When we visited the Garibaldi Maritime Museum on the Oregon Coast in 2018, the staff gave me a book called Captain Gray in the Pacific Northwest. I finally got around to reading it and have decided that Captain Robert Gray is the most unheralded major explorer in American history. I now know the reasons why he is so unknown.
I recently read a book about the exploration of Alaska from its beginning including the Russian intervention years. Even though Robert Gray was not part of this history, I kept expecting his name to crop up as one of the Northwest’s main explorers. It never did. There was a major display about him in the Garibaldi that I wrote about under the title “Garibaldi and Gray”. Despite the fact that North American explorers are now criticized as land usurpers where native Americans are concerned, they remain part of our history and should be recognized as such. That’s why I’m writing again about Robert Gray.
The book mentioned above, Captain Gray in the Pacific Northwest, was written by Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Parkin, Jr. He painstakingly researched his subject, included a list of every institution that assisted him, and gave sources for everything he wrote about Robert Gray. The 7th of 9 children, Robert Gray grew up on a farm in Rhode Island. Early on he dreamed of seeing faraway places. Parkin could find no mention of his naval career until Gray commanded a ship called the Alert. Then he commanded the Columbia and eventually became the 1st American to land on the Northwest coast of what was destined to become the United States when George Washington was President of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Gray sailed Tillamook Bay. He helped build the sloop Adventure, the 1st American vessel built on the Pacific Coast. Gray was also the 1st American to circumnavigate the globe. He managed to cross the notorious bar at the mouth of the Columbia River and sail 25 miles up it. He named this river The Columbia after his vessel.
So why is he so unknown? In 1806 he got yellow fever and died at the age of 51. He was buried at sea. His family consisting of 4 daughters and a wife was left without resources. His discoveries and explorations went unnoticed until James Madison was President. Madison was the President after Thomas Jefferson, the man who OKed the Lewis and Clark Expedition that made history in the first decade of the 19th century.