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English fur trader John Meares names Cape Disappointment on July 6, 1788. Essay 5621 : Printer-Friendly Format

On July 6, 1788, English fur trader John Meares (1756?-1809) names the northern side of the entrance to the Columbia River, Cape Disappointment. The name reflects Meares' chagrin at not finding the Columbia River.

Cape Disappointment rises on Washington's coast at the mouth of the Columbia River. The towering basalt column reaches heights of 700 feet. For centuries, it has served seafarers as a landmark. Spanish naval explorer Bruno Heceta (Hezeta), in the Santiago, was the first Euro-American to name the cape known to Chinook Indians of the region as Kah'eese. On August 17, 1775, Heceta recorded the promontory as Cabo San Roque and the river itself (known to the Chinooks as the Yakaitl-Wimahl) as the San Roque.

English fur trader John Meares, commanding the Portuguese flagged Felice Adventurer, gave the cape its lasting name. Unable to find Heceta's river, on July 6, 1788, he wrote in his log "We can now with safety assert, that no such river as that of St. Roc exists, as laid down in the Spanish charts" (Meares). He wryly assigned the label "Cape Disappointment" to the distinctive landmark.

The 230-ton snow (a two-masted sailing vessel) Felice was actually a British ship (the former Nootka) with a mostly British crew. A partnership between Meares and a Portuguese merchant in Macao made possible her Portuguese flag. It allowed the Englishman to avoid sharing his profits with the East India Company, which monopolized British trading in the Pacific.

Meares, a Royal Navy lieutenant, had last been on active duty in England’s war with its American colonies (1776-1783). His late 1780s efforts to establish a fur-trading post at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island nearly caused a war between England and Spain since Spain claimed possession of the Pacific Northwest coast. Although that war did not materialize, its threat stirred the British government to action. In 1790, Parliament appropriated £1,000,000 to refurbish the Royal Navy. This came just in time to prepare England’s fleet for the Napoleonic Wars (1798-1815). The threat of war over Nootka Sound persuaded Spain to relinquish claims to territory north of California.

There is no record of Meares serving on active duty after 1783. Nevertheless, in 1795 the Royal Navy promoted him to the rank of commander after establishing that rank in 1794. Spain also reimbursed him an amount, said to be over $200,000 American, for property seized at Nootka Sound. The windfall allowed him to retire.

Meares' designation of Cape Disappointment would last, notwithstanding Yankee Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806). Gray, in the Columbia Rediviva, crossed the Columbia River bar on May 11, 1792. Gray traded with Indians at Chinook, then returned to the mouth of the river on May 19th. He landed on the north riverbank, raised the American flag, planted some coins under a large pine tree, and claimed possession for the United States. His ship's log for that day recorded "Captain Gray gave this river the name of Columbia River and the north side of the entrance Cape Hancock …" (Lewis & Dryden).

Gray's patriotic "Cape Hancock" remained an alternate name for the headland well into the nineteenth century. Meares' more dramatic "Cape Disappointment," however, became the lasting nomenclature.

John Meares, Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789 from China to the North-West Coast of America Reprint ed. Bibliotheca Australiana No. 22 (New York: Da Capo Press, [1790] 1967); Barry M. Gough, Distant Dominion: Britain and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1597-1809 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980; Lewis & Dryden's Maritime History of the Pacific Northwest ed. by E. W. Wright (Seattle: Lewis & Dryden Printing Company, 1895); Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, The Chinook Indians: Traders of the Lower Columbia River (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988); Henry R. Wagner, The Cartography of the Northwest Coast of America to the Year 1800, Vols. I and II (Amsterdam: N. Israel, [1937] 1968); Dale L. Walker, Pacific Destiny: the Three Century Journey to the Oregon Country (New York: Tom Doherty Associates Book, 2000).

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Related Topics: Exploration | Maritime |

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Cape Disappointment and the mouth of the Columbia, 1844
Map by Eugene Duflot de Mofras, Courtesy Washington State University Special Collections

Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia, n.d.
Courtesy Washington State Historical Society

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