|The Columbia Story
Contrary to Disney dogma concerning the Columbia, there are, in fact,
several contemporary drawings of her in existence. Note the five windows on the
ship's transom (stern)--a detail captured by Disney.
After scouring the wharves and ways of Boston, they soon
settled upon a modest ship named Columbia Rediviva. No one really knows
when she was built. Leading historians and the National Archives believe she was
built new in 1787 when found by the investors. But the Latin word "Rediviva"
in her name meant "reborn" or "restored to life," suggesting that perhaps she
was an older vessel that was merely being rebuilt in 1787. The ship's name, as
well, seems to be shrouded in mystery as to its translation. Some sources state
the ship was named for Christopher Columbus; others have suggested "Columbia"
means "dove," or even "freedom." Since Columbia was a private vessel and
didn't belong to the fledgling Unites States Navy, the ship's name is not
preceded by "U.S.S."
The ship was slightly more than 83 feet in length on deck, with a beam
(width) of 24 feet. Her tallest mast towered nearly 100 feet above the
water's surface. She was painted with a broad swath of yellow, with blue, dark
green or black trim. On the transom, the words "Columbia
Rediviva, Boston" would have been set in large gilt letters. A huge
American flag with 13 stars would have flown from her mizzenmast. As John Scofield writes in Hail Columbia,
"Americans liked their flags large in those glory days of the Republic."
Accompanying the Columbia on her voyage to the
Pacific Northwest would be a "tender," a smaller ship that would carry
additional crew and supplies, and which could easier navigate the shallow bays
and sounds of the Northwest. Most expeditions of the time were comprised of two
ships, and Columbia's consort was a 60-foot-long vessel named in honor of
first lady Martha Washington, the Lady Washington.
Both ships were fairly heavily armed, with the Columbia carrying about 12
large "carriage" guns with several smaller "swivel guns" mounted on the ship's
railings. The Washington probably featured a similar complement of
John Kendrick initially commanded the Columbia,
with Robert Gray in charge of the smaller Washington. They set sail from
Boston Harbor on September 30, 1787.
Her first voyage to the Pacific Northwest was an adventure in itself, especially
when the ship rounded the Cape Horn at the tip of South America. The two ships
had been separated in the massive storms that the region is known for, but soon
Trade went well in the Nootka Sound region of the Pacific
Northwest, but the American ships weren't the only ones there gathering otter
pelts. Spanish and British ships also traded with the Indians--and with the
increased demand, the Indians became savvier. The Columbia didn't get
nearly the number of pelts she had hoped for, because the Indians had raised
This image of Columbia, left, and her tender Lady Washington,
graced Crewman Robert Haswell's book chronicling the voyage. The Lady
Washington, a single masted sloop when portrayed here, was eventually
converted into a two-masted brig. Aside from a crude rendering on a
commemorative coin, this is the only drawing from the period in existence
showing the Lady Washington.
At this time, Kendrick, skipper of the Columbia,
ordered Gray to take command of the ship, and Kendrick decided to stay in the
Pacific Northwest aboard the Lady Washington (why Kendrick decided to
surrender command of the flagship and transfer to the tiny tender is a mystery
to this day). So, Gray captained the Columbia toward the Orient, stopping
for supplies in the Sandwich Islands--today known as Hawaii.
The ship eventually reached Canton, China, and
negotiations began with the Chinese. Gray, unaware and inexperienced in dealing
with the Chinese, had essentially been taken as an easy mark by the Cantonese
traders, and was forced to write the Columbia's owners that they would be
disappointed in their profits on the voyage.
After taking aboard tea and silks in trade for the pelts,
the Columbia got underway. She was supposed to meet the Lady
Washington nearby, but Gray--perhaps sensing a loftier achievement for
The ship rounded the southern tip of Africa, and entered
the Atlantic. A few months later, on August 9, 1790, the Columbia entered
Boston Harbor to the thunder of a thirteen-gun salute. Scofield writes, "She had
sailed twice the circumference of the earth--nearly 50,000 miles--in the two
years, eleven months and nine days she had been away from Boston." Columbia
was the very first ship of the young United States to carry the Stars and
Stripes around the world, and for a while the captain and crew were wined and
dined as conquering heroes.
While the mission had been financially disappointing, the
Columbia's owners thought they could still reap profit from the region,
so eventually, Gray set out for the Pacific Northwest again. On this second
voyage, the ship sailed up and down the coast, eventually sighting what they
thought was a fine harbor. The ship crossed between two sand bars, and entered a
"noble river." The natives, coming to the ship in canoes, were awestruck at the
sight of the massive three-masted ship. John Boit, aboard the ship, wrote in his
journal, "Capt. Grays [sic] named this river Columbia's and the noble entrance
Cape Hancock, and the south point Adams." And so, the mighty Columbia River got
During the journey, the ship ran aground on some rocks,
and her keel was broken--a nearly fatal injury for the ship. But Columbia
was repaired, and eventually made her way once again back to the States.
What eventually became of Columbia? If we are to believe the
Disneyland version of history, as stated in many official guidebooks sold at the
Park throughout the years, the ship vanished "without a trace, 'somewhere in the
Orient.'" Birnbaum's guide even goes on to state, "Some legends say that a crew
member took her over and made her a pirate ship."
The truth, as is often the case, is far less exciting and
romantic. Scofield writes, "Columbia herself survived only briefly.
Though probably only six years old when she returned to Boston Harbor that
summer evening of 1793, she had led a hard life... Sometime in the summer of
1801, her owners, whoever they were by then, gave up the struggle to keep her
afloat. Columbia's register in the National Archives, cancelled on 15
October of that year, bears the terse epitaph, 'ript to pieces.'"
Next: Setting sail for Disneyland