Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Columbia River: Vancouver and Gray from Menzies' Perspective

I am reading a portion of Archibald Menzies' Journal. Menzies was the ship naturalist on Vancouver's expedition that included the Pacific Northwest.

Menzies clearly notes a large river at the present day mouth of the Columbia River observed on April 27, 1792: 

"About noon seeing some whitish water ahead induced us to haul the wind to the North West off the land to avoid the apparent danger of getting into shoal water. The exterior edge of this water like the former we met with made a defined line with the other & appeared muddy like the over flowings of a considerable river. Our Latitude was 46 14' North & the northern extreme which made a naked rocky point apparently separated from the land behind it which was covered with Trees bore North 5 or 6 miles from us. I could see at this time from the Mast head the appearance of a river or inlet going in on the South side of this rocky point which I took to be what Mr. Mears named Cape Disappointment, it is by us in Latitude 46 19' N & Longitude 236 4' East."

Mr. Mears referred to above was an earlier British explorer  who explored the area of the Columbia's mouth and stated "We can now with safety assert, that no such river as that of St. Roc exists, as laid down in the Spanish charts." Mears exploration and disappointment took place in 1788.

Spanish explorer Heceta had definitely noted a river that the location but was unable to sail into the river due to currents and lack of favorable wind. His attempt was in 1775.

Robert Gray, the American sailor on a private funded trading expedition had noted the river on a previous trading mission and returned to the area essentially at the same time Vancouver passed by the river. In fact they met the day after Vancouver by passed any attempt to sail into the river. The day after Vancouver had sailed past the Columbia as described by Menzies above, he met Gray sailing south and Gray informed Vancouver about the river.

Vancouver noted in his ship log that the river Gray mentioned "was probably the opening found by me on the forenoon of the 27th, and was inaccessible, not from the current, but from the breakers which extend across it.

Gray managed to get his boat through the shoals and rough water and into the river where he took on fresh water and traded profitably with the local Indians. His purpose was trading.

It was only later that the river became a point of competing claims to which nation had a claim on the Pacific Northwest. Gray's "discovery" of the Columbia was greatly hyped by Americans. It helped that Lewis and Clark traveled down the river before any British pulled off the feat. But in terms of just who ended up with which territory I would suggest that American pioneers in what became Oregon overwhelmed any British claims in what is now Oregon. But for the Washington State area the Columbia played a big role in a similar manner as to why Vancouver steered his ship clear of the river entrance. The much later American Wilkes Expedition reached the mouth of the Columbia and Wilkes determined that entering the river was not a good idea. He found the Puget Sound waters much more favorable and of great importance for future access.  

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