Robert Gray (May 10, 1755 – circa July, 1806) was an American merchant sea captain who is known for his achievements in connection with two trading voyages to the northern Pacific coast of North America, between 1790 and 1793, which pioneered the American maritime fur trade in that region. In the course of those voyages, Gray explored portions of that coast and, in 1790, completed the first American circumnavigation of the world. Perhaps his most remembered accomplishment from his explorations was his coming upon and then naming of the Columbia River, in 1792 while on his second voyage.
Gray's earlier and later life are both comparatively obscure. He was born in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and may have served in the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War. After his two famous voyages, he carried on his career as a sea captain, mainly of merchantmen in the Atlantic. This included what was meant to be a third voyage to the Northwest Coast, but was ended by the capture of his ship by French privateers, during the Franco-American Quasi-War, and command of an American privateer later in that same conflict. Gray died at sea in 1806, near Charleston, South Carolina, possibly of yellow fever. Many geographic features along the Oregon and Washington coasts bear Gray's name, as do numerous schools in the region.
Robert Gray was born in Tiverton, Rhode Island, on May 10, 1755, to William Gray. Little is known of his early life. He is known to have served in the Triangular trade of South Carolina, aboard the Pacific.
On September 30, 1787, Robert Gray and Captain John Kendrick left Boston, to trade along the north Pacific coast. Captain Gray commanded Lady Washington and Captain Kendrick commanded Columbia Rediviva. 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, 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 New England sea merchants could trade with China profitably. Gray might have been the first American to visit the Northwest Coast, but Simon Metcalfe of the Eleanora may have arrived earlier—perhaps as much as a year earlier.
On the voyage of Kendrick and Gray, 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 Rediviva. 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°N 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 seized 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.
During their trading along the coastlines of what is now British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California, the two explored many bays and inland waters. In 1788, Gray 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 such a voyage.
In 1788, Gray had attempted to enter a large river, but was unable 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, now known as Hawaii, en route. Gray arrived in Canton in early 1790 and traded his cargo for large amounts of tea. Gray then continued on west, sailing through the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Atlantic, 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, who had taken 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 18 sq mi (47 km2) 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 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, 16 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 Russia, and in the coming years, they would be used in support of American claims to the Oregon Country, and would contribute to the limiting to California and to Alaska, respectively, of the Spanish and Russian claims.
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 his 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 he departed, Gray ordered the destruction of the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) village of Opitsitah (Opitsaht). The attack was a retaliation for insults he thought he had endured and in response to rumors of a plot against his men conceived by some local natives and a Sandwich Islander of his own crew. The plot may have been real, but might have been a misunderstanding. The village of Opitsaht, which consisted of about 200 houses with much carved work—a "fine village, the Work of Ages", according to Gray's officer John Boit, which was "in a short time totally destroy'd". Fortunately, it was deserted at the time. John Boit, the keeper of his own ship's log, wrote that Gray had let his passions go too far. In 2005, descendants of Gray formally apologized for the destruction of Opitsaht. Gray ordered several other attacks during the 1792 voyage. In May 1792, Gray ordered an attack on a Chicklisaht Nuu-chah-nulth village in Esperanza Inlet or Nasparti Inlet north of Nootka Sound, killing seven and seizing the natives' sea otter furs. The Chicklisaht took their wounded to the Spanish post at Nootka Sound and asked the commandant, Bodega y Quadra, to punish Gray. This attack came after a breakdown in trading negotiations. The price of sea otter furs had increased dramatically since the late 1780s. Gray was one of a number of captains who decided to use force to acquire furs. Later in 1792, in Grays Harbor, Captain Gray fired on a group of Chinooks, killing 20. Still later, in Clayoquot Sound again, Gray killed or wounded at least 25 natives who were approaching his ship in a war canoe during the night. He battled a group of Kwakiutls in late 1792.
During his 1792 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 a large river was 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.)
Afterward, Gray carried on south to what was, he rightly suspected, the mouth of a great river, and looked further for a way into this river. On May 11, his men discovered what he sought, and he ordered a small sailboat launched to attempt to find a safe passage across the sand bars in the process known as sounding. Finally, on the evening of May 11, 1792, Gray's men found a safe channel, 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.
After entering the Columbia, they were met by many natives in their canoes, while the crew prepared to take on fresh water. The ship and crew traveled about 13 mi (21 km) upriver and traded items such as nails for pelts, salmon, and animal meat over a nine-day period. 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 renamed. The farthest point Gray explored upriver is now known as Grays Bay, and the river that flows into it Grays River. These names were not given by Gray, but by William Broughton, George Vancouver's lieutenant, who explored the Columbia in October 1792. Robert Gray had made a chart of the bay and the mouth of the river and a copy was acquired by Vancouver.
Gray's success in entering the river would eventually form part of the basis for U.S. territorial claims to the Oregon Country. On May 20, Gray and crew sailed from the Columbia, heading north to rendezvous with their sloop Adventure before setting sail for China.
On July 22, 1792 Gray sailed the Columbia into the Nootka Sound accompanied by the Hope under Ingraham. Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra was present as the commandant of the Spanish settlement there. Bodega was awaiting the arrival of George Vancouver so the two could implement the first Nootka Convention. Bodega had intended to turn over the entire establishment to Vancouver, but while waiting for Vancouver, he began to change his mind. Over the summer, Bodega had begun to realize that John Meares had not only greatly exaggerated his losses during the Nootka Crisis, but also had illegally operated British trading ships under the flag of Portugal. When Gray and Ingraham arrived at Nootka, Vancouver was still en route. Bodega took the opportunity to ask the Americans if they would give him their account of the events of 1789 that led to the Nootka Crisis. Ingraham answered Bodega's letter at length. He wrote, "as I knew every circumstance, Captain Gray desired I would answer and he would sign it jointly."
According to the letter signed by Ingraham and Gray, Meares had made many false claims about the events of 1789. The Portuguese ships, Ingraham said, were definitely British ships pretending to be Portuguese. The "house" that Meares said he built at Nootka Sound, and which was explicitly mentioned in the Nootka Convention, was only a "rough hut", built and torn down in 1788. By 1789, when the Spanish arrived, "there was no vestige of any house remaining". The Nootka Convention said that Spain had seized buildings and that these must be restored to Britain. Further, Ingraham wrote that Meares had not purchased any land from Maquinna, as claimed. About the arrest of James Colnett by Esteban José Martínez, Ingraham and Gray wrote that Colnett had insulted and threatened Martínez, and that Colnett had drawn his sword on Martínez, justifying Colnett's arrest. The letter closed with a statement of friendship: "We sincerely hope, sir, when things are represented with truth, it will rescue our friend Don Estevan J. Martínez from censure... As to the treatment of the Americans by Don Estevan, we have ever testified to it in terms due to such hospitality, and we are again happy to have it in our power to do what we deem justice to his conduct." The Americans were not a neutral party; the United States had only gained its independence from Britain through war a few years before. Also, the Americans were in direct competition with the British, but not the Spanish, for the fur trade of the Northwest coast. It was in their interest to support the Spanish case.
Bodega was pleased to receive Ingraham and Gray's account. Once Vancouver arrived, Bodega used the report, along with other tactics, to force Vancouver into a diplomatic deadlock once negotiations had begun. Were it not for Ingraham and Gray's letter, along with Vancouver's late arrival, and several other factors, Bodega likely would have turned the entire Spanish establishment at Nootka over to the British. Instead, Bodega offered only to turn over the small cove where Meares had built his hut in 1789. Vancouver could not accept this. In the end, the two agreed to let their governments work it out. As a result, the settlement at Nootka remained Spanish for several years, until under the third Nootka Convention both nations agreed to abandon the port.
While Gray was at Nootka Sound, Bodega provided a small house near his own. Gray stayed there until he left Nootka Sound. In addition, Bodega had the Columbia repaired by the Spanish caulkers, blacksmiths, and carpenters. Bodega also provided fresh food, such as vegetables and hot bread, every day. When Gray and Ingraham left, they were given large amounts of food, such as salmon, pork, eggs, butter, fresh bread, wine, brandy, and large amounts of cabbage and salad. Bodega refused any payment for any of his services. Ingraham wrote in his journal, "Considering the part of the world we were in, I thought this a very handsome present. Not a day passed during our stay in this port, but every ship—without respect to nation or person—received marks of Don Juan's hospitality."
In September, most of the ships that had visited Nootka Sound left, including the Columbia, under Gray, along with the sloop Adventure. Bodega also left, on the Activa. Bodega and Gray met shortly after leaving and agreed to sail to Neah Bay where, in the last week of September, Bodega purchased the Adventure from Gray. After this, Gray took the Columbia across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Port San Juan (today the site of Port Renfrew, British Columbia), where the final preparations were made for the long voyage across the Pacific. Gray left North America on October 3, 1792, arriving in the Hawaiian Islands on October 29, and in Macau on December 8.
In Canton, Gray again traded his cargo for tea, and then sailed west towards the Atlantic Coast of the United States. Gray returned to Boston in July 1793, after again circumnavigating the globe. On February 3, 1794, he took a wife named Martha Atkins, in a marriage performed in Boston by the Reverend John Eliott. The couple had five children together.
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 500 mi (800 km) east of Rio de Janeiro, then sailed by a prize crew (though under Gray's command) to the Spanish port of Montevideo, on the Río de la Plata, 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 25.
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 Columbia River, nor those elsewhere along the Pacific coast. Captain Vancouver did publish Gray's discoveries in England, along with his own explorations, and gave Gray credit. At the time, these discoveries by Gray did not gain him any renown nor were thought important. However, the trading opportunities Gray pioneered (in regard to Americans) 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 was later used by the United States in support of its territorial claims to what Americans called the Oregon Country. The rival British claimants called the more southerly portion of this disputed area the Columbia District, which they derived from the river-name chosen by Gray. Columbia District 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.