David Douglas, The Overzealous Botanist

CULTURE | October 21, 2019

Douglas Fir in Quinault Forest Olympic National Park Washington USA. Source: (Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Botany, the study of plants, may seem like a dull subject. Collecting and cataloging flora doesn’t seem to be in league with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone or the explorations of Henry Hudson. But that was not the case two hundred years ago. To the West, much of the world was still unknown and there was a cadre of explorers who were filled with derring-do to collect all the world’s knowledge.

Since unknown species of plants were located in unexplored parts of the globe, this entailed scientists to cloak themselves with Indiana Jones-like guts mixed with the stamina of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. Case in point is David Douglas who is one of history’s best-known botanists and to whom his name is given to the Douglas fir tree.

He also died one of the most atypical deaths imaginable.

David Douglas. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Early Years

David Douglas was born on June 25, 1799, in the village of Scone, Scotland the son of a stonemason. He began an apprenticeship in plant lore at age 10 or 11 at the estate of the Earl of Mansfield under the tutelage of the head gardener, William Beattie. This he did for seven years learning the practical work of plant culture and then obtained a position at the estate of Sir Robert Preston. Preston happened to have a large library of botanical books that the young Douglas, who had no formal education, devoured.

In 1820, Douglas went to the Botanical Gardens of the University of Glasgow where he became friends with a new botany professor, William Hooker. He attended Hooker’s lectures and obtained access to the professor’s private library. Hooker would describe Douglas as one of “great activity, singular abstemiousness, and energetic zeal." Together the two journeyed into the Scottish Highlands where Douglas learned how to press and dry plants, something very important for field preservation. In 1823, Hooker recommended Douglas to the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society which needed a young botanist to send abroad as a collector.

Fort Vancouver in 1845. Source: (Wikipedia)

Early Journeys

The Royal Horticulture Society packed Douglas off to the east coast of North America on June 6, 1823. Most of this trip was spent in gardens and nurseries in the New York and Philadelphia areas, but he did manage one long excursion in the autumn to Albany, Buffalo and into Canada. During this trip, he came to understand for the first time the immensity of the American wilderness, and the possibilities for a cheeky plant hunter such as himself. He also managed to have most of his belongings stolen from him by a guide while looking for mistletoe samples in northeast Canada. He returned to Britain on December 12, 1823.

The society was pleased enough with Douglas’s performance that they thought him ready for a more ambitious trip. At first, the Society considered China but decided against it due to a dangerous political situation. Instead, they dispatched him, vis-a-vis a Hudson Bay Company ship the Mary and Anne, to the mouth of the Columbia River on the west coast of North America.

After months of travel, Douglas set ashore on February 13, 1825. He was lodged in the Hudson Bay Company’s outpost of Fort Vancouver. This was to become his base of operations while he wandered the wilds, looking for specimens.

The Columbia River. Source: (Wikipedia)

Wandering the Wild

Douglas’s journeys were rough. He stayed in tents, deerskin lodges, and then a thuya hut bark. He roamed the lower Columbia River and into the Cascade Mountains becoming a pioneering mountaineer. In these journeys, he managed to collect specimens and seeds of almost 500 plants. These he loaded aboard the Mary and Anne for its return journey, but Douglas himself was injured with a rusty nail in the kneecap which incapacitated him until December 25, 1825.

In the spring of 1826, Douglas was healed and began his explorations anew. He set up a base at a trading post in Kettle Falls at the junction of the Columbia and Colville rivers. During this time, which brought him as far afield as 90 miles into the interior, he was reduced to eating ground-rats and boiled horse-meat. It was also at this time that he began to experience eye troubles from blowing sand and later snow-blindness.

Sugar Pine. Source: (Wikipedia)

Hunting for the Sugar Pine

Douglas returned to Fort Vancouver on August 29 after a 250-mile journey overland to deposit a large number of samples aboard the ship Dryad for passage to Britain. But the botanist wanted no passage for himself and got right back to work. He combed the countryside again, living off the land. It was on this journey that he heard about a magnificent pine tree, the Pinus lambertiana, the sugar pine. Using a Native American guide he made his way toward the region but managed to hurt his hands so badly while constructing a raft that he sent the native back for help. Douglas then left to his own devices tried to hunt deer but managed to fall down a ravine instead. He was unconscious for five hours before Native Americans rescued him. He returned to camp, “lamed and broken down.” A few days later, they tried again and after a horrible thunderstorm, Douglas finally found it the sugar pine. “This most beautiful and immensely large tree…” is the largest and most immense and tallest conifer tree in the world.

Awestruck, Douglas wanted to collect some of the cones. But they were so high up that he had to shoot them down. After he managed to obtain three cones, eight rather hostile Native Americans appeared. There was a standoff where the Indians indicated they wanted tobacco and Douglas said he would give them some if they could get more pine cones for him. The Native Americans went off to collect pine cones and Douglas ran away as fast as he could with his three cones and a twig.

On the return journey he met up with another British party, but got lost and ended up sleeping in the open on wet and sleet-filled nights. A few days later when attempting to swim the Santiam River, his collections were swept away (except for the three pine cones). He reached Fort Vancouver on November 23, 1826. Douglas spent the next year in the northern Rocky Mountains and on to York Factory on Hudson Bay. From there he was able to take passage to Britain and returned on October 11, 1827.

Sugar pine cones. Source: (Wikipedia)


Douglas had brought attention to hundreds of new plant species (aside from the douglas fir) and was lionized. He also did much for the study of fauna, having identified some wholly new species, such as the mountain beaver. He has a number of species named after him. With him, traveled Billy, his Scot Terrier.

Apparently, Douglas got bored at home and in consequence irritated his friends to such a degree that they urged him back to America. Douglas couldn’t be happier. He made a third trip to North America on a survey ship where he helped chart the Columbia River. By this point, Douglas had completely lost sight in his right eye. After a time, he headed to the Hawaiian Islands. Douglas was fascinated by the flora of the islands and after a return to North America went back again in 1834. There he explored the volcanoes Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

David Douglas Memorial in Scone, Scotland. Source: (Peter Thompson/Heritage Images/Getty Images)


It was while in Hawaii that David Douglas met an untimely and bizarre end. On July 14, 1834, he fell into a pit trap and was either gored or trampled to death by a feral bull. It is unclear if the bull fell on him or if the bull was already in the pit. It seems that the ever-curious and zealous Douglas peered into the pit for a better look and fell in. There has been speculation that he was murdered by his guide who was a convict from the Botany Bay colony -- but there is not enough historic evidence to suppose to confirm this. Douglas was buried on the Island of Oahu.

David Douglas had quite a career for a botanist -- and a short one, too. He was 35 at the time of his death. But as Alice M. Coats, author of the definitive work, The Plant Hunters, writes that Douglas “...must rank as one of the greatest collectors, as well as a notable explorer, geographer and alpinist; and considering his short life and humble beginnings, these were remarkable achievements.”

Tags: Botanist | David Douglas

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