By whom was the Columbia river in the US named?

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By Laurie Baratti

Naming of the Columbia River

The Columbia River, located in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, is one of the most significant rivers in North America. It runs over 1,200 miles, from its source in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Canada, to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean. The river has played a crucial role in the history and culture of the region, and its name has a fascinating history.

Early History of the Columbia River

For centuries, the Columbia River was known by various names by the Native American tribes who lived along its banks. One of the most common names for the river was "Wimahl," which means "big river" in the Chinookan language. Other tribes called it "Nch’i-Wàna," "Sahaptin," or "Yakama." These names reflect the river’s important role in the lives of Native Americans, who relied on it for fishing, transportation, and trade.

First European Contact with the Columbia River

The first recorded European to see the Columbia River was Spanish explorer Bruno de Heceta in 1775. However, he did not navigate the river or name it. It was not until the late 18th century that Europeans began to explore and map the region in earnest, looking for a possible Northwest Passage to Asia.

Captain Robert Gray’s Role in Naming the River

In 1792, Captain Robert Gray, an American merchant, entered the Columbia River’s mouth and navigated upstream for several miles. Gray named the river after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva, which was named after Columbia, the poetic name for the United States. Gray’s naming of the river was the first official recorded name for the waterway.

Historical Accounts of the Naming of the Columbia River

There are conflicting accounts of who named the Columbia River. Some historians believe that British explorer George Vancouver, who explored the region in the same year as Gray, named the river after the Columbia District of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a British fur trading company. However, there is no definitive proof of this.

Native American Names for the Columbia River

The Native American names for the Columbia River reflect the significance of the river to their culture and way of life. The Chinookan peoples, who lived in the lower Columbia River region, called the river "Wimahl" or "Wimahl-Ne-Sose," meaning "big river" or "river of the West." The Yakama people called it "Nch’i-Wàna," meaning "the great river."

The Role of Lewis and Clark in the Naming of the River

The Lewis and Clark Expedition, which explored the Columbia River and surrounding region in 1805-1806, did not officially name the river. However, members of the expedition referred to it as the "Oregon River," and the name stuck for a time.

John Jacob Astor and the Naming of the Columbia River

John Jacob Astor, a prominent American businessman and founder of the Pacific Fur Company, played a role in promoting the name "Columbia" for the river. Astor’s company established Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811, and he referred to the river as the "Columbia" in his letters and correspondence.

Other Explorers Who Contributed to the Naming of the Columbia River

Several other explorers, including David Thompson, Peter Skene Ogden, and Alexander Ross, made significant contributions to the exploration and mapping of the Columbia River region. However, it was Gray’s naming of the river that became the official name.

Controversies Surrounding the Naming of the Columbia River

There is ongoing controversy surrounding the naming of the Columbia River. Some argue that the river should be given a native name, reflecting the significance of the river to the region’s indigenous peoples. Others argue that the name "Columbia" has historical significance and should be retained.

Significance of the Columbia River’s Name

The name "Columbia" has become synonymous with the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It represents the history and culture of the region, including the fur trade, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the settlement of the West.

Conclusion: The Legacy of the Columbia River’s Name

The naming of the Columbia River reflects the complex history of the region, including the interactions between Native Americans, European explorers, and American settlers. The name "Columbia" has become deeply embedded in the region’s culture and identity, and it continues to be a source of controversy and debate.

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Laurie Baratti

Laurie Baratti, a renowned San Diego journalist, has contributed to respected publications like TravelAge West, SPACE, Modern Home + Living, Montage, and Sandals Life. She's a passionate travel writer, constantly exploring beyond California. Besides her writing, Laurie is an avid equestrian and dedicated pet owner. She's a strong advocate for the Oxford comma, appreciating the richness of language.

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