Robert Gray: American Sea Captain and Explorer of the Columbia River


Explore the life and discoveries of Robert Gray, the American sea captain who, in 1792, discovered and named the Columbia River. Learn about his pioneering role in the China fur trade, his circumnavigation of the globe carrying the flag of the United States, and his contributions to U.S. claims in the Oregon country.

Robert Gray

Robert Gray; (1755-1806), American sea captain, who discovered and named the Columbia River that flows between Oregon and Washington. He was also the first American seaman to carry the flag of the new United States around the world. Gray was born in Tiverton, R. I., on May 10, 1755. During the American Revolution, he served in the Continental Navy.

In the employ of Boston investors, Gray became a pioneer in the China fur trade that enriched residents of New England. In 1787 he was named master of the sloop Lady Washington and sailed for the American Northwest with the 212-ton Columbia. His purpose was to secure sea otter pelts by trading with the Indians and to exchange them in China for tea. While in the North Pacific, commands of the two vessels were switched. Gray took over the Columbia, sailed for China with the furs, and continued on around the world, returning to Boston in 1790.

In 1791, Gray returned to the Northwest in the Columbia and resumed the sea otter trade. On May 12, 1792, he discovered the river he named for his ship. Other explorers had seen the entrance to the Columbia River but had not explored it. Gray’s log for May 12 reports: “. . . we directed our course up this noble river in search of a Village. The beach was lin’d with Natives, who ran along shore following the Ship.” Gray’s discovery of the Columbia helped support United States claims to the Oregon country against the British in the early 19th century.


Gray again marketed the furs in China, and he returned from his second world-circling voyage in 1793. Subsequently he commanded coasting vessels out of Boston. During the “undeclared war with France” (1798-1800), Gray was in command of the well-manned, heavily armed privateer Lucy. Later he returned to a captaincy in young America’s burgeoning merchant fleet. According to a petition for assistance that Mrs. Gray addressed to Congress, Gray died in 1806 leaving “very little property.”

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