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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

Our chapter is named for American explorer, Captain Robert Gray. On May 7, 1792, Capt. Gray "discovered" the entrance to what came to be called Grays Harbor, then home to hundreds of Native Americans. 

Capt. Robert Gray was born May 10, 1755, in Tiverton, RI.
 He was a descendant of Edward Gray of England and his second wife, Dorothy Lettice*. They  became some of the original purchasers of Tiverton where Captain Robert Gray was later born to William M. Gray and Elizabeth Dennis 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 while 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 Natives 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 Natives 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 the newly formed United States claim what would eventually become the states of Washington and Oregon.

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.  He fought for the United States in two wars: The Revolutionary War and the Naval War with France in 1798.

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!

*Some genealogy sites list Robert Gray as descending from Edward Gray and Mayflower passenger Mary Winslow. According to the Mayflower Society, Mary was Edward's first wife, but Robert Gray descends from Edward's second wife, Dorothy Lettice. Consequently, Robert Gray is not considered a Mayflower descendant.


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.

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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