the Indians of the Northwest Coast came to call Americans "Boston men". Moreover, Gray's priority in entering of the Columbia estuary was later used by the United States in support of its territorial claims to the "Oregon Country", so called by Americans. To the rival British claimants, the more southerly portion of this disputed area was the "Columbia District", which term derived from the river-name chosen by Gray. "Columbia District", in turn, eventually lent itself to the name of the mid-19th century colony of British Columbia. When that colony joined Canada in 1871, it became the existing province of British Columbia, ultimately named after the ship that Robert Gray captained.

Gray's Harbor, somewhat north along the coast from Columbia's mouth is named for Robert Gray. Present day Astoria, Oregon where John Jacob Astor would establish his trading post less than 20 years after Gray’s discovery is situated on the south shore of the Columbia estuary.


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