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On August 9, 1790, the Columbia Rediviva (Latin for “revived”) became the first ship to carry the U.S. flag around the world. A privately owned ship, and generally known simply as Columbia, it left Boston on September 30, 1787, under the command of John Kendrick. During the first part of this voyage, the Columbia was accompanied by another vessel, the sloop Lady Washington. It served as a tender for Columbia, and was commanded by Robert Gray.
The ships reached the Pacific Ocean via South America’s Cape Horn. They sailed northward along the coast of South America and then as far north as Vancouver Island off the western coast of Canada in September 1788. They remained anchored there throughout the winter months.
Reasons for the voyage
After trade began between the United States and China, merchants sought a commodity other than ginseng (which had a limited market), to trade with Chinese merchants for the tea, silks and porcelain that was in demand in the U.S.
A group of Boston merchants believed there was profit to be made in trading with the Native Americans on the northwestern coast of North America for sea otter furs, and then sailing to Canton to trade the furs, which were highly prized in China, for tea and other goods.
These merchants underwrote the voyage of the Columbia and the Lady Washington to sail around the Horn in search of fortune. The voyage marked the beginning of what became the highly profitable triangular Boston-Northwest coast-Canton trade. In fact, Boston dominated this fur trade to such a degree that all traders along the coast were referred to by Native Americans as “Boston men.” The northwestern coast fur trade enriched many Boston companies and families until after the War of 1812 (when other commodities replaced sea otter furs as trade goods with China).
Rediviva was added to the Columbia’s name when she was rebuilt in 1787. Some claim the ship was built in 1773 by James Briggs at Hobart’s Landing on the North River in Norwell, Massachusetts. Other historians believe she was built in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1787.
Since neither educated guess can be confirmed nearly 250 years later, the reader is free to choose which guess to believe. Regardless, the Columbia was a three-masted sailing ship of 212 tons, owned by Joseph Barrell of Boston.
The initial voyage
Apparently, Captain Kendrick was a difficult master. Because of differences with Kendrick, Simon Woodruff, the Columbia’s first officer, took his discharge at St. Jago’s, Jamaica. Robert Haswell, who had joined the Columbia as third officer, was promoted to the position of second officer after Woodruff departed.
However, by the time the Columbia had sailed further south and reached the Falkland Islands (a group of about 740 islands that are located 400 miles off the southeast coast of South America), Haswell and Captain Kendrick were also at odds. That led Haswell to leave the Columbia to become second officer of the Lady Washington. He remained with the sloop until July 1789.
After sailing from the Falkland Islands, the ship stopped at Juan Fernandez Island, Chile, before arriving on September 23, 1788 in Nootka Sound near Vancouver Island, in what became the Canadian province of British Columbia.
After wintering off of Vancouver Island, Kendrick and Gray switched ships, with Kendrick taking over the Lady Washington. The sloop remained in the waters off the Pacific Northwest; its crew continued to trade for furs along the coast.
The Columbia – now captained by Gray – then sailed from Nootka Sound July 30, 1789. She sailed to the Sandwich Islands (which are now known as the Hawaiian Islands). The Columbia reached the Sandwich Islands in September 1789, and spent three weeks sailing to each of the major islands. The Columbia then sailed for Macao, and then on to Canton, China, arriving on November 16, 1789.
After leaving Canton on February 12, 1790, Columbia sailed for Boston, traveling west from China to Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope and then to Ascension Island. It is an isolated volcanic island, south of the equator in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is about 1,000 miles from the west coast of Africa and 1,400 miles from the coast of South America. Circumnavigating the world, the ship and its crew returned to Boston on August 9, 1790, nearly 35 months after they departed.
Unfortunately, the voyage was not profitable to the merchants who financed the trip. However, they almost immediately financed the Columbia’s second voyage – under Captain Gray.
The second voyage of the Columbia
Haswell and Captain Gray must have worked well together; Haswell shipped out as the Columbia’s first officer for the ship’s second voyage, which began in September 1790 and lasted until July 1793.
After leaving Boston, the Columbia generally retraced the route taken on the first voyage. The ship and her crew reached the Pacific Northwest in 1792. Captain Gray is credited with discovering the entrance to the Columbia River, which he named after his ship. His discovery served as the basis for American claims to what became known as the Oregon Country (and then the Oregon Territory). The river and its basin became the name given to the surrounding region, and subsequently to the British colony to the north that ultimately became the Canadian province of British Columbia.
Gray also gave his name to Grays Harbor, which is an estuarine bay located 45 miles north of the mouth of the Columbia River. Its location was part of what became the Oregon Territory, but is now in Washington state.
Gray and the Columbia continued to Canton and around the world again, reaching Boston on July 20, 1793.
Historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote the following about the ship and her crew: “On her first voyage, the Columbia solved the riddle to the China trade. On her second, empire followed in the wake.”
The Columbia continued to sail until it was decommissioned and salvaged in 1806. Meanwhile, a replica of the Lady Washington is located at Grays Harbor Historical Seaport in Aberdeen, Washington.
The ship’s legacy
A full-scale replica of the Columbia was launched as an attraction (named “Sailing Ship Columbia”), in Frontierland at Disneyland in 1958. The three-masted vessel is still entertaining visitors in Disneyland’s Rivers of America. As part of the attraction, “Below Decks” is an exhibit of nautical artifacts from the 18th century that can be viewed while on board.
In July 1969, the name “Columbia” was used for the Apollo 11 command module. This NASA mission landed humans on the Moon for the first time. NASA used the name again for the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981.
The Columbia will always have an honored place in history as the first American ship to circumnavigate the world.
FreightWaves Classics thanks the Massachusetts Historical Society, Archives West, Bohham’s and Wikipedia for information that was used in this article.