THE DISCOVERY OF OREGON
copyright (c) 1977, 2006 by Marilee Miller
The Discovery of Oregon, including the South Coast.......
To "discover" something implies that it is heretofore
missing, or unknown. In one sense, of course, Oregon never
has been "lost". This land has always huddled in the place
where it accepts the influences of the Pacific Ocean. And for
generations, Native Americans lived here. They didn't
consider the territory unknown (although it wasn't then called
On the other hand, Medieval Europeans didn't even know of
the existence of a new continent which would be called North
America. In the 13th Century, Europe's own lands comprised
just about all of their then "known world."
However, in 1296, the publication of Marco Polo's overland
journey to China (which he called Cathay), provided important
knowledge about the vast lands of the Orient. Eventually,
sailors explored the coast of Africa. By 1488, Portugul's
Bartolomeu Dias had discovered the Cape of Good Hope.
Might not ships sail easterward to reach the valuable spices and
condiments of the East?
For years, countless school children learned a little ditty.
"Columbus sailed the ocean blue
Christopher Columbus believed all the continents joined.
For Spain's glory, he proposed to sail his small convoy -- the
Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria -- to the West to make
contact with the Eastern shore. And lo! he did make landfall.
Hence the expression: "Columbus discovered America."
However, he didn't know he had discovered an unknown
continent, with its attendant islands.. He thought his ships
docked between the sub=continent of India and the
celebrated Cathay itself. More filled in spaces appeared
on the maps of the world. A new name appeared: Anian
(after Indo-Chinese Annam, or Assam).
Then an Italian geographer conceived of Asia and North
America as separate continents. He split the old world to make
a brand new continent by the insertion of the imaginary strait
of Anian, about where Oregon came to be written on later
maps. But did he check reports from intrepid explorers of the
sea? Not at all. Apparently the idea came from his spinning
In 1728, Bering’s exploration finally proved the continents
did not join. By this time, however, Europeans already
believed steadfastly in the theory of separate continents. ans.
Other adventuresome mapmakers, some of whom never left
homes in London or Spain, refused to label the new lands
“Unknown Territory.” These cartographers embellished vast
blanks, especially on our West Coast, with creative inventions.
In 1540, Coronado, the Spanish explorer, applied the name
Quivira to a mythical city. Supposedly natives in New Mexico
told in detail about ships from Cathay reaching this coast.
Gold and silver abounded. Although Coronado never found the
legendary Quivira, another name made its way onto the maps.
About 1579, Sir Francis Drake originated the name New
Albion. A number of maps extended the kingdom of New
Albion as far northward as the present state of Oregon. At
least Drake actually did sail up the Pacific Coast! So his
findings were documentable. However, the northernmost point
of his journey is disputed. He may have put in at Humboldt
Bay, in Northern California, or some other California port.
Possibly he came as far north as Coos Bay, or some other port
A thorough imposter named Juan de Fuca helped stir the
famous search for the Northwest Passage, a linkage of rivers
and lakes reputed to stretch from Atlantic to Pacific.
In 1596, de Fuca detailed his adventures in a strait some 30
– 40 miles wide at the mouth. He “saw” inhabitants wearing
the skins of animals. However, when the actual Strait of Juan
de Fuca was finally charted by Captain Charles Barkley in
1787, the details would not fit. Yes, there was a Strait. But it
wasn't as he'd described it. (De Fuca moved as freely with his
name as he had with his account. Actually, he was not a
Spaniard, but a Greek ship pilot named Apostolos Valerianos.)
By 1603, the River of the West, or Northwest Passage, was
regarded as a certainty.
The Spaniard, Martin de Aguilar, was commissioned by the
Viceroy of Mexico to claim the lands along the West Coast for
Spain, and to search for the river. Aguilar reports that he did,
indeed, locate a great river. An old Spanish journal describes
“”When the wind had become less violent they continued
their journey close along the shore, and…from that point the
coast begins to turn to the northwest” (that is, above Cape
Blanco) “and near it was discovered a rapid and abundant river,
with ash trees, willows, brambles, and other trees of Castile on
its banks, which they endeavored to enter, but could not from
the force of the current.” [Walling, History of Oregon 1884,
Did Aguilar make up the story about a great river to gain
prestige? If not, why did his lavish proportions differ from
reality? For the later explorers found no "rapid and abundant
river" -- indeed, they found no river at all -- at the latitude
Aguilar recorded. .
Carey, in his history book, believes Aguilar must have
sighted the Columbia. Orvil Dodge, Coos County historian,
affirms in 1898, that without question Martin de Aguilar
anchored outside Port Orford. Walling, writing in 1884,
maintains it must have been the Umpqua. Still other histories
vote that Aguilar mistook the waters of Coos Bay for his “rapid
and abundant river”.
The rivers and lands of great promise of those early
mapmakers led to disappointment. There were no Quiveras.
The Northwest Passage, conceived by hopeful dreamers, would
finally be proven not to exist.
But after the myths, came true scientific exploration.
In a land spread with forests and hilly ranges, a major river
would one day play a prominent role in development of the
state of Oregon.
The search for the celebrated Northwest Passage went on.
Captain George Vancouver, an Englishman, was commissioned
to find this waterway, and to note all landmarks. He put in at
Cape Blanco, or Orford, and continued up the coast.
In spite of the presence of “river-colored” water in a certain
location, and an officer’s journal about sighting a very
extensive Shoal,” [Carey, or Walling?] Vancouver sailed by
the powerful Columbia without investigation. He didn’t see
other bays in Oregon, either. Nor the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Vancouver denied all reports about a Northwest Passage.
Did this prejudice blind him to a chance to conduct actual
The Columbia River, though not that notable link from
Pacific to Atlantic (Northwest Passage), was Oregon’s major
landmark. Its discovery a few days after Vancouver passed it
by, later was to leave impact on the world.
After Captain Vancouver put in at Nootka Sound, a strange
sail was sighted. When hailed, the ship proved to be Captain
Robert Gray’s “Columbia”, out of Boston.
On April 27, 1792, Captain Gray had located and explored a
major river, which he called after the ship, the “Columbia,” a
vessel flying the new Stars and Stripes. America, rather than
England, took possession of the new territory because of
Vancouver's “mistake”. Vancouver must have been astonished
to learn of Gray’s thorough exploration of the lower stretches
of a river the Englishman said didn’t exist.
Perhaps Gray demonstrated more courage in sailing close to
the shoreline. Or maybe the weather was better! Where
Vancouver found nothing worthy of comment, Gray charted
bays and rivers along the entire coast of the new land.
The so-called Northwest Passage had also been known as
the “River of the West,” or the Oregon River. After Gray
called Oregon’s river the Columbia, the name Oregon became
a reference to the land mass of the Pacific Northwest. And so
the name, Oregon Territory, was born.
When settlers began to come, the Columbia River held a
prime importance. In fact, all the waterways of Oregon helped
shape the lives of the pioneers who were to live here.
[The foregoing text is adapted from scripts written by author for "Soundings", a local history series broadcast on KCBY-TV, Coos Bay, Oregon, ca. 1977-8]
THE PART BELOW IS STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION !
The name Oregon. Jedediah Smith. Soldiers at Ft Umpqua. 49'ers gold rush.
Lewis and Clark. Jefferson. Manifest Destiny. Great Migration.
By the time enough people lived in the area to scale down the once-vast Oregon
territory into the smaller section which became a state in 1859, Congress, prodded by
the loyal Provisional Senator and his (able) tongue, Gen. Joseph Lane, there were still
not many permanent residents South coast. The incredible abundance of natural resources enticed. But isolation, difficulty of establishing roads and villages, lack of suitable marketplaces, obstacles. [M is this my original, or a note from other?]