It is well documented that Robert Gray sailed into the estuary of the
Columbia River, and thus discovered it, 1792 and that 17 years earlier, in 1792,
Bruno Heceta described the mouth of the river and, while unable to enter it,
named its northern and southern capes. But these explorers were not the first to
leave a written record of their voyages and discoveries along the Pacific coast.
The first record, although not specifically about the Columbia, was much
the year 458, a Chinese monk named Hwui Shan, accompanied by four other monks,
sailed north to Japan and the Kamchatka Peninsula, east to the Aleutians and
present-day Alaska, and then south along the Pacific coast, a region called
Fu-Sang in Hwui Shan’s narrative of the voyage. Fu-Sang apparently encompassed
the entire Pacific Coast from Alaska to Baja California. Hwui Shan’s
descriptions of native peoples and their customs are detailed and accurate,
based on what modern historians know about those ancient cultures. The journey
is recorded in official documents of the Sung dynasty for the year 499,when the
monks returned to China. They apparently reached Fu-Sang at about the time of
the fall of the Western Roman Empire, 476 AD, stayed for a period of years and
then returned to China.
accuracy of this story has long been hotly debated, for Hwui Shan also wrote
about the weird “Kingdom of Women” the monks encountered, whose inhabitants
were half human and breastless. But exaggeration was common in early accounts
of western exploration. Twelve centuries after Hwui Shan, Spaniards searched
what is now northern Mexico and the American Southwest for the Seven Cities of
Gold and a race of three-breasted women.
historians generally accept the Chinese account as authentic. The larger debate
is over the significance of the voyage. The five monks did not claim Fu-Sang
for their emperor, as their expedition was not one of conquest. Their intent
apparently was only to observe and learn. And as such, their visit is little more
than a historical footnote, a curiosity. But assuming it is true, and it seems
plausible enough, then the first recorded exploration to pass the mouth of the
Columbia River was the voyage of Hwui Shan, more than 1,300 years before the
arrival of European explorers.