FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Columbia Rediviva was the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe

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On August 9, 1790, the Columbia Rediviva (Latin for “resurrected”) became the first ship to carry the American flag around the world. A private ship, generally known simply as Columbia, she left Boston on September 30, 1787, under the command of John Kendrick. During the first part of this trip, the Columbia was accompanied by another ship, the sloop Lady Washington. It served as a tender for Columbia and was commanded by Robert Gray.

The ships reached the Pacific Ocean via Cape Horn in South America. They sailed north along the coast of South America, then as far north as Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada in September 1788. They remained anchored there throughout the winter months.

A painting showing the Columbia Rediviva, under the command of Captain Robert Gray, listing as a gust approaches.  It was painted by George Davidson, the ship's artist, in 1793.
A painting showing the Columbia Rediviva, under the command of Captain Robert Gray, listing as a gust approaches. It was painted by George Davidson, the ship’s artist, in 1793.

Reasons for travel

After the start of trade between the United States and China, merchants sought a commodity other than ginseng (which had a limited market), to trade with Chinese merchants for tea, silk and porcelain which were in demand. in the USA.

A group of Boston merchants believed there were profits to be made by trading with Native Americans on the northwest coast of North America for sea otter furs, then sailing to Canton to trade furs, which were highly prized in China, for tea and other goods.

These merchants financed 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 Boston-Northwest Coast-Township triangular 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 Northwest Coast fur trade enriched many Boston businesses and families until after the War of 1812 (when other commodities replaced sea otter furs as trade commodities with China).

An artist's sketch of the ship Columbia Rediviva on the Columbia River.  (unknown artist/public domain)
An artist’s sketch of the ship Columbia Rediviva on the Columbia River. (unknown artist/public domain)

British Columbia

Rediviva was added to 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 it was built in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1787.

Since no educated guess can be confirmed almost 250 years later, the reader is free to choose which guess to believe. Anyway, the Columbia was a 212-ton, three-masted sailing ship owned by Joseph Barrell of Boston.

The first trip

Apparently Captain Kendrick was a difficult master. Due to differences with Kendrick, Simon Woodruff, Columbia’s first officer, took his release to St. Jago’s, Jamaica. Robert Haswell, who had joined the Columbia as a third officer, was promoted to second officer after Woodruff’s departure.

The northwest coasts of what is now the United States and Canada.
The northwest coasts of what is now the United States and Canada.

However, by the time the Columbia had sailed further south and reached the Falkland Islands (a group of about 740 islands located 400 miles off the southeast coast of South America), Haswell and Captain Kendrick also disagreed. This led Haswell to leave the Columbia to become second officer of the Lady Washington. He remained with the sloop until July 1789.

After leaving the Falkland Islands, the ship called 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 Vancouver Island, Kendrick and Gray changed ships, with Kendrick taking control of the Lady Washington. The sloop remained in the waters off the Pacific Northwest; her crew continued to trade furs along the coast.

The Columbia – now commanded by Gray – then left Nootka Sound on July 30, 1789. It 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 main islands. The Columbia then sailed to Macao, then to Canton, China, where it arrived 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 lies approximately 1,000 miles from the west coast of Africa and 1,400 miles from the coast of South America. Circumnavigating the globe, the ship and her crew returned to Boston on August 9, 1790, nearly 35 months after their departure.

Unfortunately, the voyage was not profitable to the merchants who financed the voyage. However, they almost immediately funded Columbia’s second voyage – under Captain Gray.

The second voyage of the Columbia

A statue of Robert Gray in Garibaldi, Tillamook County, Oregon.  (Photo: sos.oregon.gov)
A statue of Robert Gray in Garibaldi, Tillamook County, Oregon.
(Photo: sos.oregon.gov)

Haswell and Captain Gray must have worked well together; Haswell embarked as 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 (then Oregon Territory). The river and its basin became the name given to the surrounding region and then to the British colony to the north which eventually became the Canadian province of British Columbia.

Captain Robert Gray and the crew of the Columbia near the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792. (Image: a painting in the Oregon state capitol)
Captain Robert Gray and the crew of the Columbia near the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792.
(Image: a painting hanging in the Oregon State Capitol)

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 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.

A map of Gray's Harbor today.  (Image: Wikipedia Commons)
A map of Gray’s Harbor today. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote the following about the ship and its crew: “On her maiden voyage, the Columbia solved the riddle of trade with China. At his second, the empire followed in its wake.

The Columbia continued to sail until it was decommissioned and salvaged in 1806. Meanwhile, a replica of the Lady Washington sits at the historic seaport of Grays Harbor in Aberdeen, Washington.

The Ship’s Legacy

A full-scale replica of the Columbia was launched as an attraction (named “Sailing Ship Columbia”), at Frontierland at Disneyland in 1958. The three-masted ship still entertains visitors at Disneyland’s Rivers of America. As part of the attraction, “Below Decks” is an exhibit of 18th century nautical artifacts that can be viewed on board.

An advertisement for the Disneyland replica of the Columbia.  (Picture: disneyhistory101.com)
An advertisement for the Disneyland replica of the Columbia. (Picture: disneyhistory101.com)

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.

Landing!  Space Shuttle Columbia lands on Runway 23, ending the highly successful STS-1 mission.  (Photo: NASA)
Landing! Space Shuttle Columbia lands on Runway 23, ending the highly successful STS-1 mission. (Photo: NASA)

The Columbia will always have a place of honor in history as the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe.

FreightWaves Classics thanks the Massachusetts Historical Society, Archives West, Bohham’s, and Wikipedia for information used in this article.

The American flag that sailed around the world with Captain Gray on the Columbia.  (Photo: Oregon: Her History, Her Great Men, Her Literature, by John B. Horner, first copyrighted 1919)
The American flag that sailed around the world with Captain Gray on the Columbia.
(Photo: Oregon: Her History, Her Great Men, Her Literature, by John B. Horner, first copyrighted 1919)
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