On August 10, 1790, a week before George Washington completed his trip from New York City to Rhode Island to acknowledge and celebrate the reluctant thirteenth state’s entrance to the Union, Captain Robert Gray of Tiverton completed another journey in Boston harbor: he was the first American to circumnavigate the world.
Gray–who has remained relatively obscure, especially in Rhode Island–was born on a farm in Tiverton on May 10, 1755, to parents who were descended from early Plymouth Colony settlers. His homestead still stands at 3622 West Main Road. It is marked by a small sign donated by the class of 1971 of the Gray Junior High School of Tacoma, Washington.
The seventh of nine children, Gray probably gained his maritime skill by privateering during the American Revolution or by service in the Continental Navy. Still, little is known of his early years. The fact that Boston merchant investors designated Gray as second in command of a two-ship excursion around Cape Horn to the North Pacific in 1787 indicates his experience as a mariner. On this, the first of his two trips to the Great Northwest, Gray commanded the sloop Washington, the smaller consort to the ship Columbia, commanded by Captain John Kendrick. The primary purpose of this venture was economic: To acquire furs and sea otter skins for trade with China.
On August 12, 1788, Gray and his crew accomplished the first landing by United States citizens on the northwest coast, coming ashore near Cape Lookout in what would become the state of Oregon. This feat was but one of a series of firsts that the intrepid Rhode Island sailor would register.
One must use caution in recording “firsts.” During the second half of the eighteenth century, Spain, Great Britain, and Russia also developed and asserted claims to the area of the Northwest, now designated as the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Several Spanish navigators, a Frenchman, and a few British mariners and traders, including the famous Pacific explorer James Cook, beat Gray to this region–hence the use of the specific term “United States citizens” in describing the accomplishment of Gray and his men.
After Gray charted the coastline and secured a shipload of pelts, Captain Kendrick gave him command of the Columbia and dispatched Captain Gray to Macao and Canton, China, via the Sandwich (i.e., Hawaiian) Islands. Following a profitable visit, Gray left Canton on February 12, 1790, with a cargo of silk, porcelain, and tea and sailed through the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and north to Boston, arriving on August 10, 1790, thus completing the first American circumnavigation of the globe.
Gray immediately returned to the Northwest aboard the Columbia, leaving Boston on September 27, 1790, with a letter of introduction signed by President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. On this second expedition, Gray achieved yet another distinction: on May 11, 1792, with all sails set to a favorable wind, he boldly raced his ship Columbia through coastal breakers, over a perilous sandbar, and into a broad river that he named for his vessel. Gray had “discovered” (to use the white man’s term) the legendary Great River of the West. The Columbia–“a noble river,” as Gray described it–extended inland some 1,243 miles, and its vast watershed drained the Oregon Country.
Gray’s expedition established the first substantial American claim to the Pacific Northwest, a claim strengthened and reaffirmed by Lewis and Clark in 1805 and then by fur trader John Jacob Astor in 1811.
After his “discovery” of the Columbia River, Gray sailed his previous route to China and thence to Boston, accomplishing the second American circumnavigation of the world. John Boit Jr., an officer and log keeper on Columbia’s 1790 journey to Oregon, put Captain Gray’s efforts in perspective: “On her first voyage, the Columbia had solved the riddle of the China trade. On her second, empire followed in the wake.”
In 1794, Gray married Martha Atkins in Boston, a union that produced five children–a son who died in infancy and four daughters. During the 1790s, Gray engaged mainly in the coasting trade between Boston and Charleston, South Carolina, but wanderlust again affected him, and in 1798, he set out from Salem in command of the bark Alert on another trading voyage around the Horn to the Great Northwest. By that date, a limited, or quasi, naval war had developed with France, and Gray’s ship was taken by a French privateer in the South Atlantic and sold in Montevideo, Uruguay. When Gray returned to Massachusetts, he obtained the captaincy of his own privateer, the twelve-gun Lucy, and set out to avenge his loss of the Alert. In October 1800, however, President John Adams ended the quasi-war.
After the conflict with France, Gray sailed to England and Brazil before embarking on an ill-fated trip to Charleston in 1806. He died en route, probably of yellow fever, and was buried in the sea that had been his life.
The great English poet Thomas Gray (no relation to Robert) has observed that “the paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Since 1806, Robert Gray has lain in a watery grave because a sudden illness terminated his eventful life at the age of fifty-one. Unfortunately, this great Rhode Island navigator experienced no “path of glory.” Many American history texts omit him, and most of his fellow Rhode Islanders are oblivious to his existence. The Columbia’s intrepid Captain Robert Gray–a gem of the oceans–deserves a better fate!
Captain Robert Gray was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1967.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.