Biography of William H. Gray

WILLIAM H. GRAY. – This pioneer of pioneers, and historian of events in which he took so conspicuous a part, was born in 1810 at Fairfield, New York, of Scotch descent. While but a lad of fourteen, he lost his father and was apprenticed to learn the cabinetmaker’s trade, and even before finishing his time became foreman of the shop. Upon attaining his majority he studied medicine, and being a member of the Presbyterian church, and known as a promising young man, he was sought and intrusted by the American board with the work of going as missionary in company with Whitman and Spaulding to the Columbia river.

His life on the Pacific coast is so intimately connected with the early history of our state that it is unnecessary to give the details here, as they will be found in the first volume of this work. We will mention, however, the circumstances of the three climacteric events of his life, – the first trip back East, his services in establishing the Provisional government and his trip back East once more for sheep in 1852.

Having come with Whitman in 1836 across the plains in company with Sublette to the Green river; having assisted the other missionaries in the journey to Vancouver, and in establishing themselves at Waiilatpu; and having himself gone to Alpona among the Flatheads, – he determined to return the next year for reinforcements. To defray the expenses of his journey, he drove a band of twenty horses, and also had as companions in his company three young Flat head Indians, one of whom was the son of a chief. All went well with the party until Ash Hollow on the Nebraska was reached. There they were attacked by a war party of three hundred Sioux. The Flatheads being desperate fighters, although vastly outnumbered, kept the enemy at bay for three hours, laying fifteen of them dead on the sand. Gray himself took a hand in the fight, having two horses shot under him, and receiving two bullets through his hat. The Sioux having lost a war chief among the slain, and seeing no likelihood of overcoming the doughty little band, proposed a truce.

But, while the chiefs were parleying with Gray, others of the Sioux treacherously attacked his young men, shooting down one Iroquois, one Snake and three Flatheads, one of whom was the chief’s son. The French interpreter then declared that the others were prisoners and must give up their guns. This Gray refused to do, and told the rest of his squad to sell their lives as dearly as possible. At this show of determination the Sioux gave back again and proposed a talk, and over the slain of both sides, smoked the pipe of peace. It has been said variously that the death of this young chief alienated the Flatheads from Gray, and that it was one of the causes of the Whitman massacre. Neither of these statements is correct nor even reasonable. After his return to his mission, the Flatheads allowed Gray to live and teach among them until 1842; and his final withdrawal seems to have been due not to the disaffection of the Indians but to lack of agreement with his missionary companions. To suppose that the death of a Flat head in company with Gray in 1837 would cause another tribe, the Cayuses, two hundred miles off, to kill Whitman in 1847, is very peculiar.

Gray’s services in establishing the Provisional government were as that of originator of the scheme. His Americanism found no vent nor scope in the Oregon of the old Hudson’s Bay rule; and, shut off from the national life which had been a part of his own, and learning to hate the plans and expectations of the British, he was no sooner in the Willamette valley than he conceived the idea of the American settlers establishing a government of their own. He took the responsibility of agitating the matter; of interesting Le Breton and Matthieu and others; of getting up the Wolf meetings, and of pushing the scheme which seemed constantly on so slender a basis as to be ready to fall to the ground either on this side or that. With admirable tact, address, shrewdness and force, Gray led the column, and carried the matter through to a most pronounced victory. The cunning of Le Breton would have had no effect without the moral earnestness and direct force of Gray, who did the talking, made the appeals, wrote the resolutions and closed the debates. This detracts nothing from the merits of Griffin, Meek, Smith and others, who were not simply followers, but co-laborers. It is to be regretted that no record remains of the secret sessions of these American agitators. But the reason is obvious: The settlers were performing a part for the immediate time, not for future publication; they were moreover too discreet to have their plans in such form as to be easily discovered by the opposite party.

After the full establishment of the Provisional government, Gray went to Clatsop Plains, and in 1852 went East once more for the purpose of getting sheep for the young settlement. The scheme had been original with him for some time; and it even was a favorite theory with Whitman and himself that sheep were of more value than soldiers to the early settlers and also to the Indians. Colonel James Taylor was interested in the same line, and formed a partnership with Gray for the purpose. Gray made the arduous journey in safety, bringing his flock by boat down the Columbia; but at Tanzy Point a heavy south wind coming down Young’s Bay prevented a landing. The scow was caught in a storm and blown upon the sands, and was wrecked on Chinook Spit and the whole almost invaluable flock was drowned. He assumed the entire responsibility of the loss and gave up his farm and home to meet the obligation, yet was not disheartened by this reverse.

He was early engaged in many business operations, being in California in 1849 to dig gold. We find him also in the Frazier river mines at Fort Hope and Okanagan in the sixties. In the winter of 1860-61 he built a boat at Assooya’s Lake on the British border. This was a craft ninety-one feet keel and twelve feet beam. It was constructed with no tools but a saw, hatchet and chisel, and was caulked with wild flax mingled with pitch gathered from the pine trees. She was brought down the Okanagan and Columbia rivers to Celilo. Mr. Gray was also one of the earliest navigators of the violent Snake river.

For many years he lived at Astoria, and during part of that time was government inspector of the port. He has also greatly enjoyed life in his later years on the farm of his son-in-law, Jacob Kamm, on the Klaskanine.

It is a matter of justice, which he has never been forward to claim for himself, to say here that his reason for not going to the Cayuse war was on account of the prevalence of a dangerous epidemic, the measles, then prevalent on Clatsop Plains, to prevent the ravages of which he was particularly desired to remain by those who were going to the scenes of war, and who wanted someone upon whom they could rely to care for their families in this sickness. He was the only physician in that region. For a number of years he was thus practicing medicine on the plains, and was ever successful.

He has ever been a friend of churches and schools; ever has borne his hand in politics and public affairs; has been representative and county judge and justice; and has found his chief interest in public improvements. He has been exceedingly active in the promotion of temperance, and holds the most advanced views upon this subject. He has reared a large family; and his sons are known up and down the Columbia. Captain J.H.D. Gray is one of the most progressive business men at Astoria, and has been an active legislator at Salem. Captain William P. Gray, long one of the boldest pilots and captains of the Upper Columbia, is at present interested in the advancement of the city of Pasco, having large proprietary interests at this place. The daughters, Mrs. Kamm, Mrs. Abernethy and Mrs. Tarbell have long been known in the social circles of our state.

Mary Augusta Dix, who became his wife, was one of the most intelligent, amiable and devoted christian women who ever lived in Oregon. She was a lady of culture, and was abundantly able to make her own way in the world as teacher of schools, but, being deeply imbued with the missionary spirit, was attracted to Mr. Gray no less on account of his work than of his personal character, and cheerfully assumed all the hardships and humble labors that went with life in Oregon fifty years ago. She became her husband’s mentor, improving his defective early education, and was his inspirer and guide in the production of his history, always sustaining his interest in and revising his work. Her death occurred in 1887 at the Klaskanine farm. On her monument are the simple words, “We loved her;” and these express not only the feelings of her own family but of all her friends, and even of the now old Indians whom she once taught under the pine trees of the Nez Perce country.

Mr. Gray’s history of Oregon is so well known and so important in its sphere that it is fitting to devote some space here to its special consideration. This history was published in 1868. Though more or less obnoxious to superfine criticism, it yet exhibits flashes of dramatic power throughout. Although not easy to read, and not strictly a popular work, many of its pages remind one of the common-sense, honest and withal intensely interesting descriptions of Livingstone, the African missionary and traveler. It is a work written in the vein of a polemic, an exoneration of the party to which he belonged, and “a great part of which he was,” and as a burning attack upon the opposite party. To those who have no interest in the contests of old times, and to whom it is somewhat offensive to read of plots, charges and counter charges, the book ceases to please. “There is indeed no doubt but that the intensity of Gray’s opposition, and the severity of his criticism, sometimes even awaken sympathy for the British; and his invariable practice to refer all the evils of early times to the English monopoly, and the inclusion in his charges of nearly all Americans as at one time or another the tools or dupes of their rivals, suggests that the author does not always preserve discrimination.

But while these elements awaken the opposition of the reader, and prevent the circulation of the volume, they give to the history its lasting worth. To the scientific or philosophical inquirer into the early conditions of our state, it is invaluable as resenting the feelings of all parties, – not only of Gray himself, but of the Presbyterians, Methodists, the non-mission people, and even of the English. This makes Gray’s history the most useful work that has yet appeared upon this subject, and far in advance of the hazy and bombastic pages of Bancroft. Gray discards nothing as unimportant, and makes little use of the cloak of charity, but tells everything with reckless truthfulness. He caters to no one, writes nothing for the sake of popularity, and never changes a word for the sake of rhetoric. While some of his statements have been called in question, and the book is not without more or less error of fact, it is on the whole the most exact of any complete work of the kind hitherto published.

In his political career, as well as in all his enterprises, W.H. Gray has ever been inflexible, blunt and direct, hard to manage, a good hater, but keen and faithful to his cause. When he had some great object to accomplish, he showed address and appreciation of the circumstances, and in the early days was without doubt the Achilles of the American party. He was an honest friend, moreover; and his personal relations with Doctor McLoughlin were most kindly, although for many years they were firm political opponents. Taken all in all, W.H. Gray is one of the most remarkable characters of North pacific history.

***Just as these volumes are being put on the press, word comes that Mr. Gray died on the 14th of November, 1889, at the residence of his daughter, Mrs. Kamm, who resides in Portland. His remains were taken to Astoria, and were laid to rest beside those of his loved wife.



History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

Search Military Records - Fold3

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top