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Vol.18, no.1
February/March 2015


The Curious Case of David Douglas 
Story By: Susan Hauser 
Photos By: Jeff Deponte

In the summer of 1834 the Scottish botanist David Douglas set out from Kohala, headed east to Hilo on a ninety-mile walk-about that took him across the slopes of Mauna Kea. The terrain he passed through was largely barren, nibbled bare by a scourge of wild cattle roaming the hills of the volcano. The cattle had arrived four decades earlier, a gift from Captain George Vancouver to Hawai‘i’s King Kamehameha I, the first cattle to ever appear in the Islands. The animals quickly multiplied and, in the wild, became a menacing and destructive herd. When a royal ban against killing them was lifted, an industry was born. By the 1830s bullock hunters had dotted the slopes of Mauna Kea with deep, camouflaged pits. Cattle would fall into the pits and be captured, then sold for their hides and tallow. It was this environment into which Douglas walked.

On July 12 his mangled body was found at the bottom of one of those pits, with a bull standing atop him. Ned Gurney, a bullock hunter who just hours earlier had shared his breakfast with Douglas, became a suspect but in the end was not accused of robbing and murdering the plant collector. Instead the accepted story, bolstered by a noncommittal post-mortem conducted on Douglas’ month-old corpse by doctors in Honolulu, was that the 35-year-old intrepid traveler was gored to death after stumbling into an occupied trap. 

Douglas’ death created shock waves internationally; he was no ordinary plant collector. The botanist had spent years combing the wilds of the Pacific Northwest and shipped thousands of plant specimens back to London, including more than two hundred species then unknown in the Old World. Those plants and seeds had had a major impact, transforming the gardens of Great Britain and Europe. Seeds from the tree known colloquially today as the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) along with seeds from the Sitka spruce, grew to create vast new forests in Scotland.

After his death Douglas was buried in a plot near Honolulu’s Kawaihao Church. His grave was never marked, and its exact location remains unknown. For a hundred years the site of the fateful pit—named Kaluakauka, “the doctor’s pit”—was also unmarked. But a century after Douglas’ death Leicester Winthrop “Bill” Bryan remedied that. In the spring of 1934 Bryan got down on his knees and planted two hundred Douglas fir saplings in a glade near the then-overgrown pit where Douglas had died. It was not an unusual act for Bryan. In the course of his forty-year career as a forester in Hawai‘i, Bryan personally planted or supervised the planting of more than ten million trees in the Islands before his retirement in 1961. 

But the David Douglas memorial he created for the centennial of the Scotsman’s death was a personal project; Bryan was himself a botanist and a Douglas enthusiast. For funding he turned to his own Scottish social club, the Hilo Burns Club, which claimed among its members several other foresters, botanists and plantation managers. The club agreed to pay for the planting of Douglas’ namesake trees and the construction of a pyramid-shaped lava rock cairn that would be adorned with brass plaques on two of its three sides: one commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Douglas’ death and the other listing the guests at the memorial’s dedication.

On the morning of July 12, 1934, a hundred years to the day after Douglas’ death, Bryan and his seven guests, including his nine-year-old son, Jack, mounted horses in Hilo and rode for hours up Mauna Kea and then along the old Mana Road that skirts the volcano’s northern flank. Gathered around the new memorial, the guests listened as Judge David McHattie Forbes delivered a passionate address. A former botanist and forester himself, Forbes felt a kinship to Douglas, he explained, for he himself had apprenticed in the gardens of Scotland’s Scone Palace, where Douglas had begun his botanical career over a century earlier.

David Douglas was born in Scone in 1799, left school at age 11 and went to work as a garden boy at Scone Palace. He consumed knowledge about the natural world voraciously, advanced in his gardening career and at 19 won a position at the Glasgow Botanic Garden. One of the perks of the job was free attendance to William Jackson Hooker’s botany lectures at the University of Glasgow. Despite his own truncated education, Douglas was soon Hooker’s star pupil. The professor allowed Douglas to join him and his students on expeditions in the Scottish Highlands.  

Before long Hooker judged Douglas’ knowledge of botany and plant collecting sufficient for the ambitious young man to graduate to a new career, that of scientific traveler. Through Hooker, Douglas landed a job as a plant collector for the Horticultural Society of London. His first trip, in 1823 to the East Coast of the United States, was such a success that a more challenging assignment was his reward: an excursion to the unexplored wilds of the Pacific Northwest.

Douglas first set foot on the shore of the Columbia River on April 8, 1825 and immediately scooped up his first plant, Gaultheria shallon, known as salal. He described the thrill of discovery in his journal: “So pleased was I that I could scarcely see anything but it.” Subsequent plants were not so easy to grasp, but he overcame all obstacles to experience that thrill again and again. About a year later he noted in his journal, “When my people in England are made acquainted with my travels, they may perhaps think I have told them nothing but my miseries. That may be very correct, but I now know that such objects as I am in quest of are not obtained without a share of labor, anxiety of mind and sometimes risk of personal safety.”