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David Douglas
(25 Jun 1799 - 12 Jul 1834)

Scottish botanist who was one of the founding fathers of British forestry. He scoured North America for plants, and introduced many to Britain.


from True Tales of Travel and Adventure, Valour and Virtue
by James Macaulay (1884)

David Douglas - head and shoulders
Plate 2 - David Douglas

[p.397] MANY of the stately trees and lovely flowers now familiar to us were unknown to our forefathers, and have been introduced from foreign lands to English parks and gardens. A few of them have been sent or brought home by residents in distant regions, or by those who have gone there in the course of ordinary voyages and travels, but the larger part have been obtained by regular collectors sent out for the purpose, either by public bodies or by private persons of wealth. There are always numbers of botanical collectors thus wandering in various parts of the world, some of them in the common course of trade, at the cost of nurserymen and florists, who find it pays them well to employ such travellers.

One of the earliest and most successful of these botanical travellers was a Scotchman, David Douglas, whose name is attached to the magnificent pine tree, the Abies Douglasii, the seeds of which he first brought to this country from British Columbia. A brief account of his adventurous life, too soon cut short by a tragical death, will be read with interest.

He began his career by being apprenticed to the head [p.398] gardener at Scone Palace, where he worked, from the age of twelve, for seven years. When nineteen he obtained a situation at Culross, in the garden of Sir Robert Preston. At this place were many exotic plants, which greatly excited his curiosity, and at the mansion there was a good library, including books on botany, which he was permitted to use, so that the two years he was at Culross were very pleasantly and profitably spent. He then obtained employment in the Botanic Garden at Glasgow, under the superintendence of Sir William Jackson Hooker, the father of Sir Joseph Hooker of Kew Gardens. Dr. Hooker took much notice of the young and enthusiastic gardener, and allowed him to attend the lectures on botany, which were given to the medical students of Glasgow University. He also took him as his companion in excursions during the summer months in the Scottish Highlands and islands. He thus was prepared for his life-work under the most favourable auspices.

In 1824 the Hudson’s Bay Company resolved to send a botanical collector to the vast regions of British Columbia, then under their authority. Dr. Hooker being asked to recommend a suitable person, David Douglas at once received the appointment. In those times the only way to reach the western regions of North America was by a long sea voyage, in a sailing ship, round Cape Horn. The voyage lasted about nine months, for the ship did not anchor in Columbia River till April 8th, 1825.

Of the incidents of the voyage a record was kept by Douglas in his Journal. There was much to interest him, and nothing pleased him more than a visit to Juan Fernandez, on which island, strangely enough, another Robinson Crusoe was found. On the second day after their arrival, while Douglas and some companions were exploring, an uncouth-looking skin-covered man startled them by springing from among the bushes. His name was William Clark, and he had come from London five years before. He seemed contented to stay there, and satisfied with the occasional intercourse with his fellow-men when a [p.399] ship touched at the island. As he did not discover himself on the first day, it is likely that he reconnoitred the strangers before making his appearance, so as to judge whether their company would be agreeable or safe. He had a few books, among which were “Robinson Crusoe “ and “Cowper’s Poems.” From the latter he had committed to memory the piece upon Alexander Selkirk. Douglas says in his Journal: “No pen can correctly describe the charming and rural appearance of this island.” He took away specimens of the native plants, and in return sowed various seeds of fruits and vegetables, which have enriched the island since his visit.

Arrived at Columbia Douglas soon found his way to Fort Vancouver, where the chief factor, a fellow countryman, Dr. M’Lauchlan, gave him a warm welcome. He lost no time in commencing his explorations from this place as his headquarters. His labour was at times interrupted by the rainy weather, but he made such large collections of seeds and plants that his deer-skin tent was too straitened to hold his treasures, and a larger hut of dried oak bark had to be built for their reception and preservation. When the ship was ready to return, at the end of four months, he was able to despatch a large collection of specimens. His hut he expected would “be useful for winter shelter, but as long as he was able to move about he preferred rougher quarters. At the beginning of his first autumn he wrote: “I have been in a house only three nights since my arrival in North-Western America, and these were my first after my debarkation.”

On his journeys he used to wander about, with his gun across his shoulder, and his vasculum, or botanical box, strapped on his back, attended only by his faithful Scotch terrier, rough and shaggy as his master. The Indians all knew him, mostly taking him for a “big medicine.” The forest, was his home. The fur traders’ well-appointed stations never tempted him to stay long. He preferred to sleep under one of his own pine-trees. The trappers called him the ‘“Grass Man.”

[p.400] He sacrificed everything for the sake of his plants. On one occasion we find him wearing a damp shirt, in order to keep the dry one to wrap around his specimens. On another, when he crossed the Columbia river, he congratulates himself that, while he had lost all his provisions, he had saved his plants. Having formed the resolution to cross the continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic, a journey of more than three thousand miles, he describes his outfit: “My store of clothes is very low, nearly reduced to what I have on my back—one pair of shoes, no stockings, two shirts, two handkerchiefs, my blanket, and cloak. Thus I adapt my costume to that of the country, as I could not carry more without reducing myself to an inadequate supply of paper, and such articles as I required for my business.”

As an instance of his self-denial and perseverance, we may recount what he did and endured in the discovery of the Pinus Lambertiana, which is now scarcely less famous than the pine-tree called by his name. Having secured one of its remarkably large cones from the Indians, he resolved to visit the place in the following spring. After many difficulties he reached the grove, and saw the precious cones hanging like sugar-loaves from the pendulous branches. He secured three of these with almost fatal result. He could neither climb the tree nor hew it down; he therefore attempted to shoot down the cones. The Indians, hearing the report of his gun, speedily surrounded him in warlike array, with their bows, arrows, bone-tipped spears, and knives. He had invaded their sacred grove; he had dared to fire upon their sacred trees. He managed to allay their wrath, and betook himself to the depths of the forest. In returning he encountered greater dangers. He lost his way; he again was opposed by hostile Indians; he was exposed to a pitiless storm. Twelve days he spent in extreme misery and danger, during which his horse perished, before he came out on the Columbia and was taken care of by his friends.

Shortly after this he made a journey into California, and [p.401] whilst there exploring its rich herbage and wonderful arborage, had the good fortune to fall in with a kindred spirit, Dr. Coulter, who had been collecting in Mexico, and with great joy writes to Dr. Hooker, “As a salmon-fisher he is superior to Walter Campbell of Islay—the Izaak Walton of Scotland— besides being a beautiful shot with a rifle, nearly as successful as myself! And I do assure you from my heart it is a terrible pleasure to me thus to meet a really good man, and one with whom I can talk of plants.”

He manifested the greatest prudence in dealing with the Indians, many of whom had never seen the face of a white man before. When one was boasting of his superiority to the King George men, Douglas quietly lifted his gun and brought down a bird which was flying overhead. They never shoot anything on the wing. This manifestation of his power caused them to lay their hands upon their mouths in token of fear. “My fame was hereupon sounded through the country. Ever since, I have found it to be of the utmost importance to bring down a bird flying when I go near any of their lodges, taking care to make it appear as a little matter, not done to be observed.” On another occasion, having finished a piece of salmon in the presence of a large number of Indians of whom he was not sure, he brought from his pocket some effervescing powder which he carried as medicine, put it into some water, stirred it with his finger, and drank it before them. This had immense effect. A man that could swallow boiling water was not to be interfered with, especially one who could boil it with his finger! Sometimes he struck terror into their hearts by lighting his pipe with a lens, and greatly impressed them by putting on his blue spectacles. A friendly chief having done him a service, the “Grass Man” bored a hole through his only shilling, and suspended it by a brass wire to the septum of his nose, which was pierced according to the custom of his tribe. Another chief was rewarded for similar service by being shaved after the fashion of white men. In sailing up one of the rivers he was accompanied by Madsue, or “Thunder,” [p.402] who was long famous in the region around the Columbia Thunder would not taste liquor, but he made up for it in smoking. In self-defence Douglas smoked also. In this, however, he astonished his companion by putting out the smoke from his mouth, which these Indians did not do. “Oh !” cried Thunder, “why do you throw away the smoke? See, I take it in my belly.”

Having made journeys with many perils through Oregon, Washington Territory, and California, he started to go farther north through British Columbia and Russian America. In crossing the Fraser river, up near Quesnelle, his canoe was dashed to pieces against the rocks, all his provisions and specimens lost, himself cast into the waters, and thrown benumbed and bleeding upon the shore. This was a great disaster. It not only discouraged him from proceeding on that journey, but made him eager to return home. More than four hundred specimens, the result of laborious toil, were there destroyed in a few minutes. His misfortune was felt all the more from the fact that the ten years’ toil and exposure had already told severely upon his frame. He could not shoot well, as his eyesight had begun to fail. He became lonely, desolate, despondent, and acknowledges that but for the companionship of his Bible, which he carried with him and perused in all his wanderings, and the sympathy and support of the Faithful Redeemer in whom he believed, he must have perished in utter hopelessness.

He therefore made preparations for his return to Britain, and left the Columbia river in October 1833. The ship touched at the Sandwich Islands, and had to wait there for cargo. He therefore set out to explore the country—especially the volcanic region. On the 7th January, 1834, he started to visit the volcano Mauna Kea. Returning from the summit of the mountain, hungry, thirsty, blistered, and jaded, he wrote: “Gratified though one may be at witnessing the wonderful works of God in such a place, it is with thankfulness that we approach a climate more congenial to our natures, [p.403] and welcome the habitations of our fellow-men, where we are refreshed with the scent of vegetation and soothed by the melody of birds.”

In the last of his letters to Professor Hooker he said : “May God grant me a safe return to England. I cannot but indulge the pleasing hope of being soon able in person to thank you for the signal kindness you have ever done me.” But in this he was disappointed. He had resolved to visit Mauna Kea once more. At six o’clock in the morning of the I2th July he called at the house of Edward Gurney, an Englishman who had a house in the region of the mountain. He stated that his servant had failed on the way, and requested him to show him the best path. After breakfasting together Gurney accompanied him for about a mile, pointed out the different paths, and specially warned him of the pit-traps, of which there were many, for the catching of wild cattle. He had not gone more than two miles when he came to one of these, into which a bullock had fallen. He looked into it, passed by, and went up the hill. There, some idea induced him to turn. Laying down his bundle, beside which his faithful terrier remained, he proceeded to examine the pit more minutely.

While doing this he missed his footstep and fell down into the pit beside the enraged bullock. Two natives who were passing were attracted by his cries, and saw Douglas under the feet of the animal. They ran as quickly as they could for Gurney, who shot the bullock, but found that Douglas was already dead. After removing the mangled body, Gurney took charge of the dog, and the bundle, and the other things which he had in his pockets, which were duly forwarded. Thus ended the life of Douglas when thirty-five years of age. Exactly ten years after his first embarkation for America his body was brought down to Oahu for burial. His death was all the more unfortunate as he had not completed his account of his explorations in the north-west. He had lost four hundred of his last collected specimens in attempting to cross [p.404] the Fraser river. His subsequent sickness and despondency had prevented him describing them.

Notwithstanding these misfortunes and his death ere he had reached middle life, Douglas had done noble work, and attained a character that will ever rank high among those who have advanced the interests of humanity. On the reverse side of his monument, “erected by the lovers of botany in Europe” to his memory in Scone churchyard, there is given a list “of a few of the numerous trees, shrubs, and ornamental plants introduced by Douglas.” Among these we recognise many of the annuals now common in our gardens, and of the trees and shrubs that are favourites in our grounds. Thus are his name and memory perpetuated not only by his monumental stone, but by the widely-distributed Douglas pine and other trees in many lands. Their waving branches, moved by the winds, will sound forth the melancholy requiem of him who loved so well the old forests.

His early friend and patron Dr. Hooker published his Journal, or as much of it as reached home; and long years after, a Scotch clergyman, Mr. Somerville, gathered many traditions from those who knew him in British Columbia. From these sources we have obtained most of the facts of the foregoing narrative.

Text from from James Macaulay, True Tales of Travel and Adventure, Valour and Virtue (1884), 397-404. (source)

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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