by Connie Allen and David Cottrell
The original Lady Washington story begins with an accidental discovery after the death of the English explorer, Captain James Cook. His mission to find the Northwest Passage from the Pacific Ocean across North America was unsuccessful. Instead the sailors of his ship discovered the high value of sea otter skins, which they acquired from indigenous hunters in the Pacific Northwest, and subsequently sold in China. John Ledyard, one of Cook’s marines, returned to his home in Connecticut with dreams of fortunes to be made in the new fur trade. Ledyard spent the rest of his life lobbying rich and influential citizens of the new United States to take advantage of this “soft gold.”
Shortly before Ledyard’s death, a group of Boston merchants led by Joseph Barrel financed a trading mission to the Pacific Northwest. They outfitted the 212-ton ship Columbia Rediviva, with Captain John Kendrick as master, and a coastal tender, the sloop Lady Washington, commanded by Captain Robert Gray. Departing from Boston on September 30, 1787, the two vessels sailed around Cape Horn loaded with trade goods.
Rough seas and crew disagreements made a long, miserable, and dangerous voyage. Near Cape Horn, the ships lost sight of one another in a storm, and they would not see each other again for over six months. Robert Haswell, a member of Lady Washington’s crew, kept a journal during this passage. He wrote:
“The wind blew a perfect hurricane accompanied with rain, hail, snow and sleet, with an intense frost. The sea immediately [rose] to an immoderate height and frequently threatened us with instant destruction, for had the smallest of these huge overgrown seas struck us it would infallibly put a period to our existence….
Unfortunately for us at 4 AM we carried away our jib stay in a sudden squall and with the greatest difficulty we saved the sail…. It was now we first materially felt how greatly our hardships had debilitated all the crew, for there was not one sailor on board who was able to go aloft and take down the old jib stay or fit a new one….”
After over ten months, Lady Washington made landfall at Tillamook on the Oregon Coast. “Marcos Lopez, a native of the Cape Verde Islands … being employed carrying grass down to the boat had carelessly stuck his cutlass in the sand. One of the Natives seeing this took a favorable opportunity to snatch it … and run off with it.” (Haswell) A violent conflict followed, in which Tillamook people and Lady Washington crew were killed, including Lopez. Fear and retaliation marred the aftermath of this early encounter.
Lady Washington exchanged goods with local Quinault[link] whalers near Ocean Shores before she rendezvoused with Columbia in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. The Americans stumbled into the middle of a conflict between Spanish and British traders. Kendrick walked a fine line between the two groups in what became a major international dispute. Visitors also learned that trading with various indigenous people had mixed results, sometimes with tragic, longterm outcomes. The indigenous Pacific Northwest nations engaged in a complex trade culture prior to the EuroAmerican arrival and frequently got the best of bargaining with the newcomers. In Haida Gwaii[link], Kendrick had a misunderstanding and publicly humiliated a Haida chief named Coyah. This was to have serious repercussions when he returned the following year on Lady Washington.
After a winter and summer on the Pacific Northwest coast, the two captains exchanged commands. Gray sailed Columbia back to Boston by way of China and Hawaii, where he picked up the first Hawaiians to visit the United States. Kendrick followed in the Lady Washington, leaving three of his crew in Hawaii to build a boat for Kamehameha, a young leader who would later unite the islands, and instruct his people in the use of firearms.
Kendrick probably received sandalwood and provisions in exchange. Arriving in China, Kendrick was disappointed with the return on his cargo. He spent most of his earnings re-rigging Lady Washington as a brig. This would allow better use of the trade winds for her many trips across the Pacific. Kendrick “sold” the ship to himself, allegedly to avoid third party fees connected with this repair.
The following spring, Lady Washington sailed for the Northwest Coast in company with the American schooner Grace, stopping in Japan for supplies and becoming the first American vessels to visit that country. A samurai chronicler later recorded, “During the eleven days that the foreign ships were off Oshima Island, the local officials were unable to prevent them from landing to get water and wood for fuel. The local people thought the Americans were quite rude to cut so many trees.” [translation by M. Malloy]
Returning to the Pacific Northwest for a second load of furs, Kendrick again visited Haida Gwaii where his previous insults were remembered. Coyah brought a number of Haida people on board, overpowering the crew and holding Kendrick at knife point until crew were able to scrounge a few weapons from below deck and lead a counterattack. The crew recaptured the vessel and killed many Haida people.
Returning to China that winter, Lady Washington again stopped in Hawaii and left three people on Kauai to gather sandalwood. During the subsequent eastward voyage, a typhoon stripped away the tender and nearly destroyed the ship. She limped back to China for more costly repairs. At this time, Lady Washington may have been rerigged as a snow, similar to a brig with a higher, loosefooted sail aft. The repairs took about a year and were probably financed in part by John Howell, an Englishman acting as a shipping agent in China.
Kendrick made a final trip to the Pacific Northwest the following year, stopping again at Hawaii on his return to China. This time interisland rivalry was coming to a head and Kendrick steered clear of alliances. Not so the masters of the vessels Jackal and Prince Lee Boo. These ships were celebrating their role in a victory with a cannon salute while Lady Washington was anchored at Honolulu Harbor. Unfortunately, the Jackal’s gunner accidentally fired a live round. “It pierced the side of the Lady Washington and killed Captain Kendrick as he sat at his table, and killed and wounded many upon the deck.” (Boit)
On Kendrick’s death, John Howell took possession of Lady Washington. James Rowan, the mate, stepped up as captain and proceeded to China. Roger Simpson, a British captain hired by Howell, attempted to take Lady Washington on one last trading voyage to the Pacific Northwest, but persistent leaks stopped her at Hawaii. Returning to Macao, the vessel was outfitted for a voyage to Manila, this time with Howell in command. Daniel Paine was a passenger on that final voyage. His journal describes the storm and the chain of events on the fateful day of July 21, 1797 that lead to the Lady Washington running aground and breaking up near Vigan, Philippines as they attempted to take shelter in the mouth of the river:
“We struck abaft and lifted our rudder, attempted to throw the ship into the wind but she would not come up. Weathered the helm and then let go an anchor. But the violence of the tide and sea set us fast on the east side before we could bring the vessel up in the stream. We kept all sail set, the wind blowing off shore, but the force of the tide and swell of the sea counteracted all our endeavors…. It was now thought advisable to get everything possible out of the vessel and leave her until the weather should moderate, it blowing hard and very heavy surf beating on shore…. The people all came on shore excepting the mate and the Portuguese steward that would not leave the ship.”
The Lady Washington served in the American Northwest fur trade for ten years under five captains. It crossed the Pacific Ocean ten times, touching a myriad of nations and cultures along the way.
Connie Allen is former education programs manager for Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority. David Cottrell is a current board member and longtime volunteer for the modern replica of Lady Washington.
Howay, Frederic W., “Voyages of the Columbia to the Northwest Coast,” OHS Press 1990.
Nokes, Richard J., “Columbia’s River,” WSHS, 1991.
Knight, R.J.B. and Frost, Alan, editors, “The Journal of Daniel Paine 17941797,” Library of Australian History, 1983.