Great River of the West

In the larger view, the Corps of Discovery was just part of a trend. It was but one of a great number of expeditions by land and sea made between 1770 and 1870 across the North American continent. Until 1805 those explorers were all seeking the legendary "Straits of Anian," the "Great River of the West," and the "Northwest Passage."

In 1775 Captain Bruno Heceta of Spain, who had been sent to discourage Russian fur traders from gaining footholds along the northwest coast, observed a large "bay" at about 46 degrees north latitude, but adverse currents prevented him from exploring it and he left, naming the unseen river San Roque. In 1778 Jonathan Carver, who explored the upper Mississippi River as far as today's Minneapolis, relayed presumably Indian information that the "Great River of the West" was called the "Oregan." The geography of the Northwest remained but vaguely understood for another fourteen years.

The Columbia Rediviva of Boston made two voyages tothe Northwest Coast while owned by Joseph Barrell & Company, a Boston fur-trading firm. Its mission was to barter manufactured goods for sea otter pelts, which in turn were to be traded at Canton, China, for tea, silk, spices, and porcelain. On its first voyage, which began on September 20, 1787, and ended on August 9, 1790, it earned the distinction of being the first U.S. ship to circumnavigate the globe.1

Under the command of Captain Robert Gray the Columbia left Boston again on October 1, 1790, arriving at Vancouver Island on June 3, 1791, and wintering there. Resuming his pursuit of Indian trade in the spring, on May 11, 1792, Gray took the Columbia over the bar into the estuary of a large river. His entry in his log was terse: "we found this to be a large river of fresh water, up which we steered. Vast numbers of natives came alongside." Those natives, reported first mate John Boit, "appear'd very civill (not even offering to steal)." In fact, they were open for business. "During our short stay," Boit added, we collected "150 Otter, 300 Beaver, and twice the number of other land furs."

For nine days they explored some thirteen miles upstream, and anchored in the bay that still bears Gray's name—the same place where Lewis and Clark, calling it "Shallow Bay," were pinned down for two miserable days by rough seas, high tides and relentless winds. Gray and his crew returned to Boston on July 26, 1793, leaving behind only a name—Columbia's River.

"It seems probable," writes Stewart Holbrook, "that Captain Gray was more pleased with his success at trading with the natives than with the fact that he had discovered and named a river."2 In fact, he never published his discovery. It remained for the British captain, George Vancouver, who crossed the Columbia Bar a few months after Gray, to announce it in his journal, Voyage of Discovery To The North Pacific Ocean, which was published in 1798. Gray himself quickly sailed into obscurity, dying in 1803, or maybe 1806, or perhaps 1807. No one knows. At least he outlived the Columbia Rediviva which was decommissioned and dismantled in 1801.

Although Captain Gray was prouder of his success as a fur trader than of his exploration and his renaming of the "Great River of the West," his courageous crossing of the treacherous bar and his exploration of the Columbia's estuary, together with Lewis and Clark's four-month sojourn at Fort Clatsop thirteen years later, provided firm bases for the United States' official claim to sovereignty over all of the territory drained by the great Columbia River below the forty-eighth parallel—"Oregon" country.3

1. On that trip Gray sold nearly 1,000 furs in Canton, China, for $21,404. By 1805 some two hundred thousand skins of otter, seal, and beaver would be sold in China every year.

2. The Columbia (New York: Rinehart, 1956).

3. The origin and meaning of the name "Oregon," "Ouragan," or "Oregan," is open to question. The first known written occurrence of it was in 1765, when the American soldier and entrepreneur Robert Rogers (1731-1795) petitioned George III of England for permission to mount an expedition that would follow the "Great River Ourigan" to the Pacific Ocean. To that end, Rogers sponsored Jonathan Carver's expedition. Norman Gelb, ed., Jonathan Carver's Travels Through America, 1766-1768 (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1993), 20-21, 36-37.