Building The Adventure 1792


Adventure Cove – late November 1791

Meares Island, Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver, Island, BC

During the autumn of the year 1791 here were precious few days in Clayoquot Sound when the sun shone upon the winter quarters of Captain Robert Gray and his crew from the Boston fur ship Columbia Rediviva. However, the accompanying painting illustrates one such day during the fourth week of November 1791.

Columbia, as she was known, familiarly, was an 83 1/2 foot, 212 ton full-rigged shop, built at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1787. Owned by a consortium of Boston merchants, she sailed from thence that autumn for Nootka Sound on the western coast of Vancouver Island. Her purpose was to collect sea otter pelts from the peoples of the Northwest Coast; the pelts, in turn, would become a rich medium of trade with teh Chinese merchants in Canton for teas, porcelain, and other exotic goods derivative of the fast developing United States-China Trade. Columbia returned to Boston, via Canton, in August 1790, the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe.

She was back in Nootka Sound, on her second voyage, in June 1791. In the hold were the prefabricated frames of a sloop to be built during the following winter. The vessel would act as Columbia’s consort for the future collection of furs and would measure some 30 feet length and about 45-tons burthen.

“Winter Quarters” were reached on 20 September 1791, a sheltered cove on Meares Island in Clayoquot Sound (not far from modern Tofino, BC). Here, Columbia could be moored in a snug anchorage and the sloop, named Adventure, could be built on a nearby beach. Immediately, gangs from the ship went ashore to clear away the thick forest at the back of the beach and build a log structure, which they called “Fort Defiance”, to serve the needs of the ship carpenters and blacksmiths from the crew while constructing the sloop during the following months. Fort Defiance was 35 feet long by 18 feet wide, contained a smithy’s forge and hearth for cooking/heating (the bricks for the chimneys having been brought from Boston as ballast), a carpenter’s shop, and lodgings for the ten men from Columbia who worked ashore, several connon and mushket loopholes all round for defense against potentially hostile natives.

During the remainder of September 1791 and for the first several weeks of October, the weather favoured the endeavours of the men working at “Adventure” Cove, but then it turned nasty. Little of no work could be accomplished out ¬†of doors at the saw pit, on or about the sloop, or even in the collection of local timber to be sawed for planking. At the end of October it was concluded to erect a framework close to the log house and thatch it with boughs from the cedar and hemlock trees beyond the clearing. Here, the men could work when the rains came again – another saw pit under cover, a place to construct a new whaleboat for Columbia, a shelter for the storage of planing, knees, carlins. Days were getting sort too – only seven hours of sun inasmuch as ti was sinking even below the trees to the south of the clearing.

During November, between days filled with lashing gales, rain, even thunder and lightning, Columbia’s crew contrived to complete the outer planking of Adventure, collect more logs for the inner ceiling, knee timbers, top timbers, and the like.

The Adventure, Tofino, BC, 1791

The accompanying painting represents the scene during one of the clear days during the latter part of November 1791.

Adventure was launched, after on failed attempt wen the launching ways shifted under her weight, on Thursday, 23 February 1792.

Several water-colour drawings of Adventure Cove, showing the sloop half launched, with Columbia, Fort Defiance, and the thatched shelter in the background, were painted at the time (or shortly afterwards) by George Davidson (1768-1800), an artist on board Columbia. These are presently owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Oregon Historical Society. Together with the journals of chief mate Robert Haswell, fifth met John Boit, and ship’s clerk John Hoskins, Davidson;s paintings have n=been the basis upon which the accompanying picture has been derived. Additionally, Mr Ken Gibsons, of Tofino, B, the man who initially discovered the true site of Fort Defiance during the late 1960’s, has been remarkably helpful with some of the finer points of the local topography, while local photographer Wayne Barnes provided stills and a narrated video of Adventure Cove as it appears today as well as the unchanged view from the door of the fort that all Columbia’s compliment of officers and crew would have seen well over two centuries ago. To Professor Barry Gough of Wilfred Laurier University, a maritime colleague, goes the credit for having urged me to undertake this scene. My thanks of them all; that faults are mine, not theirs…


Philip Chadwick Foster Smith
Former Curator of Maritime History and Managing Editor of The American Neptune: A Quarterly Journal of Maritime History, Peabody Museum of Salem, Massachusetts. Form Curator and Historian, Philadelphia Maritime Museum. is grateful to Ken Gibson, a long-time resident of Tofino and an invaluable source of local information, for this article about Tofino and Clayoquot Sound.