- David Douglas (1799-1834)
Roots in Perthshire
David Douglas, the son of a stonemason, was born on 25 June, 1799, at the village of Scone, a few miles north-west of Perth. From the age of 7 to 11, he attended Kinnoul School, three miles from Scone but was often late as he studied the flora and fauna on Kinnoul Hill, a well-known local beauty spot. When he left school (at the age of 11) he was employed as an apprentice gardener in the estate of the Earl of Mansfield at Scone Palace.
The young apprentice spent seven years at Scone and then went for a spell to college in Perth to learn more of the scientific and mathematical aspects of plant culture. After a spell working in Fife (where he had access to a library of books on botany and zoology) he moved to the Botanical Gardens in Glasgow. He attended botany lectures at Glasgow University and soon impressed the Professor of botany who took him on plant-finding expeditions in the Highlands. In 1823, on the recommendation of Professor Hooker, he moved to the Horticultural Society of London.
Exploring in North America
David Douglas had gone to London to join an expedition to China but when that was cancelled he was sent to North America in 1823. Initially he spent time in New Jersey and then the Hudson and Mohawk rivers to Niagara Falls, collecting new varieties of apple and plum. The next expedition in 1824 was to the west coast - calling on the way at Robinson Crusoe Island (where Alexander Selkirk had been marooned and became the basis for Daniel Defoe's novel).
The expedition then reached the Columbia River and Douglas began collecting plants - including the Douglas Fir (though he gave it the botanical name pseudotsuga menziesii after the botanist Archibald Menzies, also from Perthshire, who had sailed there earlier with Captain Vancouver). On two expeditions to the west coast, Oregon and up the Columbia river and its tributaries, he collected over 200 species of plants, including lupins, phlox, penstemmon, sunflowers, clarkia, Californian poppy, mimulus, flowering currant, rose of sharon (hypericum), gaillardia and mahonia (illustrated above).
Douglas made a point of being friendly with the local tribes whenever he could but sometimes he got involved in tribal conflicts. He lived off the land and rarely had a tent, preferring to sleep wrapped in a blanket or under a canoe. He was a crack shot with the rifle, which helped to provide food - and impress the natives. But his greatest problem was often the local animals and insects - ranging from grizzly bears, rats and mosquitoes to fleas and ants.
In 1825 and 1826 he covered a total of over 6,000 miles in rough territory, far from civilisation, showing courage, tenacity and an acute sense of observation as well as a love of science and a passion for nature. He was the first European to climb the northern Rocky Mountains and in so doing named a number of them, including Mount Hooker after his professor at Glasgow University. In 1827 he travelled across Canada, passing through the settlement of Scots at Red River, established by Lord Selkirk in 1812. He eventually reached Hudson Bay and a ship home. In total, between 1825 and 1827, he covered over 10,000 miles.
Returning to London
David Douglas returned to London as a hero and was fêted by all. He was made a fellow of the Geological and Zoological Societies of London. But he was not equipped to deal with fame and he had problems writing up his material from his journey despite having a detailed journal written during the expedition.
He travelled to Scotland to see his mother, now a widow, and a seed of the Douglas Fir was planted in the grounds of Scone Palace - which is still growing there (see illustration). He also visited his guide and mentor, Prof Hooker in Glasgow.
He was anxious to embark on another expedition and left in October 1829, heading for Hawaii and the American west coast. He planned to return via Siberia.
During this expedition, he spent 18 months in California, seeing the giant redwoods Sequoia sempervirens, for the first time. Later he travelled up the Columbia River again, on to the Fraser River (named after the Scots explorer Simon Fraser) and Stuart Lake (named after another Scot, John Stuart). By this time the sight in his right eye hand almost gone, the result of snow-blindness on his earlier travels.
After deciding that attempting to travel to Alaska (and then across to Siberia) was impossible because of hostile Indians and the distances involved, Douglas decided to return to Fort Vancouver. But misfortune struck when his canoe overturned and he lost his collection, maps, scientific instruments and his journal in Fort George Canyon in New Caledonia.
"Much broken in health and spirits", he sailed for Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands) and arrived there in December 1833. In January 1834, Douglas climbed the volcano Mauna Kea, returning after five days with 50 species of fern, and mosses and lichens. He remained on the islands for several months but during an expedition to Rohala Point, at the north end of Hawaii, he died on July 13, 1834. He had fallen into a pit dug by the islanders to catch wild cattle - possibly his deteriorating eyesight contributed to the incident. But a wild bull was already in the pit and Douglas was killed. There was some suspicion at the time of foul play by an ex-convict who had dug the traps but a subsequent inquest at Honolulu found no evidence to support the theory.
Douglas was buried at Kawiaihoa Church at Honolulu, where a plaque commemorates his achievements.
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