Gray's Ship: The Columbia Rediviva

Columbia Rediviva

Columbia Rediviva: A three-masted sailing ship

Courtesy of Columbia River Maritime Museum, Astoria, Oregon. Photograph by Allan McMakin

Plank-on-frame model built by Frans Wuopio of Astoria, Oregon,
based on the painting shown below by George Davidson (1768-1801).

Columbia in a Squall

columbia rediviva heeling before a squall

Oregon Historical Society, Portland, OrH 984

George Davidson, the talented amateur artist who created this dramatic illustration in 1793, was a ship's painter in the crew of the Columbia on its second fur-trading voyage. With a crew of 31 men and boys—the cabin boy, Samuel Homer, was then about 12 years old—the Columbia set sail from Boston on October 1, 1790, and arrived on the Northwest Coast eight months later.

Bearing in mind the size of Lewis and Clark's "barge," now often referred to as a keelboat, which was 55 feet long, with a beam of 8 feet, 4 inches, a draft of 3 feet, and a burthen (burden, load) of 12 tons, consider the oceangoing ship Columbia Rediviva, that Robert Gray sailed from Boston, around the horn of South America, and north along the Pacific Coast to the mouth of the Great River of the West, in 1792.


  • A full-rigged three-masted ship (foremast, mainmast, mizzenmast [aft of the mainmast])
  • Length: 83 feet, 6 inches
  • Beam (width), 24 feet, 2 inches
  • Draft (depth below waterline), 11 feet
  • Burthen (capacity), 213 tons
  • Crew, 16-18 minimum; 30-31 maximum
  • Built in 1787 (or rebuilt; the word rediviva means "revived"), Plymouth, Massachusetts1
  • Decommissioned October 15, 1801, and salvaged or, as is written at the end of her register in the National Archives (see footnote), she was "ript to pieces."

For Comparison:

One of the largest wooden sailing vessels ever built in the U.S. was the Henry B. Hyde, which was the pride of the American Merchant Marine at the time of its launching in 1884.

  • Length, 267' 9"
  • Beam—45'
  • Draft—28' 8"
  • Crew, 36-40 men
  • Burthen, 2462 ton

1. Frederic W. Howay and others, Voyages of the "Columbia" to the Northwest Coast, 1787-1790 and 1790-1793 (Portland, Oregon: Oregon Historical Society Press in cooperation with the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1990, 1941), footnote, page vi. Judge Howay's conclusion was corroborated prior to the publication of his book, on the authority of two ship's registers at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., by the state supervisor of the National Archives Project of the Works Progress Administration back in the 1930s and 40s, and by a representative of the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

Many students of the river and its exploration have chosen to believe that the famous vessel was built at Hobart's Landing at Norwell, Massachusetts, in 1773. It is undeniable that there was in fact a ship named Columbia which was built there by private entrepreneurs in that year, but evidently Howay found insufficient evidence to support a declaration that it was the one which was renamed Columbia Rediviva, and which lent its name to the previously anonymous "Great River of the West" in 1787. Indeed, Howay points out: "After having, by the discovery of the Columbia River, laid one of the foundations of her country's claims to the region 'where flows the Oregon,' the movements of the Columbia are uncertain, for it is difficult to identify her among the various ships bearing that name."

It is impossible to contravene certain disagreements when it comes to historical details that are inherently irreconcilable. Ironically, a similar and perhaps equally contentious argument prevails concerning the place where the barge—more commonly but incorrectly dubbed a "keelboat"—of Lewis and Clark was built in 1803. And overriding all others, there remains the still perennial debate over the cause of Meriwether Lewis's death. (See historian Clay Jenkinson's analysis of the evidence, and his answer to the question, "Suicide or Murder?" which is the conclusion of his authoritative six-part essay, "Summer of 1809.")