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Discovering David Douglas through the Directors' Correspondence

Charlotte Rowley
13 March 2013
Read extracts from the letters of David Douglas in the Directors' Correspondence, and learn more about this remarkable plant-hunter and explorer.

Having digitised the first few volumes of the (DC) from North America, it is fitting that we begin our series of North American blogs with the great Scottish botanist and explorer,  David Douglas. We briefly introduced Douglas in an earlier blog and his remarkable story, lively character and affection for his Scotch Terrier, Billy, make him a firm favourite with the team.


Portrait of David Douglas
Portrait of David Douglas from Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Much can be learned of Douglas's fascinating biography from material already published, so here I just want to show a glimpse of his character and adventures using the letters he wrote to Sir William Jackson Hooker between 1830 and 1834.

Douglas In North America & Canada

Having already made two remarkable plant-hunting expeditions to North America and Canada on behalf of the Horticultural Society between 1823 and 1827, Douglas returned to Vancouver in 1830 to continue his valuable work. The DC collection contains a hand-drawn map by Archibald McDonald of the Hudson's Bay Company roughly depicting some of the areas Douglas visited on his third, and final, expedition:


Map of areas visited by David Douglas between 1830 and 1834 by Archibald McDonald, with additional annotation [Archive ref: DC 62 f.100a]

Douglas first travelled up the Columbia River, where he discovered many new species including Abies grandis (Grand Fir). A letter from this time shows that success was not easily come by; he narrowly escaped disaster on two occasions:

"An intermittent fever dreadfully fatal broke out...11 weeks ago... not a soul remains!! The houses empty and the flocks of famished dogs howling and dead bodies in every direction... I am one of the very few among the persons of the [Hudson Bay] Company who have stood it...The ship which sailed with us was totally wrecked on entering the River but I am glad to say no lives were lost. To this ship I was at first appointed and... I should have lost my all." [Archive ref:DC61 f.96]


Extract from Douglas letter on fever
Extract of a cross-written letter from David Douglas to Sir William Hooker, 11 Oct 1830 [Archive ref:DC61 f.96]

Collecting in California and Hunting in Hawaii

Having returned to Vancouver, Douglas then set off for California where he botanised extensively. His discoveries included Pinus sabiniana, Pinus radiata and Pinus coulteri causing him to write in a letter to Hooker "you will begin to think shortly I manufacture pines at my pleasure".

In August 1832, Douglas sailed for the Sandwich [now Hawaiian] Islands, arriving in Honolulu. From there he sent a letter to Hooker's eldest son, William Dawson Hooker, who had previously written to him about a fishing trip. He explained:

In the Sandwich Islands, the Islanders domesticate their fish. They catch when only about 2 inches long 2 kinds of mullet...which they remove to large ponds of brackish or partly salt water...where they grow exceedingly large and fine...Those fellows know something of fishing."

Extract of letter from David Douglas to William Dawson Hooker, 23 Oct 1832 [Archive ref: DC61 f.108]

In Honolulu, Douglas made many astronomical observations, although in the same letter we see that these were somewhat hampered by the wildlife:

"You must tell Joseph I have now a mortal antipathy (more if more can be) to cockroaches than he has for I made a great many observations at the Sandwich Islands...and the vile cockroaches ate up the whole paper and as there was a little oil on my shoes they nearly ate them up." [Archive ref: DC61 f.108]

Final Journey

Douglas returned to Vancouver and in March 1833 set off up the Columbia and Thompson Rivers to Stuart Lake, in British Columbia. Unable to find a party going to the coast, he travelled back down the Fraser River and there met with disaster:

"At the 'Stony Islands' of Frasers canoo [sic] was dashed to pieces when I lost every article I then possessed...the collection of plants was about 400 species, of which 250 were mosses - a few of them were new. I cannot tell you how much this has worn me down." [Archive ref: DC61 f.112]

To add to his suffering, Douglas's adventures had clearly taken their toll on his health by this time as he wrote:

"My left eye is infinitely more delicate than ever...but my right one is no longer useful to me...I fear that the attack of ophthalmia I had in 1826 then snow-blindness then the intense scorching heat of California...has ruined it. I use purple goggles for the snow...against my reluctance[?] for it makes all plants this colour." [Archive ref: DC61 f.110]

Douglas made it back down the Columbia River and in November 1833 again sailed for Hawaii. Sadly, this was to be his last adventure as just eight months later he was found dead in a pit trap, trampled by an enraged bull. The circumstances surrounding his death sparked rumours of murder, but a subsequent investigation found no evidence of this.


Extract of Press Cutting from the Perthshire Royal Horticultural Society, 23 Nov 1885 [Archive ref: DC62 f.71a]

There are many excellent resources giving further detail about the remarkable life of David Douglas, including the recently published book, The Plant Hunters, with much of the information being taken from his letters to Hooker. Stories such as these serve to highlight the unique value of the Directors' Correspondence collection.  

- Charlotte -

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2 May 2013
My husband Ken and I take tours around Mauna Kea, the vast volcano on the island of Hawaii, on Mana Road for the Kona Historical Society. We always stop at the Doctor's Pit, known as Kalua Kauka , and discuss wonderful Dr. Douglas and his dog. It is such a shame that his burial place at Kawaihao Church in Honolulu has never been located. The unknown details of his death always leave our listeners wondering what really happened in that vast koa forest filled with Vancouver's wild cattle. I want to visit. Aloha, Maile Melrose
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13 March 2013
Having read some of the history on David Douglas, there is always more to learn. Consider Kew as the most reliable of sources for information & history of horticulture.
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