Captain Robert Gray enters Grays Harbor on May 7, 1792.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 1/13/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5050
On May 7, 1792, American fur trader Robert Gray (1755-1806) enters Grays Harbor, a large natural harbor on the Pacific coast south of the Olympic Peninsula in present-day Grays Harbor County. Gray, on his second trading voyage to the Northwest Coast from New England, is exploring the coast south of the Strait of Juan de Fuca following a year of trading for sea otter and other furs on Vancouver Island. He and his crew are the first non-Indians to enter Grays Harbor.

In addition to seeking furs, Gray was on the lookout for a great river, whose presence he had detected on several previous occasions. On May 7, four days before entering and naming the Columbia River, Gray spotted a likely harbor some 40 miles north of the Columbia.

The harbor was protected by sand bars over which a strong current was flowing, with breakers at the entrance making the approach hazardous. However, after sending a small boat ahead to take soundings, Gray headed his ship, the Columbia Rediviva, through the surf and successfully crossed into the shelter of the harbor.

Trade and Tragedy

Many inhabitants of the harbor soon approached the ship in canoes carved from huge logs. Their reactions indicated that they had not seen sailing ships or white men before. Gray's crew, who were familiar with the Makah Indians farther up the coast, did not recognize the language spoken by these people, who were probably Chehalis. Despite the language barrier, the New Englanders soon entered into a brisk trade with the Indians for otter and beaver skins as well as salmon.

The difficulty in communication may have contributed to a tragedy on the night of May 8, when the Columbia's crew feared that a canoe approaching the ship intended to attack it. The ship fired its cannon, destroying the canoe and probably killing some of its occupants. Even after this violence, Indians returned to the Columbia the next day and continued trading. However, Gray was eager to continue his explorations, and he departed the harbor after three days.

The Harbor Named

Gray apparently intended to name the harbor Bullfinch Harbor in honor of one of the owners of the Columbia, although his crew called it Gray's Harbor after their captain. Later explorers also gave Gray's name to the harbor. Lt. Joseph Whidbey, of Capt. George Vancouver's British expedition, surveyed the harbor in October 1792, labeling it Gray's Harbor, and a Spanish expedition of the same year called it Puerto de Gray.

The publication of Vancouver's charts established the name Gray's Harbor, which, without the apostrophe, remains in use today. In 1915, the county in which Grays Harbor is located, previously called Chehalis County (after the river flowing into the harbor), was renamed Grays Harbor County.


Sources: Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923), 43-44, 102; Murray Morgan, The Last Wilderness (New York: Viking Press, 1955), 25-27; J. Richard Nokes, Columbia's River (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1991), 183-85, 190.

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