Conference Paper

Early Exploration and Mapping of the Columbia River

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Abstract

Long before the arrival of European explorers in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, the Columbia River was an important trade route and source of salmon for Native American tribes. Because they published no maps, they alone knew the complex topography of the Columbia River basin. Early Spanish maps in 1775 showed the mouth of the Columbia as Entrada de Hecita, named after the explorer, Bruno de Hecita, but he did not explore upstream. In 1792 American captain and fur trader, Robert Gray, became the first known explorer to actually cross the very dangerous bar at the mouth of the Columbia River. That same year British Captain George Vancouver, during his 1791-1795 voyage to the Pacific Northwest, sent one of his ships across the bar to map 100 miles upriver to what is now Vancouver, Washington. The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806 later explored the Columbia from its confluence with the Snake River near Pasco, Washington, downstream to its mouth at present day Astoria. But from 1806 to 1811, it was David Thompson, a British surveyor and geographer for the North West Company formerly of the Hudson Bay Company, who sought and succeeded to unravel the mystery of the remaining unknown three-quarters of the Columbia's course. These various explorations by several nations supported claims to the lands now making up the Pacific Northwest region of the United States and the province of British Columbia, Canada. This paper describes the work of these various explorers and the maps resulting from their surveys.

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