Who Was The First American To Circumnavigate The Globe?

WORLD HISTORY | April 11, 2019

Capt. Gray's ship, the Columbia, painted in 1793 by George Davidson. Source: (Oreg. Hist. Soc. Research Library, OrHi984)

At the end of the War of Independence, the United States was bustling with the energy of a new nation. Opportunities were seen abroad for American expansion and influence. Curiously, in this atmosphere, the first American to circumnavigate the globe did not do so for glory but for profit.

Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806) Source: (Oreg. Hist. Soc. Research Library)

A Former Privateer

Captain Robert Gray was born on May 10, 1755, in Tiverton, Rhode Island. Not much is known about Gray’s early life except that he commanded an American privateer during the War of Independence. After the war, he offered his services to a group of Boston merchants. The New Englanders had read the reports of the British explorer James Cook who had made a landing on the Oregon coast in 1778. There were purportedly valuable resources ready for exploitation, particularly furs.  

Modern replica of the Lady Washington in Morro Bay, California, 2007. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

A New Trade Route

The syndicate invested $50,000 and fitted out a full-rigged ship of 212 tons for a venture. It was named the Columbia Rediviva although it is commonly called just Columbia. To accompany the Columbia, was the 90-ton sloop, the Lady Washington. John Kendrick was named master of the Columbia while Gray was to master the Lady Washington. The ships, laden with trade goods such as hardware, knives, and blankets, were to sail to the Pacific Northwest, trade for furs and head west to China to trade the cargo for tea and other Asian goods.

After receiving directions to treat the Native Peoples fairly and kindly, Gray and Kendrick sailed from Boston Harbor on October 1, 1787. The long voyage was vexed by heavy seas and gales, particularly about the notorious Cape Horn. The ships became separated, and the Columbia with a scurvy afflicted crew was forced to put in at the Juan Fernandez islands for repairs. Gray and Lady Washington sailed on alone.

Vintage engraving of a Chief of the Tla-o-qui-aht (Clayoquot). Ferdinand Hirts Geographische Bildertafeln,1886. Source: (gettyimages.com)

First Encounter

Gray touched land north of modern-day San Francisco on August 2, 1788. He began trading with the local Native Americans who were numerous in the region judging by the number of fires the mariners saw burning on the coast at night. However, initial friendliness turned to bloodshed when an altercation occurred over a Native American steeling a crew member’s cutlass. The crew member was stabbed to death by a group of natives and Gray’s men were forced to flee back to the ship. Lady Washington fired its guns at the indigenous war canoes, scattering them.

Gray kept sailing north until on September 17, 1788, he anchored in Nootka Sound off Vancouver Island. He was soon joined by Captain Kendrick and the Columbia. The two conducted a vigorous trade with the indigenous peoples taking aboard a large cargo of pelts, particularly sea otter. However, even in this seemingly remote corner of the world, Gray found himself thrust into geopolitics. The Pacific Northwest was seen by many countries as a region with riches to be exploited. Gray and Kendrick became marginally involved in squabbles between the British and the Spanish. Some Americans, which had arrived after Gray and Kendrick, were even captured by the Spanish. The captives by the Spanish were eventually released and the incident did not damage the United States’ relations with Spain, although the Nootka Crisis nearly brought Spain and Great Britain to war.

It was at about this time, that Kendrick and Gray swapped ships. Kendrick was to stay behind in Lady Washington to continue trading, while Gray was to sail on to China with a hold full of furs. Kendrick for his part wanted to voyage more and interacted more positively with the native peoples.  

The Columbia Rediviva on the Columbia River. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

Circling the Globe

Gray departed on July 30, 1789, and after a stop at Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands), he reached Canton on November 16. After haggling for months, he did not obtain a great price for the pelts, but he did manage to make some profit and take on a load of cargo.

He headed home on February 12, 1790, in the long westward voyage vis-à-vis the Cape of Good Hope. After crossing the Atlantic he entered Boston Harbor on August 10, 1790. He had been gone for nearly two and a half years and was the first American captain to circle the globe. Gray was celebrated in Boston with Governor John Hancock holding a reception for him.

Gray's men battling Native Americans near Tillamook Bay (From The Centennial History of Oregon, 1811-1912. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

A Second Violent Voyage

The Columbia was quickly refitted and this time Gray was a partial owner of the ship. He sailed from Boston on September 28, 1790, reaching Vancouver Island on June 4, 1791.

This second voyage was notable because of its discoveries and violence. He spent time exploring the region and in the process discovered the Columbia River (the river was named after the ship) proceeding as far as what was to be called Gray’s Bay. These explorations would give support to later American territorial claims in the region. He also passed on his information to the British explorer, Captain George Vancouver who subsequently explored the river as well and gave Britain a claim to the region.

But Gray’s interactions with the Native Americans grew increasingly violent. This was due to communication problems as well as Gray’s reputedly arrogant attitude toward the natives. Relations had broken down and Gray’s shore post was attacked on January 18, 1792, by an estimated 3,000 Native Americans. The attack was beaten back and Gray ordered his men to burn 200 homes in the empty village of Opitsaht on Meares Island. More valuable still was the native art and artifacts that were destroyed. They also kidnapped a son of a Chief of the Tla-o-qui-aht. In another incident in Gray’s Bay, the Columbia opened fire on the natives. A mate recorded in the log, “I am sorry we was oblidg’d to kill the poor Divells, but it cou’d not with safety be avoided.”

A Northwest Native American Canoe. Source: (gettyimages.com)


Gray left the region and repeated the voyage to China and then Boston. He returned on July 20, 1793, completing his second circumnavigation.

Gray’s voyages gave the United States a claim to the region which eventually formed the basis for the establishment of the states of the Pacific Northwest. His voyages too unlocked a trade route for the United States which in the early 19th century became a major maritime trading nation. As for Gray, he returned home, settled and had children. He later mastered a privateer during the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800). He died at sea in 1806 of yellow fever. Historians have not been kind to Gray who criticize his ruthlessness and drive for profit. However, they cannot deny his impact.

The violence associated with Gray’s voyages reverberates to the 21st century. In an act of reconciliation, the descendants of Robert Gray offered apologies to the descendants of the Tla-o-qui-aht in 2005. The ceremony, which included replicas of Gray’s ship and native canoes was formal. The chief accepted the apology and noted “I think it’s brought closure to something that’s been a part of our history for a long time. I think it went a long way to provide some healing for a lot of people.”  

Tags: 1700s | people | robert gray | sail around the world

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