The Columbia River: Its History, Its Myths, Its Scenery, Its Commerce/Part 1/Chapter 3
How all Nations Sought the River from the Sea and how they Found it
Search for Gold—Economic Effects—Early Extension of Exploration Westward—Cortez—Magellan—Aguilar—Fables of the Sea—Shakspere and Swift—Maps—Great Wars of the Seventeenth Century and Downfall of Spain—Long Delay—Resumption of Exploration—Spanish Settlement of California—Russia and Behring—Perez—Heceta—Cook—Fur-trade—Gathering of Nations—The Yankees—Gray and Kendrick—Meares and Vancouver—The Complete Discovery—Strife between England and the United States.
THE period of the Renaissance is one, which by reason of splendid achievements in literature, in art, in science, and in discovery, can hardly be duplicated. We are here especially concerned with the discoverers. A mingling of motives impelled those dauntless spirits onward, and among the most potent was the greed for gold. Much American history is bound up with the mad rush for the precious metals, and the spread of exploration from the West Indies and Mexico, the first centres of Spanish power, was one of its results. Only eight years after the landing of Columbus on San Salvador, the Portuguese Gaspar Cortereal had conceived the idea of a north-west passage, which in some unexplained manner became known as the Strait of Anian. In 1543, the Spaniards Cabrillo and Ferrelo coasted along the shores of California, and the latter was doubtless the first white man to look upon the coast of Oregon. In 1577, England appeared in the person of that boldest and most picturesque of the half-discoverers, half-pirates, of that time, Francis Drake. In that year he set forth on the wonderful voyage in which he plundered the treasures of the Spanish Main, cut the golden girdle of Manila, queen of the Spanish Orient, skirted along the coast of California and Oregon, and at last circumnavigated the globe. Brilliant as were Drake's exploits, they did not result in the discovery of our Great River. In 1592, just a century after Columbus, Juan de Fuca, whose name is now preserved in the strait leading to Puget Sound, is said to have made that voyage which is regarded by most historians as a myth, but which affords so fascinating a bit of narration that it ought to be true. Two hundred years later John Meares, the English navigator, attached the name of the stout old Greek pilot to that inlet now familiar to ships of all nations. With the passage of a few years more, explorations upon the western shore of America began to assume a more definite form. In 1602 the best equipped squadron thus far sent out left Acapulco under command of Vizcaino, with the aim of carrying out Monterey's great purpose for the northward extension of Spanish power. The fleet being scattered by storm, the fragata in command of Martin Aguilar ran up the coast as far as latitude 43 degrees. There they found a cape to which they attached the name still held, Cape Blanco. From that point, following the north-westerly trending of the coast, they soon came abreast of a "rapid and abundant river, with ash trees, willows, and brambles, and other trees of Castile upon its banks." This they endeavoured to enter, but from the strength of the current could not. "And seeing that they had already reached a higher latitude than had been ordered by the viceroy and that the number of the sick was great, they decided to return to Acapulco." Torquemada, the historian, from whom the account is taken, goes on to say:
It is supposed that this river is one leading to a great city, which was discovered by the Dutch when they were driven thither by storms, and that it is the Strait of Anian, through which the vessels passed in sailing from the North Sea to the South Sea; and that the city called Quivera is in those parts; and that this is the region referred to in the account which His Majesty read, and which induced him to order this expedition.
The interesting question arises, Was the river the Columbia? It is the only large river on the Oregon coast, though the Umpqua, if at flood stage, might have given the impression of size. The latitude is not right, either, though the Spanish narrator does not say how far north of Cape Blanco they went. But whether or not Aguilar really went so far north as the Columbia, his voyage was one of much interest. It gave Spain a warrant to claim the western coast of America; it still further strengthened the idea of the Strait of Anian; it seemed to confirm the romantic conception of a great city or group of cities with civilised inhabitants along that passage way, and it gave the first name to the river, the Rio de Aguilar.
Thenceforth the navigators of all nations accepted as the primary object of their search some great river of the West. Hidden in the fogs of fancy, as it lay shrouded in truth in the mists of the ocean, the supposed Rio de Aguilar yet held the spell of enchantment over many an "ancient mariner" of many a land. Whatsoever nation could actually find the river and establish a definite claim to first discovery, would have, by the generally accepted usage of nations, the right of occupation and ownership.
That was a fruitful time for fables of the sea, and around the Great River many of them gathered. The original of Baron Munchausen seems to have existed in the persons of Captain Lorenzo Ferrer de Maldonado and Admiral Pedro Bartolomé de Fonte. The first of these worthies, whose voyage was said to have been made in 1588, describes in a very circumstantial manner his passage through the Strait of Anian and his exit upon the Asiatic side of the continent. This he averred was marked with a very remarkable rocky eminence which rendered it wonderfully adapted to fortification and defence, the mountain being so steep, in fact, that a missile dropped from the summit would fall directly upon a ship in mid-channel. It is thought by some students that some unchronicled Spanish navigator may have actually made the inland passage up the Alaskan coast and that some report of it may have become transformed into Maldonado's story. Fonte's story seems to have first appeared in a London publication in 1708, though his voyage was alleged to have been made in 1640. He told a marvellous tale of a great river which led to a magnificent lake on whose banks stood a great city. The river he located in latitude 53 degrees, and he named it the Rio de los Reyes, or River of Kings. This is far north of the Columbia, but the account persisted in popular idea for a long time. The name became associated with those of the Rio de Aguilar and the River of the West.
These and other similar tales, the flotsam and jetsam of ocean myths, gave something of inspiration and suggestion to literature. For even long before the alleged exploits of Fonte, the fertile mind of Shakspere had conceived of Caliban and Ariel and other fancies of the age of Western adventure. And in the next century the prince of political satirists, Jonathan Swift, had located almost exactly at the mouth of the Rio de Aguilar, the land of the Brobdingnagians, while the countries into which the veracious Gulliver was thrown at a later time, Luggnagg and Blubdubrib, were in the Pacific at a somewhat indefinite distance from the land of the Giants.
The land of the Oregon was in short, the land of the great unexplored and of boundless fancy. Some of the old maps illustrating that period are of much interest. Zaltieri's map of 1566 shows a generally accurate conception of the eastern part of America and of the western coast of Mexico and California, but the entire continent above about latitude 60 degrees is occupied with a mare septentrionale incognito. Luck's map of 1582 presents a fairly good conception of Florida and Mexico, but is entirely astray on the western coast. The Wytfliet-Ptolemy map of 1597 has a singularly indented coast running nearly east and west in the location of Oregon, while Cape Blanco and a river, the Rio de los Estrachos, in about latitude 51 degrees, seem to be an attempt to denote Aguilar's cape of 1543, and to locate the river by still another name, though in a higher latitude. Maldonado's map of the Strait of Anian of 1609 is manifestly manufactured to suit the occasion, and is interesting only as showing how far mendacity and gullibility could travel hand in hand.
But now the first age of discovery on the coast of Oregon drew to a close. It cannot be said that much of tangible knowledge had been attained. Puzzling questions had been raised. Labyrinths of conjecture, with no definite clues for exit, had been entered. Fascinating romances had been so interwoven with probable fact that no one could untangle them. A general conception of a great river and a great north-west passage had been held up with some distinctness as the goal of navigators. Finally, most important of all, what had been seen was of so enticingly interesting a nature and seemed to promise results so important, that they furnished a motive for continued exploration. It certainly looked as though the nations would continue the search for the Great River of the West. Spain had the inside track of all, though Drake and Cavendish and Hawkins had run down many a richly laden treasure galleon and had laid the booty at the feet of the Virgin Queen, and many an embittered buccaneer of French or English race had hounded the flag of Spain across the breadth of half the seas.
But a great change was impending. There was a new shuffle of the cards in the hands of the Fates and the Furies as the seventeenth century moved on apace. Spain's time had come. Her cup of iniquity was now full. Her whole measure of national policy had been the sword for the pagan and the inquisition for the heretic. The banished Moors of Granada and the murdered "Beggars" of Holland and the wasted Incas and Montezumas of America united to call down the vengeance of Nemesis upon the destroyer of a fair world's peace.
The stupendous struggles engendered by the Reformation, culminating in the Thirty Years' War, went on almost without pause for over a century. That strife, ending at Westphalia in 1648, saw Spain prostrate and the principle of religious toleration triumphant. But almost immediately another struggle arose, the natural successor of the first, the struggle against the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons. As may well be seen, the nations of Europe were so enchained in the strife against Pope and King that they had little thought for new discoveries. Over a hundred and sixty years passed after the voyage of Aguilar before there was another serious movement of discovery on the coast of Oregon.
This new movement of Pacific exploration, destined to continue with no cessation to our own day, was ushered in by Spain. There was even yet much vitality in the fallen mistress of the world. Impelled by both religious zeal and hope of material gain, the immigration of 1769 went forth from La Paz to San Diego and Monterey. That inaugurated the singular and poetic, in some aspects even beautiful, history of Spanish California, an era which has provided so much of romance and poetry for literature in the California of our own times. The march of events had made it plain to the Spanish Government that, if it was to retain a hold on the Pacific Coast, it must bestir itself. Russia, England, and France, released in a measure from the pressure of European struggles, were fitting out expeditions to resume the arrested efforts of the sixteenth century. It seemed plain also that colonial America was going to be an active rival on the seas. And well may it have so seemed, for, in the sign of the Yankee sailor, the conquest was to be made.
But just at that important juncture a most favouring condition arose for Spain. The government of England precipitated the struggle of the American Revolution. France soon joined to strike her island rival a deadly blow by assisting in the liberation of the colonies. For the time, Spain had nearly a clear field for Pacific discovery, so far as England and France were concerned. As for Russia, the danger was more imminent. Russia had, indeed, begun to look in the direction of Pacific expansion a long time prior to the Spanish immigration to California. That vast monarchy, transformed by the genius of Peter the Great, had stretched its arms from the Baltic to the Aleutian Archipelago, and had looked from the frozen seas of Siberia to the open Pacific as a fairer field for expansion. Many years elapsed, however, before Peter's great designs could be fulfilled. Not till 1741 did Vitus Behring thread the thousand islands of Sitka and gaze upon the glaciated crest of Mt. St. Elias. And it was not till thirty years later that it became understood that the Bay of Avatcha was connected by the open sea with China. In 1771 the first cargo of furs was shipped directly from Avatcha to Canton. Then first the vastness of the Pacific Ocean was comprehended. Then first it was understood that the same waters which lashed the frozen ramparts of Kamchatka encircled the coral islands of the South Sea and roared against the stormy barriers of Cape Horn.
The Russians had not found the Great River, though it appears that Behring in 1771 had gone as far south as latitude 46 degrees, just the parallel of the mouth of the Columbia. But he was so far off the coast as not to see it.
Three Spanish voyages followed in rapid succession: that of Perez in 1774, of Heceta in 1775, and of Bodega in 1779. The only notable things in connection with the voyage of Perez were his discovery of Queen Charlotte's Island, with the sea-otter furs traded by the natives, the first sight of that superb group of mountains which we now call the Olympic, but which the Spaniards named the Sierra de Santa Rosalia, and finally the fine harbour of Nootka on Vancouver Island, named by Perez Port San Lorenzo, for years the centre of the fur-trade and the general rendezvous of ships of all nations. But no river was found.
With another year a still completer expedition was fitted out, Bruno Heceta being commander and Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, second in command. This voyage was the most important and interesting thus far in the history of the Columbia River exploration. For Heceta actually found the Great River, so long sought and so constantly eluding discovery. On June 10, 1775, Heceta passed Cape Mendocino, and entered a small bay just northward. There he entered into friendly relations with the natives and took solemn possession of the country in the name of His Catholic Majesty of Spain. Sailing thence northward, he again touched land just south of the Straits of Fuca, but there he met disaster at the ill-omened point subsequently named Destruction Island. For there his boat landing for exploration was set upon by the savage inhabitants, and the entire boat-load murdered. Moving southward again, on August 15th, in latitude 46 degrees 10 minutes, Heceta found himself abreast of some great river. Deciding that this must be indeed the mysterious Strait of Fuca, or the long concealed river of the other ancient navigators, he made two efforts to enter, but the powerful current and uncertain depths deterred him, and he at last gave up the effort and bore away for Monterey. Three additional names were bestowed upon the River at this time. Thinking the entrance a bay, Heceta named it, in honour of the day, Ensenada de Asuncion. Later it was more commonly known as Ensenada de Heceta, while the Spanish charts designated the river as Rio de San Roque. The name of Cabo de Frondoso (Leafy Cape) was bestowed upon the low promontory on the south, now known as Point Adams, while upon the picturesque headland on the north which we now designate as Cape Hancock, the devout Spaniards conferred the name of Cabo de San Roque, August 16th being the day sacred to that saint.
The original account given by Heceta is so interesting that we insert it here:
On the 17th day of August I sailed along the coast to the 46th degree, and observed that from the latitude 47 degrees 4 minutes to that of 46 degrees 10 minutes, it runs in the angle of 18 degrees of the second quadrant, and from that latitude to 46 degrees 4 minutes, in the angle of 12 degrees of the same quadrant; the soundings, the shore, the wooded character of the country, and the little islands, being the same as on the preceding days.
On the evening of this day I discovered a large bay, to which I gave the name Assumption Bay, and a plan of which will be found in this journal. Its latitude and longitude are determined according to the most exact means afforded by theory and practice. The latitudes of the two most prominent capes of this bay are calculated from the observations of this day.
Having arrived opposite this bay at six in the evening, and placed the ship nearly midway between the two capes, I sounded and found bottom in four brazas [nearly four fathoms]. The currents and eddies were so strong that, notwithstanding a press of sail, it was difficult to get out clear of the northern cape, towards which the current ran, though its direction was eastward in consequence of the tide being at flood. These currents and eddies caused me to believe that the place is the mouth of some great river, or of some passage to another sea. Had I not been certain of the latitude of this bay, from my observations of the same day, I might easily have believed it to be the passage discovered by Juan de Fuca, in 1592, which is placed on the charts between the 47th and the 48th degrees; where I am certain no such strait exists; because I anchored on the 14th day of July midway between these latitudes, and carefully examined everything around. Notwithstanding the great difference between this bay and the passage mentioned by De Fuca, I have little difficulty in conceiving they may be the same, having observed equal or greater differences in the latitudes of other capes and ports on this coast, as I will show at the proper time; and in all cases latitudes thus assigned are higher than the real ones.
I did not enter and anchor in this port, which in my plan I suppose to be formed by an island, notwithstanding my strong desire to do so; because, having consulted with the second captain, Don Juan Perez, and the pilot Don Christoval Revilla, they insisted I ought not to attempt it, as, if we let go the anchor, we should not have men enough to get it up, and to attend to the other operations which would be thereby necessary. Considering this, and also, that in order to reach the anchorage, I should be obliged to lower my long boat (the only boat I had) and to man it with at least fourteen of the crew, as I could not manage with fewer, and also as it was then late in the day, I resolved to put out; and at the distance of three leagues I lay to. In the course of that night, I experienced heavy currents to the south-west, which made it impossible to enter the bay on the following morning, as I was far to leeward. These currents, however, convinced me that a great quantity of water rushed from this bay on the ebb of the tide.
The two capes which I name in my plan, Cape San Roque and Cape Frondoso, lie in the angle of 10 degrees of the third quadrant. They are both faced with red earth and are of little elevation.
On the 18th I observed Cape Frondoso, with another cape, to which I gave the name of Cape Falcon, situated in the latitude of 45 degrees 43 minutes, and they lay at an angle of 22 degrees of the third quadrant, and from the last mentioned cape I traced the coast running in the angle of 5 degrees of the second quadrant. This land is mountainous, but not very high, nor so well wooded as that lying between the latitudes of 48 degrees 30 minutes, and 46 degrees. On sounding I found great differences: at a distance of seven leagues I got bottom at 84 brazas; and nearer the coast I sometimes found no bottom; from which I am inclined to believe there are reefs or shoals on these coasts, which is also shown by the colour of the water. In some places the coast presents a beach, in others, it is rocky.
A flat-topped mountain, which I named the Table, will enable any navigator to know the position of Cape Falcon without observing it; as it is in the latitude of 45 degrees 28 minutes, and may be seen at a great distance, being somewhat elevated.
It may be added that the Cape Falcon of Heceta was the bold elevation fronting the sea, known now as Tillamook Head, while the Table Mountain was doubtless what we now call Nekahni Mountain, both points especially the scenes of Indian myth.
Such was the actual discovery of the Columbia River, and as such the Spaniards justly laid claim to Oregon. Their treaty with the United States in 1819 was the formal conveyance of their claims to us. Nevertheless Heceta only half discovered the River. It seems very strange that with the all-important object of two centuries' search before him, he should so readily have succumbed to the fear of the powerful outstanding current. But the Spaniards were not in general the patient and persistent students of the shores that the English and Americans were. Their charts were in general worthless. Nevertheless Spain came nearest "making good" of any of the European powers. In 1779 Bodega and Arteaga sailed far north and sighted a vast snow peak "higher than Orizaba," which was doubtless St. Elias. In the same year Martinez and De Haro established themselves at Nootka. Subsequent voyages of Bodega, Valdez, and Galiano, and their first circumnavigation of Vancouver Island (named by them Quadra's Island, but, by mutual courtesy and good-will of the British and Spanish rivals, designated Vancouver's and Quadra's Island), gave them a clear title to the Pacific Coast of North America from latitude 60 degrees to Mexico.
But "that is another story." What of the Great River? In the very year of the declaration of American independence, the most elaborate expedition yet fitted out for western discovery, set forth from England in command of that Columbus of the eighteenth century, Captain James Cook. After nearly two years of important movements in the Southern Hemisphere and among the Pacific Islands, Cook turned to that goal of all nations, the coast of Oregon. But the same singular fatality which had baffled many of the explorers thus far, attended this most skilful navigator and best equipped squadron thus far seen on Pacific waters. For Cook passed and repassed the near vicinity of both the Straits of Fuca and the Columbia River, but without finding either. Killed by the treacherous natives of Hawaii in 1778, Cook left a great name, a more intelligent conception of world geography than was known before, and greatly strengthened claims by Great Britain to the ownership of pivotal points of the Pacific. Of all the great English navigators, Cook is perhaps best entitled to join the grand chorus that sings the Songs of Seven Seas. But he did not see the Great River of the West. What had become of it? After the fleeting vision which it accorded to Heceta, it seemed to have gone into hiding.
But a new set of motives came into play immediately after Cook's voyage. The two ships, the Resolution and Discovery, took with them to China a quantity of furs from Nootka. A few years earlier, as previously stated, the Russian fur-trade from Avatcha to China had been inaugurated. A great demand for peltries sprang up at once. A new régime dawned in Chinese and East India trade. Gold, silver, and jewels had not thus far rewarded the search of explorers. They were reserved for our later days of need. But the fur-trade was as good as gold. The North Pacific Coast, already interesting, assumed a new importance in the eyes of Europeans. The "struggle for possession" was on. The ships of all nations converged upon the fabled Strait and River of Oregon. English, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Americans, began in the decade of the eighties to crowd to the land where the sea-otter, beaver, seal, and many other of the most profitable furs could be obtained for a trifle. The dangers of trading and the chances of the sea were great, but the profits of success were yet greater.
The fur-trade began to take the place of the gold hunt as a matter of international strife. The manner in which our own country, weak and discordant as its different members were when just emerging from the Revolutionary War, entered the lists, and by the marvellous allotment of Fortune or the design of Providence, slipped in between the greater nations and secured the prize of Oregon, is one of the epics of history, one which ought to have some native Tasso or Calderon to celebrate its triumph.
Following quickly upon the conclusion of the American War, came a series of British, French, and Russian voyages, which gradually centred more particularly about Vancouver Island and Nootka Sound. The British exceeded the others in numbers and enterprise. Among them we find names now preserved at many conspicuous points on the northern coast: as Portlock, Hanna, Dixon, Duncan, and Barclay. The most notable of the French was La Pérouse, who was best equipped for scientific research of any one. A number of Russian names appear at that period, most of which may yet be found upon the maps of Alaska, as Schelikoff, Ismyloff, Betschareff, Resanoff, Krustenstern, and Baranoff.
But none of them set eyes on the River, and it seemed more mythical than ever. As a result, however, of their various expeditions, incomplete though they were, each nation followed the usual practice of claiming everything in sight, either in sight of the eye or the imagination, and demanded the whole coast by priority of discovery.
Never did a geographical entity seem so to play the ignis fatuus with the world as did the River. Thirteen years elapsed from the discovery of the Rio San Roque by Heceta before any one of the dozens who had meanwhile passed up and down the coast, looked in again between the Cabo de Frondoso and the Cabo de San Roque. Then there came on one negative and two positive discoveries, and the elusive stream was really found never to be lost again.
The negative discovery was that of Captain John Meares in 1788. Since England afterwards endeavoured to make the voyages of Meares an important link in her chain of proof to the ownership of Oregon, it is worthy of some special attention. It happened on this wise. Meares came first to the coast of Oregon in 1786, in command of the Nootka to trade for furs for the East India Company. With the Nootka was the Sea-Otter, in command of Captain Walter Tipping. Both seem to have been brave and capable seamen. But disaster followed on their track. For having sailed far up the coast, they followed the Aleutian Archipelago eastward to Prince William's Sound. Separated on the journey, the Nootka reached a safe haven, but her consort never arrived, nor was she ever heard of more. The Nootka, after an Arctic winter of distress and after losing a large part of the crew through the ravages of scurvy, abandoned the trade and returned to China. Discouraged by the outcome, the East India Company abandoned the American trade and confined themselves henceforth to India.
But Meares, finding that the Portuguese had special privileges in the fur-trade and in the harbour of Nootka, entered into an arrangement with some Portuguese traders whereby he went nominally as supercargo, but really as captain of the Felice, under the Portuguese flag. With her sailed the Iphigenia with William Douglas occupying a place similar to that of Meares. In estimating the subsequent pretensions of Great Britain, the student of history may well remember that these two mariners, though Englishmen, were sailing under the flag of Portugal.
Reaching again the coast of Oregon, Meares looked in, June 29, 1788, at the broad entrance of an extensive strait which he believed to be the mythical Strait of Juan de Fuca of two centuries earlier, but which he did not pause to explore. He had resolved to solve the riddle of the Rio San Roque or the Ensenada de Asuncion or de Heceta, and turned his prow southward. On July 5th, in latitude 46 degrees 10 minutes, he perceived a deep bay which he considered at once to be the object of his search. Essaying to enter, he found the water shoaling with dangerous rapidity and a prodigious easterly swell breaking on the shore. From the masthead it seemed that the breakers extended clear across the entrance. With rather curious timidity for a bold Briton right on the eve of a discovery for which all nations had been looking, Meares lost courage and hauled out, attaching the name Deception Bay to the inlet and Cape Disappointment to the northern promontory, the last a name still officially used.
Meares left as his final conclusion in the matter, the following memorandum: "We can now assert that there is no such river as that of St. Roc exists, as laid down in the Spanish charts." In view of this statement of the case it would certainly seem that he could not be accepted as a witness for English discovery, even if the Portuguese flag had not been flying at his masthead.
After bestowing the name of Lookout upon the great headland christened Cape Falcon by Heceta and known to us as Tillamook Head, Meares squared away for Nootka, and there he spent a very profitable season in the fur-trade.
But into the harbour of Nootka that same year of 1788, there sailed the ship of destiny, the Columbia Rediviva, in command of John Kendrick. With the Columbia came the Lady Washington, commanded by Robert Gray. These were the advance guard of Yankee ships which the energies of our liberated forefathers were sending forth as an earnest of the coming conquest of Oregon by the universal Yankee nation.
Gray and Kendrick were engaged in the fur-trade, and their energy and intelligence made it speedily profitable. It took a long time and a long arm, sure enough, in that day, to complete the great circuit of the outfitting, the bartering, the transferring, the return trip, and the final sale;—three years in all. The ship would be fitted out in Boston or New York with trinkets, axes, hatchets, and tobacco, and proceed by the Horn to the coast of Oregon,—six months or sometimes eight. Then up and down the coast, as far as known, they would trade with natives for the precious furs, making a profit of a thousand per cent. on the investment. Gray on one occasion got for an axe a quantity of furs worth $8000. The fur-barter would take another six or eight months. Then with hold packed with bales of furs, the ship would square away for Macao or Canton, six or eight months more. In China, the cargo of furs would go out and a cargo of nankeens, teas, and silks go in, with a great margin of profit at both ends. Then away again to Boston, there to sell the proceeds of that three years' "round-up" of the seas, for probably ten times the entire cost of outfitting and subsistence. The glory, fascination, and gain of the ocean were in it, and also its dangers. Of this sufficient witness is found in vanished ships, murdered crews, storm, scurvy, famine, and war. But it was a great age. Gray and Kendrick were as good specimens of their keen, facile, far-sighted countrymen, as Meares and Vancouver were of the self-opinionated, determined, yet withal manly and thorough Britons.
Among other pressing matters, such as looking out for good fur-trade in order to recoup the Boston merchants who had put their good money into the venture, and looking out for the health of their crew, steering clear of the uncharted reefs and avoiding the treacherous natives, Gray and Kendrick remembered that they were also good Americans. They must see that the new Stars and Stripes had their due upon the new coast.
The first voyage of the two Yankee skippers was ended and they set forth for another round in 1791, but with ships exchanged, Gray commanding the Columbia on this second voyage. The year 1792 was now come, and it was a great year in the annals of Oregon, three hundred years from Columbus, two hundred from Juan de Fuca. The struggle between England and Spain over conflicting rights at Nootka, which at one time threatened war, had been settled with a measure of amicability. As a commissioner to represent Great Britain, Captain George Vancouver was sent out, while Bodega y Quadra was empowered to act in like capacity for Spain. Spaniards and Britons alike realised that, whatever the Nootka treaty may have been, possession was nine points of the law, and both redoubled their efforts to push discovery, and especially to make the first complete exploration of the Straits of Fuca and the supposed Great River. There were great names among the Spaniards in that year, some of which still commemorate some of the most interesting geographical points, as Quimper, Malaspina, Fidalgo, Caamano, Elisa, Bustamente, Valdez, and Galiano. A list of British names now applied to many points, as Vancouver, Puget, Georgia, Baker, Hood, Rainier, St. Helens, Whidby, Vashon, Townsend, and others, attests the name-bestowing care of the British commander.
In going to Nootka as British commissioner, Vancouver was under instructions to make the most careful examination of the coast, especially of the rivers or any interoceanic channels, and thereby clear up the many conundrums of the ocean on that shore. With the best ship, the war sloop Discovery, accompanied by the armed tender Chatham, in command of Lieutenant W. R. Broughton, and with the best crew and best general equipment yet seen on the coast, it would have been expected that the doughty Briton would have found all the important places yet unfound. That the Americans beat him in finding the River and that the Spaniards beat him in the race through the Straits and around Vancouver Island, may be regarded as due partly to a little British obstinacy at a critical time, but mainly due to the appointment of the Fates.
On April 27, 1792, Vancouver passed a "conspicuous point of land composed of a cluster of hummocks, moderately high and projecting into the sea." This cape was in latitude 46 degrees 19 minutes, and Vancouver decided that here were doubtless the Cape Disappointment and Deception Bay of Meares. In spite of the significant fact that the sea here changed its colour, the British commander was so prepossessed with the idea that Meares must have decided correctly the nature of the entrance (for how was it possible for an English sailor to be wrong and a Spaniard right?) that he decided that the opening was not worthy of more attention and passed on up the coast. So the English lost their second great chance of being first to enter the River.
Two days later the lookout reported a sail, and as the ships drew together, the newcomer was seen to be flying the Stars and Stripes. It was the Columbia Rediviva, Captain Robert Gray, of Boston. In response to Vancouver's rather patronising queries, the Yankee skipper gave a summary of his log for some months past. Among other things he stated that he had passed what seemed to be a powerful river in latitude 46 degrees 10 minutes, which for nine days he had tried in vain to enter, being repelled by the strength of the current. He now proposed returning to that point and renewing his effort. Vancouver declined to reconsider his previous decision that there could be no large river, and passed on to make his very elaborate exploration of the Straits of Fuca and their connected waters, and to discover to his great chagrin, that the Spaniards had forestalled him in point of time.
The vessels parted. Gray sailed south and on May 10, 1792, paused abreast of the same reflex of water where before for nine days he had tried vainly to enter. The morning of the 11th dawned clear and favourable, light wind, gentle sea, a broad, clear channel, plainly of sufficient depth. The time was now come. The man and the occasion met. Gray seems from the first to have been ready to take some chances for the sake of some great success. He always hugged the shore closely enough to be on intimate terms with it. And he was ready boldly to seize and use favouring circumstances. So, as laconically stated in his log-book, he ran in with all sail set, and at ten o'clock found himself in a large river of fresh water, at a point about twenty miles from the ocean.
The geographical Sphinx was answered. Gray was its Œdipus, though unlike the ancient Theban myth there was no need that either the Sphinx of the Oregon coast or its discoverer perish. The River recognised and welcomed its master.
The next day the Columbia moved fifteen miles up the stream. Finding that he was out of the channel, Gray stopped further progress and turned again seaward. Natives, apparently friendly disposed, thronged in canoes round the ship, and a large quantity of furs was secured.
The River already bore many names, but Gray added another, and it was the one that has remained, the name of his good ship Columbia. Upon the southern cape he bestowed the name of Adams, and upon the northern, the name Hancock. These also remain.
The great exploit was completed. The long sought River of the West was found, and by an American. The path of destiny for the new Republic of the West was made secure. Without Oregon we probably would not have acquired California, and without a Pacific Coast, the United States would inevitably have been but a second-class power, the prey to European intrigue. The vast importance of the issue then becomes clear. Gray's happy voyage, that Yankee foresight and confidence in his seamanship and intuitive suiting of times and conditions to results which marks the vital turning points of history, differentiate Gray's discovery from all others upon our north-west coast.
As we view the matter now, a century and more later, we can see that our national destiny, and especially the vast part that we now seem at the point of taking in world interests through the commerce of the Pacific, hung in the balance to a certain extent upon the stubborn adherence by Vancouver, the Briton, to the preconceived opinion that there was no important river at the point designated by his Spanish predecessor, and the contrasted readiness of the American Gray to embrace boldly the chances of some great discovery. It is true that the "Oregon Question" was not to be settled for several decades. Much diplomacy and contention, almost to the verge of war, were yet to come, but Gray's fortunate dash, "with all sail set, in between the breakers to a large river of fresh water," gave our nation a lead in the ultimate adjustment of the case, which we never lost.
We have said that there was one negative discovery—that of Meares—and two positive ones. Gray's was one of the two, and that of Broughton, in command of the Chatham accompanying Vancouver, was the other.
On the 20th of May, the Columbia Rediviva—a most auspicious name—bade adieu to the scene of her glory, and with the Stars and Stripes floating in triumph at her mizzen-mast, turned northward. Again the American captain encountered Vancouver and narrated to him his discovery of the Columbia. With deep chagrin at his own failure in the two most important objects of discovery in his voyage, the British commander directed Broughton to return to latitude 46 degrees 10 minutes, enter the river, and proceed as far up as time allowed.
Accordingly, on October 21st, the companion ships parted at the mouth of the River, the Discovery proceeding to Monterey, while the Chatham crossed the bar, described by Broughton as very bad, and endeavoured to ascend the bay that stretched out beautiful and broad before them. But finding the channel intricate and soundings variable, the lieutenant deemed it advisable to leave the ship at a point which must have been about twenty miles from the ocean, and to proceed thence in the cutter.
There is one thing observable in Vancouver's account of this expedition of Broughton, and that is extreme solicitude to establish these two propositions:—first, that the lower part of the Columbia is a bay and that its true mouth is at a point above that reached by Gray; and second, that the River is much smaller than it really is. It is hard to reconcile the language used in Broughton's report as given by Vancouver with the supposition of candour and honesty. For while it is true that the lower part of the River is of bay-like expanse from four to nine miles in width, yet it is entirely fresh and has all river characteristics. One of the points especially made by Gray was that he filled his casks with fresh water. Moreover, the bar is entirely at the ocean limit. So completely does the River debouch into the Ocean, in fact, that in the great flood of 1894 the clams were killed on the ocean beaches for a distance of several miles on either side of the outer headlands through the freshening of the sea.
As to the size of the River, Broughton gives its width repeatedly as half a mile or a quarter of a mile, whereas it is at almost no point below the Cascades less than a mile in width, and a mile and a half is more usual. Broughton expresses the conviction that it can never be used for navigation by vessels of any size. In view of the vast commerce now constantly passing in and out, the absurdity of that idea is and has been for years sufficiently exhibited. The animus of the British explorers is obvious. By showing that the mouth of the River was really an inlet of the sea, they hoped to lay a claim to British occupancy as against Gray's discovery, and by belittling the size of the River they hoped to save their own credit with the British Admiralty for having lost so great a chance for first occupation.
Broughton ascended the River to a point near the modern town of Washougal. He bestowed British names after the general fashion, as Mt. Hood, Cape George, Vancouver Point, Puget's Island, Young's Bay, Menzies' Island, and Whidby's River. With true British assurance, he felt that he had "every reason to believe that the subjects of no other civilised nation or state had ever entered this river before; in this opinion he was confirmed by Mr. Gray's sketch, in which it does not appear that Mr. Gray either saw or was ever within five leagues of its entrance." Therefore he "took possession of the river, and the country in its vicinity, in His Britannic Majesty's name."
In view of all the circumstances of Gray's discovery, and his impartation of it to the British, this language of Vancouver has a coolness, as John Fiske remarks, which would be very refreshing on a hot day.
On November 10th, the Chatham crossed the bar outward bound for Monterey to join the Discovery.
Such, in rapid view, were the essential facts in the long and curiously complicated finding of our River. We see that various nations bore each a part. We see the foundation of the subsequent contention between Great Britain and the United States.