Joseph Barrell and his partners in Boston became interested in the Northwest coastal trade with the maritime after it became apparent that the usual trade goods used in the China Trade were not of much value to the Chinese.
Barrell purchased a new ship, the Columbia, a heavily built ship of about 212 tons and 83 feet long. He also purchased the sloop Lady Washington to act as a tender on the coast. The two ships cost about $50,000. They were outfitted with tools, scraps of metal, and sufficient food for about two years. They stored enough water for three months, but that could be relatively easily re-supplied at almost anywhere along the coast.
Barrell and his partners selected an experienced seaman, John Kendrick, as captain of the Columbia and commander of the expedition They selected Robert Gray as captain of the Lady Washington.
The ships sailed from Boston on September 30, 1787, for Cape Horn, Chile, and the Pacific. Instead of sailing directly for Cape Horn, which would have put them at the Cape in early summer, the ships leisurly sailed south east to St. Jago. There they took on fresh water and lay at anchor for forty days, finally sailing toward the Cape.
Off the Cape on April 1, 1788 during a storm, the ships parted company, Gray sailed up the coast of South America and arrived off the coast of "New Albion" at 41 degrees 36' on August 2, 1788. He sailed north and arrived at the agreed rendezvous, Nootka Sound (on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island.), on September 16. Columbia arrived a week later.
In March of 1790, Gray, in the Lady Washington, began cruising and trading with the Indians. He was reasonably successful, but when he returned to Nootka Sound, he found that Kendrick, in Columbia, had not even weighed anchor.
Lady Washington ran onto a rock returning to the Sound, but got off on the rising tide. Kendrick used this as an excuse to change commands; he made himself captain of the sloop, and made Gray captain of the ship.
The expedition was running low on provisions, so Gray was ordered to take Columbia home by way of China with a half cargo of otter skins.
He took four weeks in getting to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. He remained there for three weeks while he provisioned the ship with salt pork and 155 live hogs. Gray, using his own money and trade goods, loaded some sandalwood as a private venture. This proved to be a very profitable investment.
Re-rigging the Lady Washington as a brig or brigantine was discussed by Kendrick and Gray while they were together in Nootka Sound, but nothing was actually done before Gray left for home in the Columbia.
Gray's landfall as he sailed up the coast in the Lady Washington was at 41 degrees 36' north. The latutude of St. George Reef Lighthouse is 41 degrees 50' north.
Between these two points, Gray traded with the natives that came out in their canoes, but Gray made no attempt to land. He made his way on up the coast until he reached Nootka Sound.