Robert Gray (sailor)

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Robert Gray

Robert Gray (born May 10, 1755 in Tiverton , Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations , † July 1806 at sea near Charleston , South Carolina , USA ) was the first American to sail around the world. In 1787, Gray and John Kendrick left Boston harbor on two ships to trade on America's northwest coast. Then Gray set out for China and circled the world. On a second expedition in 1792 he sailed into the mouth of the Columbia Riverand named the river after his ship. Gray's first exploration later formed one of the bases for the territorial claims of the USA in the Oregon Country .


Gray was born in Tiverton, Rhode Island. Little is known about his early years. He is believed to have served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, but this is not documented. He is also said to have participated in the Atlantic triangular trade from South Carolina on board the Pacific .


The captains Robert Gray and John Kendrick received from a group of Boston traders around Charles Bulfinch the order to buy fur on the west coast of North America, then to sell it in China and to invest the proceeds in tea and other valuable goods. Other American traders, including Robert Morris , had previously sent merchant ships to China. However, these struggled to find goods that the Chinese were interested in. After reading James Cook's travelogue, published in 1784, Bulfinch came up with the idea of ​​delivering furs, as there was apparently a high demand for them.

Replica of the Lady Washington

On September 30, 1787, Gray and Kendrick left Boston Harbor aboard the Lady Washington and Columbia . The cargo consisted of blankets, knives, iron bars and other merchandise. Kendrick and Gray sailed across Cape Verde , the Falkland Islands and Cape Horn in the Pacific. On April 1, 1788, the two ships were separated during a storm. Kendrick was forced to call the Spanish-occupied Juan Fernández Islands with the badly damaged Columbia to carry out repairs.

Meanwhile Gray reached his goal, with the Lady Washington when trying to navigate a river, ran aground and was attacked by a local tribe. The ship was able to be made afloat again and reached Nootka Sound on September 17, 1788 , where the Columbia also arrived a week later . During his voyage, Gray had come across the ship of the English captain John Meares .

On June 24, 1789, Gray changed command with Kendrick for reasons unknown and took over the larger Columbia . While Kendrick remained in North America, Gray sailed for China with a cargo of fur. After a stopover in Hawaii , the Columbia reached Guangzhou at the beginning of 1790 . In China, Gray traded the furs for tea. The Columbia set sail again, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and reached Boston on August 9, 1790. Thus, the Columbia was the first American ship to complete a circumnavigation of the world . Gray was officially received by Governor John Hancock because of his services .

Exploration of the Pacific Northwest

Just seven weeks after his arrival, on September 28, 1790, Gray set out on a second expedition to the Pacific Northwest. On June 5, 1791, the Columbia reached Clayoquot Sound off Vancouver Island . There Gray met again John Kendrick, who set off for China. On Meares Island , the team set up a winter camp called Fort Defiance . During the winter she also built a sloop , the Adventure . On April 2, 1792, the Adventure sailed northward under the command of Gray's first mate Robert Haswell, while the Columbia set out south. On April 29th, Gray met the HMS Discovery of the British Captain George Vancouver on Juan de Fuca Street . Gray informed Vancouver that he may have discovered the mouth of an important river as early as 1788 at 46′10 ″ North, but could not have navigated it because of the strong current. However, Vancouver doubted the existence of a river in the area.

On May 7, 1792, the Columbia reached Grays Harbor, later named after its captain, near what is now the city of Aberdeen . Four days later she reached her ultimate destination, the mouth of a major river. In the evening the crew found a navigable passage through the treacherous sandbanks at the mouth and the ship sailed the lower reaches of the river. For nine days, Gray traded with the locals, exchanging various iron products for furs for the Chinese market. After about 20 kilometers the ship ran aground and Gray decided to turn back. Gray named the river, called the Wimahl ("great river") by the locals , the Columbia River after his ship. A day later, on May 20, the Columbia reached the open sea again.

The Columbia sailed north and met the Adventure . At the trading post on Nootka Island , Gray reported his discoveries to the Spanish commander Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra . George Vancouver found out about it in September and commissioned his Lieutenant William Robert Broughton with a more detailed investigation. The Columbia , meanwhile, sailed across the Pacific to China. Gray traded furs for tea in Guangzhou, and Columbia arrived in Boston in July 1793 after completing another circumnavigation of the world.

More experiences

Five years later, Gray was involved in the quasi-war . On September 10, 1798, on board the Bark Alert , he sailed from Salem again to the Pacific Northwest. Again he was supposed to buy furs there and bring them to China. Around 500 nautical miles east of Rio de Janeiro , however, the ship was hijacked by the French privateer La Républicaine on November 17th . The ship sailed to Montevideo on the Río de la Plata and was sold there on December 14th along with the cargo. The Alert left Montevideo on January 11 under the Spanish flag and with a Spanish crew for the Pacific.

Gray then returned to the United States and continued his seafaring career. On November 21, 1800 he left Boston again as captain of the schooner James . He sailed to Rio de Janeiro, England and the southern states of the USA , among others . In July 1806, Gray died presumably of yellow fever at sea near Charleston , South Carolina . He left a wife and four daughters.


Gray himself never published his discoveries. This task was taken over by George Vancouver, who sufficiently appreciated Gray's achievements. The fact that Gray was the first non-Indian to sail the Columbia River and the Lewis and Clark expedition carried out a few years later served as a justification for the United States to claim the Oregon Country for itself. In the Oregon Compromise negotiated in 1846 , the 49th parallel was set as the limit, with which most of the basin of the Columbia River fell to the United States. The Canadian province of British Columbia , named after Gray's ship, emerged in 1871 from the area north of the border line .

Several places in Washington State are named after Robert Gray :

  • the bay of Grays Harbor near Aberdeen
  • Grays Bay on the north bank of the Columbia River estuary
  • Grays Point at the western end of Grays Bay
  • Grays River, a tributary of the Columbia River
  • Grays River, a small village on the river of the same name


  • Francis E. Cross: Captain Gray in the Pacific Northwest. Maverick Publications, Bend OR 1987, ISBN 0-892881-53-4 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ John F. Millar: American ships of the colonial and revolutionary periods. WW Norton & Company, New York NY 1978, ISBN 0-393-03222-1 .