Very pleasant weather, many canoes came along side from down river,[meaning upper parts of the Chehalis and Columbia rivers] and brought plenty of Skins, likewise some canoes from the tribes that first visited us. . . These Natives brought us some fine Salmon and plenty of Beaver Skins, with some Otters, and I believe had we staid longer among them we shou’d have done well.

— John Boit, May 1792

Photograph of a drawing of Robert Gray’s ship, Columbia Redidiva, at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792. By Asahel Curtis. Image 1943.42.62963 courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society

The first recorded contact at Middle Village occurred in early May of 1792 when the American Robert Gray sailed into Baker’s Bay in the ship Columbia. Gray and his crew spent nine days trading with the Chinook. Gray’s first mate, John Boit, recorded his impressions, leaving the first written documentation of the Chinook on Baker Bay. “The Men at Columbia’s River are strat lim’d, fine looking fellows,” wrote Boit, “and the women are very pretty.”

Baker Bay at high tide, April 19, 2005. The upstream end of Baker Bay is at Chinook Point, where Fort Columbia stands today. Image courtesy of Lyn Topinka.

He noted that they had never seen such large trading ships before. Yet, they quickly engaged in trade. “This river,” reported Boit “wou’d be a fine place for to sett up a Factory. The Indians are very numerous, and appear’d very civill (not even offering to steal).”

After nine days, the Americans left the bay with 150 otter skins, 300 beaver, and numerous other animal skins. According to Boit, prices at this first encounter were two salmon for a single nail, with furs “likewise bought cheap, for Copper and cloth.” These rates soon changed. Within a decade, Euro-Americans complained about the high cost of goods at the river’s mouth.

“Capt. Robt. Gray’s ship COLUMBIA meeting Capt. George Vancouver’s ships HMS DISCOVERY and CHATHAM off the Washington coast April 29, 1792.” By Steve Mayo. Image 2011.75.1 courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society

Five months later, Captain Robert Gray in the Discovery and Lieutenant William Broughton in the Chatham entered the Columbia River. Broughton sailed upriver as far as the Cascades near today’s Bonneville Dam.

These encounters on the Northwest Coast were pivotal in a contest over land between the U.S. and Great Britain, a competition that all but ignored the original inhabitants. It would take more than 50 years, a war, ongoing commercial ventures, and waves of disease and settlement before the United States secured settlement rights from Great Britain in the 1846 Oregon Treaty.

How did international treaty law develop? Learn about the Doctrine of Discovery. For information about Baker Bay, courtesy of Lyn Topinka, see Columbia River Images – Baker Bay.