The name given to South Tacoma's Junior High, Captain Robert Gray, was chosen from many submitted to the Tacoma News Tribune contest, sponsored by that paper in choosing names for the six new junior highs to be constructed during the years 1924-1926. Interestingly enough, almost all Tacoma schools were named for historical personages, and somewhere along the line it was decided that the junior highs would each be named for a person important to the Northwest or early Tacoma history, i.e., Jason Lee for an early missionary to the Northwest; McCarver, one of Tacoma's early founders; J.P. Stewart, an early Tacoma teacher, etc.
Captain Robert Gray, one of the most interesting of the six men, was born in Tiverton Four Corners, R. I., May 10, 1755, a descendant of early Plymouth settlers. Much of his story is lost in the mists of time. The death of his father in 1765, when he was ten, may have been a factor in his choice of the sea as a means of livelihood. Idleness was not countenanced in colonial times, and he would have been expected to begin taking care of himself and aiding the family as soon as he was physically able. He is believed to have signed on as a cabin boy to begin learning his trade at about age 12. The first eight years of his life were lived in the area of, and during the French and Indian Wars. At age 20 he served in the Revolutionary War in the Continental Navy as a captain, according to his family, but may have been a privateer, or as one of the state sponsored captains aboard a ship, which represented the state in which he lived.

Click on picture

After the Revolutionary War, he became an employee of the firm of Brown and Hatch, a captain of one of their coastal trading vessels, the Pacific, a rather prophetic choice. Just after the war, England closed all its ports to Americans who became rather desperate for trade. As a result of this, Americans decided to sponsor a ship or two to go into the Northwest to compete in the fur trade then being established with China. Captain John Kendrick was chosen to head the expedition to the Northwest as captain of the Columbia Rediviva, an 83-foot long, 212-ton ship. Robert Gray was chosen to captain the sloop, Lady Washington, only 45-feet long and 90 tons in weight. Both vessels Here armed merchantsmen, since piracy on the high seas was common, and they set out from Boston, October 1, 1787 at day break.

After passing through many months of bad weather, mountainous seas, and the terrible dangers of rounding Cape Horn off South American, Gray made his way to Nootka Sound where he arrived September 17, 1788. Kendrick made the rendezvous at Nootka Sound about a week later, and on October 1, both celebrat­ed their safe arrival on the anniversary of their departure from Boston, one year earlier. They spent the winter in Nootka Sound getting acquainted with the natives, and at least on Gray's part, getting his ship ready for spring tradi'1g. On March 1, 1789, Gray set forth on his first effort in trade by Gray started his return to the United States by sailing through the famous Sunda Straits, where pirates prowled in wait for merchantmen, then around the Cape of Good Hope off the southern tip of Africa, across the Atlantic, arriving home in Boston on August 9, 1790. The wharves were filled with people waiting to greet tile first American ship to sail around the world carrying the American Flag. In a hurry to continue the profitable trade for America, the Columbia was refitted and this time with Gray as a partner in the enterprise. By October 1, 1790, he was on his Hay again toward the Northwest, just three years after be­ginning his first expedition. He made the second trip to the Northwest in re­ cord time, arriving June 6,1791, managing to cut almost three months off the original time in passage. Some trading Has done during the summer of '91, but they wintered in Nootka Sound where they built a small sloop to be used for trade in shallow harbors where the larger ships could not go. They called it the "Adventure." The following spring, in April, as Gray was on a trading expedition, he met George Vancouver's ship near Cape Flattery on the Washington Coast. Vancouver, who was heading into the Straits of Juan de Fuca, sent a small boat with Peter Puget and Archibald Menzies, to talk to Capt. Gray. Vancouver particularly wanted to know about Gray's trip into the Strait, as he understood Gray had found an inside passage between Vancouver Island and the Mainland. Gray denied this but told them he had lain off the mouth of a large river at 46% 10' for nine days trying to enter but was unable to do so because of weather and tides.  

Vancouver's men told him he was mistaken since Meares had been in the area and found nothing but Cape Disappointment, and that Vancouver's ship had just been surveying along that coast and found nothing either. This was sufficient evidence they though, to say that no river existed there. Whether Vancouver's attitude irritated Gray, or whether he simply wanted to find the entrance to an as yet undiscovered source of furs, remains a provoking sort of question. Although Gray had planned to go north, he immediately turned south after Vancouver left. On this venture Gray apparently hugged the coast examining it closely for possible harbors. On May 6, 1972, he saw what appeared to be a good harbor and sent a man up the mast to discover how they might enter. By sounding, (sending a small boat ahead and casting a line to measure depth) he worked his way in and discovered Gray's Harbor and the Chehalis River.

Gray originally named the Bullfinch Harbor after one of the owners of the ship but the name didn't stick and Gray's own name was attached to it by his own crew. The ship left Gray's Harbor the evening of May 10, and in the morning, on May 11,1792, Gray found the Columbia. Again, sounding his way in, he entered the river which he named for his ship. He sailed approximately 10 or 15 miles up the Columbia anchoring at the point that is now Fort Columbia on the Washington side. With his first mate, he went ashore where he buried some coins and identifying articles claiming the discovery of the river for the United States.In the time in which he lived, any discovery of a river or land could be claimed for the country of the finder. As it was a river he'd found, the claim extended to all land surrounding and drained by said river, which included the present states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, part of the Montana on the western side of the Rockies, and some part of Utah.

On May 20th, Gray left the Columbia, moving back north to meet the Adventure.   Gray started his second voyage with furs for China, in October 1792, reaching home by July 25, 1793. There is very little information about him after his return from his second trip. He is known to have married Martha Atkins, Feb. 3, 1794, and was the father of five children, one boy who died in infancy, and four girls. He is reported to have sailed the Lucy as a privateer during the troubles with France in 1799.   He is said to have sailed the Alert out of Salem although he knew French privateers were outside the harbor waiting. He was captured and held for a time, but from 1801 until his death in 1806, there is a certain amount of mystery.

There are two stories about his death in the summer of 1806; the first, claims that he died of yellow fever and was buried at sea while on his way to So. Carolina; the second, claims that he died in Charleston, So. Carolina, but no grave has ever been found. His death left his wife and four small children with an estate of about $200.

Although he received no recognition during his lifetime, it is now becoming more evident, how much he truly contributed to his county, to which he was fiercely loyal. His discovery of the Columbia and Chehalis Rivers with their river harbors helped the United States lay claim to this section of the country. His discovery is the only one by which the United States gained land by discovery. In all other cases, the U.S. either went to war, purchased, or made treaties to acquire territory.