LITERARY LOCATION: Cathedral Grove, MacMillan Provincial Park, Highway 4, Vancouver Island. 25 km west of Qualicum Beach and 16 km east of Port Alberni,

A plaque here in Cathedral Grove, amid one of the most accessible stands of Douglas fir trees on Vancouver Island, honours the remarkable botanist and author David Douglas, namesake for the Douglas Fir. It's a paltry alternative to the Kaluakauka Monument for Douglas at the 6,000-foot level of Mauna Kea mountain in Hawaii. The former is easily accessible by car from the Island Highway. The latter is only accessible by a trail from the Keanakolu-Mana Road, after taking Saddle Road to the Mauna Kea access road.

Most residents of the big island of Hawai'i have heard there's a hard-to-reach monument at Kealakekua Bay that marks the spot where Captain James Cook was killed in 1779. Few tourists are eager to make the 45-minute hike down a rough trail to find it. Far less familiar to Hawaiians and tourists is a harder-to-find monument, located on the other side of the island, approachable from the town of Hilo, that marks the spot where British Columbia's first great scientist, David Douglas, mysteriously died--either murdered or gored to death by a bull--more than half a century later.

In 1934, on the 100th anniversary of his death, the Hilo Burns Club erected the monument on Mauna Kea. The burial site of David Douglas is now known as Kaluakauka, literally the doctor's pit. It can still be visited, preferably with a four-wheel drive vehicle, but very few people make the trek to find it.

It's far easy to pay homage to Douglas by visiting the white marble monument for Douglas that was erected in the cemetery of the Kawaiahao Church ("the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii";) in Honolulu, purchased by author and world traveller Reverend Julius L. Brenchley in 1855. An impressive memorial to honour the man after whom the Douglas fir is named can also be found in his birthplace of Scone, in Scotland.


"Science has few friends among those who visit the coast of North-West America." -David Douglas

Born on June 25, 1799, in the village of Scone in Perthshire, Douglas was the son of a stonemason. As a boy he showed a keen interest in animals and nature, collecting birds and keeping pet owls. His favourite book was Robinson Crusoe. At age eleven he gained an apprentice position with William Beattie, in charge of the palace garden in Scone, once the ancient capital of Scotland. During his teens he received access to the library of Sir Robert Preston at Valleyfield, where he rose to the postion of under-gardener.

Soon enough, Scotland's most famous explorer-botanist would become the first European not involved in the fur trade to penetrate British Columbia's interior. (Thereafter he would steadfastly maintain that the border between the United States and Canada ought to be the Columbia River.) David Douglas would introduce at least 254 plants to Britain and reputedly send approximately seven thousand species to Kew Gardens and the Linneaus Society, comprising 13 percent of the then-known plant species in Europe-more than any other person in history. With John Scouler, he would also make the first 40 collections of plants on the Galapágos Islands (in January, 1825).

During the first two decades of European contact, at least three major voyages reached the Pacific Northwest with mandates for scientific discovery: Cook for the British, La Pérouse for the French and Malaspina for the Spanish. One might also add Captain Vancouver's surveying expedition, which included the botanist Archibald Menzies. But as the fur trade expanded overland in Canada, only the name of David Douglas would resonate through the ages as a significant scientist.


An autodidact, Douglas never received any formal degree. As an employee at the Glasgow Botanical Garden, he became a protégé of Dr. William Jackson Hooker, Chair of Botany at Glasgow University, who took him on botanical trips and recommended his services to the Horticultural Society of London.

In 1823 the Society sent Douglas to collect specimens in Upper Canada and New York. Having proved himself capable in eastern Canada, Douglas was next sent from London in 1824, as arranged by Secretary of the Horticultural Society Joseph Sabine, on the annual Hudson's Bay Company supply ship William and Ann to describe and collect flora and fauna in the Columbia River region.

Hired by the Horticultural Society, Douglas was nonetheless obliged to operate under the aegis of the HBC to gather information on "the vegetable treasures of those widely extended and diversified countries" where the HBC was active. Douglas was accompanied by the Scottish botanist John Scouler who would concentrate his research on the coast; Douglas would investigate inland areas.

After an eight-and-a-half month voyage via Cape Horn, during which Douglas catalogued the California vulture and the California sheep, Douglas and Scouler arrived at Fort Vancouver early in 1825. Before he landed, the story goes, he noted three types of trees on shore-the hemlock, the balsam fir and one species that was new to him. Although Archibald Menzies had already gathered samples of this unknown specimen in 1792-1794, the popular name for the tall evergreen tree would become Douglas fir after his death, to honour Douglas (no relation to James Douglas). He initially described the Douglas fir as Pinus taxifolia. "The wood may be found very useful for a variety of domestic purposes," he predicted, "the young slender ones [being] exceedingly well adapted for making ladders and scaffold poles, not being liable to cast; the larger timber for more important purposes...."

Based at Fort Vancouver, Douglas befriended botany enthusiast Archibald McDonald and he reputedly travelled more than seven thousand miles in what is now British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Idaho under the auspices of the Hudson's Bay Company. Douglas was initially distrusted and feared by some Indians for his strange habits, such as putting spectacles on his nose, tea-drinking and lighting his pipe by using sunlight and a magnifying glass, for which he gained the nickname Olla-Diska, Chinook jargon for fire. As his motives became better understood, he also garnerned the nickname "Grass Man."

On his way back to England via Athabasca Pass and Hudson Bay, Douglas traversed eastern British Columbia from April 19 to May 2, 1827. At the outset of May he made the first recorded climb of any peak in the Canadian Rockies, on Mount Brown. While drastically over-estimating their heights, he prudently named Mount Brown after Robert Brown (1773-1858; first keeper of the botanical department of the British Museum) and nearby Mount Hooker after his mentor Hooker (who became director of Kew Gardens). Both mountains are within Jasper National Park.

Douglas gained notoriety and acclaim after his return voyage from Hudson Bay in the company of doomed Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. Aware of his shortcomings as a geographer, Douglas set to work learning how to calculate latitude and longitude. In addtion, he gained some knowledge of spherical trigonometry and logarithms, from Sabine, Secretary of the Royal Society.

Once more accompanied by his Scottish terrier, Douglas returned to California in 1830 better equipped and joined by a white man-servant. Douglas explored and collected in California for a year-and-a-half until he received word from the Governor of Alaska that he would be welcome to visit Alaska. It was Douglas' fervent wish to conduct botanical and astronomical research in New Caledonia, then proceed via Fort St. James and Sitka, Alaska, to Siberia for more scientific research.

"What a glorious prospect!" he wrote to Professor Hooker. "...the work of the same individual on both Continents, with the same instruments, under similar circumstances and corresponding latitudes!... People tell me that Siberia is like a rat-trap, which there is no difficulty in entering, but from which it is not so easy to find egress. I mean at least to put this saying to the test. And I hope that those who know me know also that trifles will not stop me."

Douglas' foray into New Caledonia in 1833 would pose many dangers beyond "trifles." In fact, he would have to survive a tuberculosis epidemic that killed 24 Hudson's Bay Company men and thousands of Indians in the Columbia district. He was to encounter wild rapids and extreme temperatures. He also had to deal with the loss of much of his eyesight and the threat of a duel.

Douglas wintered at Fort Vancouver and departed with Edward Ermatinger for Fort Okanagan on March 20, 1833, planning to obtain fresh horses at Thompson's River Post (Fort Kamloops), proceed up the Bonaparte River to Horse Lake, and continue in a north-westerly direction to Williams Lake and the Fraser River, then onto Fort Alexandria. Boats and canoes would take him along the Fraser, Nechako and Stuart Rivers to reach Fort St. James, the largest post in New Caledonia.

On May 1, Ermatinger shot a partridge that Douglas skinned and preserved, recognizing it as a new species and naming it Franklin's partridge after Sir John Franklin.

Upon his arrival at Fort Kamloops, Douglas insulted his brother Scot Samuel Black by giving the Fort Kamloops commander his honest and forthright opinion of his host's employer. "The Hudson's Bay Company,"; Douglas said, "is simply a mercenary corporation; there is not an officer in it with a soul above a beaver-skin."; Given Douglas' expressed gratitude to his host John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver, this statement perhaps says as much about Douglas as it does about the Hudson's Bay Company.

Black, who fancied himself a man of some learning, interested in both geology and geography, had a brother who was editor of the London Morning Chronicle. He was more sophisticated than his appearance might attest. Unaccustomed to any insubordination, Black challenged Douglas to a duel. Early the next morning, Black confronted his guest. "Mister Doooglas! Are ye ready?" But the intemperate flower-collector wisely declined combat.

Douglas enjoyed a much kinder reception from Chief Factor Peter Warren Dease when he reached Fort St. James on June 6, 1833, but he found himself stranded for lack of transportation or guides. Difficulties had arisen for Douglas within the Royal Horticultural Society that limited the willingness of the Hudson's Bay Company (which would undoubtedly be apprised of Douglas' opinion of the HBC by Black) to provide escort and provisions.

Since Aboriginal near the coast were notoriously hostile, fueled by liquor from American traders, and temperatures in New Caledonia could become severely cold, Douglas and his servant could not risk making the journey to the coast on their own. It was 500 miles to the mouth of the Nass River, at Fort Simpson, then another 300 miles north to Sitka, Alaska.

As with the aborted duel, discretion was the better part of valour. Douglas and his servant William Johnson (a HBC employee who would become the first resident of Portland, Oregon) descended the Stuart and Nechako Rivers in a birch-bark canoe to Fort George, but soon after met with disaster nonetheless. Somewhere between present-day Prince George and Quesnel they overturned in the rapids. Douglas was swept downstream for more than an hour, losing his diary, his food and blankets, and his collection of 400 plant species.

Distraught, Douglas and Johnson somehow managed to return to Fort St. James and make a second, successful canoe trip to Fort Alexandria. (Not long thereafter, the Fort George clerk, George Linton, with his wife and three children and three others, would be drowned near much the same spot.)

By August, Douglas and his servant reached Fort Vancouver, much the worse for hunger and exposure, and troubled by fever. "This disastrous occurrence has much broken my strength and spirits,"; he wrote to Hooker. Douglas was somewhat relieved by the recent appearance at Fort Vancouver of two "doctors" who were also aspiring botanists, Meredith Gairdner and William Fraser Tolmie. Gairdner succumbed to tuberculosis in 1836, but Tolmie, who had known Douglas in Scotland, would continue collecting plant samples in B.C.

While the glare of sunlight during his various travels took its toll on his vision, Douglas is sometimes credited with making the first discovery of gold in British Columbia. He supposedly found enough gold somewhere on the shore of Okanagan Lake to make a seal. Douglas has also been mentioned in terms of gold discoveries in California. Gold flakes were supposedly found in some plant samples he sent to England in 1831, but there is little verification. Douglas' collection of rocks from the Pacific Northwest was transferred to the British Museum, but these rocks have long since disappeared.

The eminent geologist George Dawson repeated a story that Douglas had also found a deposit of carbonate of lead, galena and copper on the eastern shore of Kootenay Lake, later the site of the Bluebell Mine. This outcrop of galena ore was located opposite Hot Springs or Ainsworth. Unfortunately there is no evidence that Douglas ever visited Kootenay Lake. It's possible one of his assistants did, or else he gleaned information from some Aboriginals who knew of a mountain near Kettle Falls they called Chicamen (metal) Mountain.

In December of 1833, Douglas and his trusty terrier Billy sailed for the balmier climate of Hawaii where he collected ferns and became the first European to make recorded ascents of two great volcanic peaks.

Tragedy struck on July 12, 1834, when, at age thirty-four, David Douglas was supposedly gored to death by a wild bull. An unnamed editor of his journals, unpublished until 1914, provided some details about this supposedly accidental death in a bullock pit, but the circumstances lead to an easy assumption that he was murdered.

"The manner in which that melancholy event was said to have taken place seemed to us all about the Hudson's Bay Company so very improbable,"; wrote Archibald McDonald, "that we were unwilling to give the report implicit credence."
The British Consul to the Sandwich Islands, Richard Charlton, reported the death to England in a letter dated August 6, 1834. Douglas, it was alleged, had retraced his steps and wandered from a path after being forewarned about the danger of three pits that were built to entrap wild cattle. Inside one pit there was a bullock that trampled Douglas to death, or else the bullock fell into the pit after Douglas was entrapped.

Both scenarios were equally improbable, given that Douglas and his dog had managed to survive approximately twelve thousand miles of travel in the wilderness. On the other hand, Douglas, notoriously short-sighted, once had to be rescued from a ravine in Oregon into which he had fallen.

It is known that Douglas was trekking overland to Byron's Bay (now called Hilo) in the company of a black man named John, a servant of a missionary who had been lent to Douglas, who couldn't keep pace with him. On the morning of his death, Douglas breakfasted at the hut of a bullock hunter named Ned Gurney, a fearsome ex-convict from the penal camps in Australia.

Testimony and rumours later surfaced that Douglas had shown Gurney and others his money. Douglas made arrangements with Gurney to leave the servant behind, and departed early in the morning. The servant John was never heard from or seen again.

Gurney disappeared from Hawaii in 1839. No money was found with Douglas' corpse. A minister who interred the body noticed cuts on Douglas' body that were not in keeping with injuries that might have been sustained from attacks by a bull. An enquiry was launched, but physicians concluded the bull was the most likely killer. Years later, informants surfaced who accused the notorious Ned Gurney of the murder.

The grave was left unmarked at the time, possibly because Douglas was not officially an employee of the Royal Horticultural Society in Hawaii. Douglas had resigned in response to Royal Horticultural Society wrangles that had ousted his major supporter from the Society.

It has been suggested that Douglas may have committed suicide because he was receiving credit from people he met in Hawaii under false assurances that he was still employed by the Society. As soon as lenders learned that they would not be reimbursed by the Society, Douglas' reputation would have been ruined and he would have been deeply in debt.

A white marble monument to mark his burial in the cemetery of the Kawaiahao Church ("the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii";) was purchased by a world traveller and author named Reverend Julius L. Brenchley in 1855. An archivist in Honolulu named William F. Wilson published a pamphlet in 1919 entitled David Douglas, Botanist at Hawaii. A plaque to mark his place of death has been installed on Mauna Kea, and there is a large monument to David Douglas in Scone. As well, Mount Douglas in the Rocky Mountains bears his name.

Apart from his one known dalliance with a Chinook "princess" (it seems as if every second Aboriginal woman who had sex with a European in the 1800s was called a princess), Douglas was a loner, keen to make a name for himself, driven by a passion for collecting seeds instead of spreading them. But the definitive work on David Douglas has yet to be written. Allegations have been made that the heroic botanist sometimes was willing to take credit for the findings of others. His preference for Robinson Crusoe as a boy might well have led him to romanticize and inflate his own self-image as a man.

Regardless, the Royal Horticultural Society once published a list of 254 plants that David Douglas introduced to England. These include Picea sitchensis (Sitka spruce), Pinus lambertiana (sugar pine), Pinus ponderosa (Western yellow pine), Pinus radiata (Monterey pine), the California poppy, five species of monkey flower and 18 of lupine. As for the Douglas fir, capable of growing to a height of 270 feet over a 500-year period, it has gained various common names such as Oregon pine, red pine, Puget Sound pine, Oregon spruce, Douglas spruce, red fir, yellow fir, Oregon fir and spruce fir. Its various scientific names include Pinus Douglasii, Pseudotsuga Douglasii, Pseudotsuga Menziesii (in honour of Archibald Menzies) and Pseudotsuga taxifolia.


Douglas, David. Journal Kept by David Douglas During his Travels in North America, 1823-1827... With Appendices Containing a List of the Plants Introduced by Douglas and an Account of his Death in 1834 (London: William Wesley & Son, 1914).

Douglas, David. The Oregon Journals of David Douglas, of his Travels and Adventures among the Traders and Indians in the Columbia, Willamette and Snake River Regions During the Years 1825, 1826 and 1827. (1914; Ashland, Oregon: Oregon Book Society, 1972, 2 volumes, edited and introduced by David Lavender).


Harvey, Athelstan George. Douglas of the Fir, A Biography of David Douglas, Botanist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947).

Morwood, William. Traveler in a Vanished Landscape: The Life and Times of David Douglas, Botanical Explorer (New York: Clarkson N. Potter Inc.; London: Gentry Books, 1973).

Davies, John. Douglas of the Forests: The North American Journals of David Douglas (Paul Harris Publishing, Edinburgh, 1979).

Mitchell, Anne Lindsay & Syd House. David Douglas (Aurum Press, 1999).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "Forts and Fur" "Natural History" "Gold"