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Grays Harbor with Mount Rainier in background

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Biography of Robert Gray

Meet Captain Robert Gray: He Discovered Grays Harbor

and Fought in the Revolutionary War

by Carol Stubb

Why is our DAR chapter named Robert Gray? Because an American sea captain of that name was the first to sail into our harbor in a sailing ship.  His crewmen named it Grays Harbor. The ship: COLUMBIA. The date: May 7, 1792. So who was Robert Gray?

Capt. Robert Gray was born May 10, 1755, in Tiverton, RI.
 He was a descendant of Edward Gray of England and Mayflower passenger Mary Winslow. They  became some of the original purchasers of Tiverton where Captain Robert Gray was later born to William M. Gray (Samuel3, Edward2, Edward1) and Elizabeth _________ of Tiverton RI.  Robert was married on February 3, 1794, at the age of 39 to a Massachusetts woman, Martha Howland Atkins,1 and they had four daughters.  He died of what was thought to be yellow fever off the coast of Charleston, SC, in July 1806. Later, in 1846, Congress awarded his wife Martha Gray a pension of $500 per year for his services.2

Captain Robert Gray's first sailing expedition to the Pacific North Coast was in 1787, in the ship LADY WASHINGTON researching the fur trade. His principal discoveries, however, were made on his second trip, on the COLUMBIA, in 1792.

He dared to sail closer to land than other mariners before him, so was able to see what appeared to be an entrance to inland waters not yet charted. He made entrance across the sand bar, and put down anchor in our harbor.

A 16-year-old ship's officer, John Boit, kept a journal (which was later notarized as official by the Library of Congress, Washington,  D.C. As the COLUMBIA entered the previously unknown harbor, Boit wrote that Gray invited the curious Indians surrounding them in canoes to come aboard. Boit wrote: " ... they was well arm'd, every man having his Quiver and bow slung over his shoulder ... we purchas'd furs and fish."  When they left four days later, Boit wrote: "Named the harbor we Left after our Captain."

As important as this discovery was, Capt. Gray was impatient to sail further down the coast. He was searching for the entrance to the fabled Great River of the West. He had tried before, but severe seas prevented discovery. No known sailing ship had yet been able to breach that entrance. Besides, most geographers doubted the existence of the "mysterious river."

Capt. Gray was determined! After many tries, on May 11, 1792, the Columbia successfully fought its way into this fast-moving river, and sailed six miles upstream, to the amazement of Indians who followed in canoes. They traded furs for copper and spikes, according to Boit's Journal.

Gray was nine days in that mighty river. What an exploit! He did some charting as he sailed back to the Pacific Ocean. He named it "Columbia's River."  This, Grays Harbor, and other of Gray's significant discoveries along the Pacific Coast are credited with greatly helping American claims to all of the Oregon Country.

He completed his journey by sailing to China and on to Boston, thereby being the first American sea captain to circumnavigate the globe.  Back in Boston, he was honored by a reception given by the Massachusetts governor.

Gray also built the first American ship on the Pacific Coast.  And he fought for America in two wars: The Revolutionary War; and the Naval War with France in 1798. This service was done before and after his explorations.

Crossing the bar into Grays Harbor was not easy then, and it isn't now! But entering the mouth of the Great River of the West was nearly impossible for the small sailing vessels of that day. But he did it! Our chapter of DAR is proud to be named after such a man. Our organizing members must have been a sturdy group of women as well. Carry on, ladies!


1Gray, Rodney W. Some of the Gray Line.

2Lockley, Fred. 1928. History of the Columbia River Valley: From the Dalles to the Sea. The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, Chicago, IL.

It should be noted that, as with all surnames, varying lineages exist on different websites. Such is true with this line where some believe that Robert Gray descended from Edward Gray and Dorothy Lettice, Edward's second wife, and Robert's lineage may be William, Edward, Edward, omitting the Samuel (above). In addition, William's wife's maiden name was Dennis.

For further study, read: Cross, F.E. and Parkin, Jr., Chas. M. 1987. Captain Gray in the PNW: Captain Gray's Voyages of Discovery, 1787-1793.  Also see,  Memorial Album of Revolutionary Soldiers, Compiled by Florence Hazen Miller of Crete, Nebraska, Published in 1958. page 125.

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