David Douglas, botanist, died on the 12th of July, 1834.
David Douglas was an adventurous traveller and inveterate botanical collector. He wasn't named after a tree; it was the other way round. Oor Davie was the character for whom the Douglas Fir and the primrose genus ‘Douglasia’ were named and he became a famous naturalist and botanist on the North America Continent and in Hawaii. He is famous for having discovered well over two hundred new plant species in the United States and Canada. Albeit the Douglas Fir (‘P. douglasii’) takes his name, Douglas gave it the botanical name ‘Pseudotsuga menziesii’ after the botanist Archibald Menzies, who was also from Perthshire and who had sailed to Oregon some years earlier with Captain Vancouver. In the grounds of Scone Palace, still growing today, is a Douglas Fir, which grew from a seed that David Douglas planted. Most interestingly, David Douglas died in Hawaii under mysterious circumstances when he was just thirty-five.
David Douglas was born on the 25th of June, 1799, in Scone, which is famous for its Moot Hill, where Robert the Bruce and many other Kings of Scots were crowned. Between the ages of seven and eleven, Davie went to the nearby Kinnoul School. That was a three mile walk, but Davie was often late because he preferred to study the flora and fauna. When he left school, he was employed as an apprentice gardener on the estate of the Earl of Mansfield at Scone Palace. He worked there for seven years, before being taken on by Sir Robert Preston at Valley Field in Fife. Douglas made the most of his opportunity and was allowed the use of Sir Robert’s extensive botanical library, which he used to absorb more of the scientific aspects of horticulture.
In 1820, he moved to the Botanical Gardens in Glasgow, where he was employed as a gardener, and attended botany lectures at Glasgow University. His potential was recognised by Sir William Hooker, who took him on plant-finding and collecting expeditions in the Highlands. Three yeas later, in 1823, Sir William recommended Douglas to the Royal Horticultural Society in London, as it was looking for a suitable plant collector to send to China. However, because of the unsettled nature of that country, he was sent instead to America.
Douglas was the first ‘plant hunter’ to work in a temperate climate, collecting plants not in cultivation or not described. In 1823, he visited Niagara Falls, being particularly impressed “with a red cedar which grew out of the rocks on a channel of the river”. In 1825, he was sponsored by the Hudson's Bay Company to explore the Columbia River. That trip was a spectacular success, resulting in the introduction of 240 new species to Britain, including the Douglas Fir, Sitka Spruce and Monterey Pine, plus flowers like the Lupin (‘Lupinus polyphyllus’) and the Rose of Sharon (‘hypericum’). It’s fair to say that the species he introduced to Britain transformed not only the forestry industry, but many parks and gardens. He enthusiastically wrote to Hooker, suggesting, “You will begin to think that I manufacture pines at my pleasure”. However, he did have problems drying specimens when it rained constantly and, on one journey, lost as many as forty-five bird specimens.
Douglas made a point of being friendly with the local tribes and lived off the land, preferring to sleep wrapped in a blanket or under a canoe. By the time he left the Continent, in 1827, he had covered over 10,000 miles in rough territory, far from civilisation, driven by his love of science and a passion for nature. He was the first European to climb the northern Rocky Mountains and named Mount Hooker after the Glasgow Professor. When in the Rockies, he met Thomas Drummond, who had been with Sir John Franklin's Arctic expedition, and with whom he eventually sailed back to Britain. On his return, he was made a fellow of the Geological and Zoological Societies of London.
His final adventure began in 1829, when he embarked for California and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), planning to return via Alaska and Siberia. He was the first botanist to describe the giant Redwood (‘Sequoia sempervirens’), even though it had been discovered by Archibald Menzies some years before. In one incident on the Fraser River (named after the Scots explorer Simon Fraser), in Fort George Canyon, he almost drowned and lost his entire collection, maps, scientific instruments and journal. He also visited Stuart Lake (named after another Scot, John Stuart) and became almost blind in his right eye as a result of snow-blindness. In 1833, having given up the idea of travelling home via Russia and "Much broken in health and spirits", he sailed for Hawaii, from where he sent home his California collection of 670 species.
Douglas died in mysterious circumstances at Kaluakauka, in Laupahoehoe, Hawaii, on the 12th of July, 1834. He was found dead in a pit intended to catch wild cattle and his injuries were attributed to a rather mad bullock. Few believed he could have accidentally fallen into the pit, which he had earlier safely passed, accompanied by a guide. Despite an inquest finding no evidence, most locals suspected foul play. Amongst the information, which came to light in the decades afterwards was the following:
At the time, the Rev. Diell, the Rev. Goodrich and the carpenter who built the coffin, noted that the gashes on Douglas’ head didn’t seem to be the kind a bull's horns or hooves could inflict. Twelve years later, a reliable source was quoted as stating that Davis, with whom Douglas had stayed the night before, saw him with a large purse of money, which he took to be gold and that no money or gold was found after his death. In 1896, the ‘Hilo Tribune’ published an article in which a seventy-years-old hunter called Bolabola said that the “Haole” (foreigner) was murdered. "We all felt so at the time, but were afraid to say so and only whispered it among ourselves,” he said. Ten years after that, it was reported in the ‘Hawaii Herald’ that a surveyor called Löbenstein said natives spoke of Douglas having been careless enough to show some money at the house of escaped convict and bullock hunter, Ned (Edward) Gurney, on the morning of his death, and that Gurney was said to have killed Douglas with an axe.
Whatever the truth, Douglas was buried at Kawaiaha'o Mission House in Honolulu, where a bronze plaque now commemorates his achievements. In 1934, one hundred years after his death, a stone cairn was erected near where his body was found, but perhaps the most fitting memorial for the intrepid Scot is the forest of Douglas Fir that was planted at its dedication.