Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur, Geography, Gold, Literary Landmarks, Natural History

LITERARY LOCATION: Cathedral Grove, MacMillan Provincial Park, Highway 4, Vancouver Island. 25 km west of Qualicum Beach and 16 km east of Port Alberni,

A plaque here in Cathedral Grove, amid one of the most accessible stands of Douglas fir trees on Vancouver Island, honours the remarkable botanist and author David Douglas, namesake for the Douglas Fir. It's a paltry alternative to the Kaluakauka Monument for Douglas at the 6,000-foot level of Mauna Kea mountain in Hawaii. The former is easily accessible by car from the Island Highway. The latter is only accessible by a trail from the Keanakolu-Mana Road, after taking Saddle Road to the Mauna Kea access road.

Most residents of the big island of Hawai’i have heard there's a hard-to-reach monument at Kealakekua Bay that marks the spot where Captain James Cook was killed in 1779. Few tourists are eager to make the 45-minute hike down a rough trail to find it. Far less familiar to Hawaiians and tourists is a harder-to-find monument, located on the other side of the island, approachable from the town of Hilo, that marks the spot where British Columbia's first great scientist, David Douglas, mysteriously died--either murdered or gored to death by a bull--more than half a century later.

In 1934, on the 100th anniversary of his death, the Hilo Burns Club erected the monument on Mauna Kea. The burial site of David Douglas is now known as Kaluakauka, literally the doctor’s pit. It can still be visited, preferably with a four-wheel drive vehicle, but very few people make the trek to find it.

It's far easy to pay homage to Douglas by visiting the white marble monument for Douglas that was erected in the cemetery of the Kawaiahao Church (“the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii”) in Honolulu, purchased by author and world traveller Reverend Julius L. Brenchley in 1855. An impressive memorial to honour the man after whom the Douglas fir is named can also be found in his birthplace of Scone, in Scotland.


“Science has few friends among those who visit the coast of North-West America.” —David Douglas

Born on June 25, 1799, in the village of Scone in Perthshire, Douglas was the son of a stonemason. As a boy he showed a keen interest in animals and nature, collecting birds and keeping pet owls. His favourite book was Robinson Crusoe. At age eleven he gained an apprentice position with William Beattie, in charge of the palace garden in Scone, once the ancient capital of Scotland. During his teens he received access to the library of Sir Robert Preston at Valleyfield, where he rose to the postion of under-gardener.

Soon enough, Scotland’s most famous explorer-botanist would become the first European not involved in the fur trade to penetrate British Columbia’s interior. (Thereafter he would steadfastly maintain that the border between the United States and Canada ought to be the Columbia River.) David Douglas would introduce at least 254 plants to Britain and reputedly send approximately seven thousand species to Kew Gardens and the Linneaus Society, comprising 13 percent of the then-known plant species in Europe—more than any other person in history. With John Scouler, he would also make the first 40 collections of plants on the Galapágos Islands (in January, 1825).

During the first two decades of European contact, at least three major voyages reached the Pacific Northwest with mandates for scientific discovery: Cook for the British, La Pérouse for the French and Malaspina for the Spanish. One might also add Captain Vancouver’s surveying expedition, which included the botanist Archibald Menzies. But as the fur trade expanded overland in Canada, only the name of David Douglas would resonate through the ages as a significant scientist.


An autodidact, Douglas never received any formal degree. As an employee at the Glasgow Botanical Garden, he became a protégé of Dr. William Jackson Hooker, Chair of Botany at Glasgow University, who took him on botanical trips and recommended his services to the Horticultural Society of London.

In 1823 the Society sent Douglas to collect specimens in Upper Canada and New York. Having proved himself capable in eastern Canada, Douglas was next sent from London in 1824, as arranged by Secretary of the Horticultural Society Joseph Sabine, on the annual Hudson’s Bay Company supply ship William and Ann to describe and collect flora and fauna in the Columbia River region.

Hired by the Horticultural Society, Douglas was nonetheless obliged to operate under the aegis of the HBC to gather information on “the vegetable treasures of those widely extended and diversified countries” where the HBC was active. Douglas was accompanied by the Scottish botanist John Scouler who would concentrate his research on the coast; Douglas would investigate inland areas.
After an eight-and-a-half month voyage via Cape Horn, during which Douglas catalogued the California vulture and the California sheep, Douglas and Scouler arrived at Fort Vancouver early in 1825. Before he landed, the story goes, he noted three types of trees on shore—the hemlock, the balsam fir and one species that was new to him. Although Archibald Menzies had already gathered samples of this unknown specimen in 1792–1794, the popular name for the tall evergreen tree would become Douglas fir after his death, to honour Douglas (no relation to James Douglas). He initially described the Douglas fir as Pinus taxifolia. “The wood may be found very useful for a variety of domestic purposes,” he predicted, “the young slender ones [being] exceedingly well adapted for making ladders and scaffold poles, not being liable to cast; the larger timber for more important purposes....”

Based at Fort Vancouver, Douglas befriended botany enthusiast Archibald McDonald and he reputedly travelled more than seven thousand miles in what is now British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Idaho under the auspices of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Douglas was initially distrusted and feared by some Indians for his strange habits, such as putting spectacles on his nose, tea-drinking and lighting his pipe by using sunlight and a magnifying glass, for which he gained the nickname Olla-Diska, Chinook jargon for fire. As his motives became better understood, he also garnerned the nickname “Grass Man.”

On his way back to England via Athabasca Pass and Hudson Bay, Douglas traversed eastern British Columbia from April 19 to May 2, 1827. At the outset of May he made the first recorded climb of any peak in the Canadian Rockies, on Mount Brown. While drastically over-estimating their heights, he prudently named Mount Brown after Robert Brown (1773–1858; first keeper of the botanical department of the British Museum) and nearby Mount Hooker after his mentor Hooker (who became director of Kew Gardens). Both mountains are within Jasper National Park.

Douglas gained notoriety and acclaim after his return voyage from Hudson Bay in the company of doomed Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. Aware of his shortcomings as a geographer, Douglas set to work learning how to calculate latitude and longitude. In addtion, he gained some knowledge of spherical trigonometry and logarithms, from Sabine, Secretary of the Royal Society.

Once more accompanied by his Scottish terrier, Douglas returned to California in 1830 better equipped and joined by a white man-servant. Douglas explored and collected in California for a year-and-a-half until he received word from the Governor of Alaska that he would be welcome to visit Alaska. It was Douglas’ fervent wish to conduct botanical and astronomical research in New Caledonia, then proceed via Fort St. James and Sitka, Alaska, to Siberia for more scientific research.

“What a glorious prospect!” he wrote to Professor Hooker. “...the work of the same individual on both Continents, with the same instruments, under similar circumstances and corresponding latitudes!... People tell me that Siberia is like a rat-trap, which there is no difficulty in entering, but from which it is not so easy to find egress. I mean at least to put this saying to the test. And I hope that those who know me know also that trifles will not stop me.”

Douglas’ foray into New Caledonia in 1833 would pose many dangers beyond “trifles.” In fact, he would have to survive a tuberculosis epidemic that killed 24 Hudson’s Bay Company men and thousands of Indians in the Columbia district. He was to encounter wild rapids and extreme temperatures. He also had to deal with the loss of much of his eyesight and the threat of a duel.

Douglas wintered at Fort Vancouver and departed with Edward Ermatinger for Fort Okanagan on March 20, 1833, planning to obtain fresh horses at Thompson’s River Post (Fort Kamloops), proceed up the Bonaparte River to Horse Lake, and continue in a north-westerly direction to Williams Lake and the Fraser River, then onto Fort Alexandria. Boats and canoes would take him along the Fraser, Nechako and Stuart Rivers to reach Fort St. James, the largest post in New Caledonia.

On May 1, Ermatinger shot a partridge that Douglas skinned and preserved, recognizing it as a new species and naming it Franklin’s partridge after Sir John Franklin.

Upon his arrival at Fort Kamloops, Douglas insulted his brother Scot Samuel Black by giving the Fort Kamloops commander his honest and forthright opinion of his host’s employer. “The Hudson’s Bay Company,” Douglas said, “is simply a mercenary corporation; there is not an officer in it with a soul above a beaver-skin.” Given Douglas’ expressed gratitude to his host John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver, this statement perhaps says as much about Douglas as it does about the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Black, who fancied himself a man of some learning, interested in both geology and geography, had a brother who was editor of the London Morning Chronicle. He was more sophisticated than his appearance might attest. Unaccustomed to any insubordination, Black challenged Douglas to a duel. Early the next morning, Black confronted his guest. “Mister Doooglas! Are ye ready?” But the intemperate flower-collector wisely declined combat.

Douglas enjoyed a much kinder reception from Chief Factor Peter Warren Dease when he reached Fort St. James on June 6, 1833, but he found himself stranded for lack of transportation or guides. Difficulties had arisen for Douglas within the Royal Horticultural Society that limited the willingness of the Hudson’s Bay Company (which would undoubtedly be apprised of Douglas’ opinion of the HBC by Black) to provide escort and provisions.

Since Aboriginal near the coast were notoriously hostile, fueled by liquor from American traders, and temperatures in New Caledonia could become severely cold, Douglas and his servant could not risk making the journey to the coast on their own. It was 500 miles to the mouth of the Nass River, at Fort Simpson, then another 300 miles north to Sitka, Alaska.

As with the aborted duel, discretion was the better part of valour. Douglas and his servant William Johnson (a HBC employee who would become the first resident of Portland, Oregon) descended the Stuart and Nechako Rivers in a birch-bark canoe to Fort George, but soon after met with disaster nonetheless. Somewhere between present-day Prince George and Quesnel they overturned in the rapids. Douglas was swept downstream for more than an hour, losing his diary, his food and blankets, and his collection of 400 plant species.

Distraught, Douglas and Johnson somehow managed to return to Fort St. James and make a second, successful canoe trip to Fort Alexandria. (Not long thereafter, the Fort George clerk, George Linton, with his wife and three children and three others, would be drowned near much the same spot.)

By August, Douglas and his servant reached Fort Vancouver, much the worse for hunger and exposure, and troubled by fever. “This disastrous occurrence has much broken my strength and spirits,” he wrote to Hooker. Douglas was somewhat relieved by the recent appearance at Fort Vancouver of two “doctors” who were also aspiring botanists, Meredith Gairdner and William Fraser Tolmie. Gairdner succumbed to tuberculosis in 1836, but Tolmie, who had known Douglas in Scotland, would continue collecting plant samples in B.C.

While the glare of sunlight during his various travels took its toll on his vision, Douglas is sometimes credited with making the first discovery of gold in British Columbia. He supposedly found enough gold somewhere on the shore of Okanagan Lake to make a seal. Douglas has also been mentioned in terms of gold discoveries in California. Gold flakes were supposedly found in some plant samples he sent to England in 1831, but there is little verification. Douglas’ collection of rocks from the Pacific Northwest was transferred to the British Museum, but these rocks have long since disappeared.

The eminent geologist George Dawson repeated a story that Douglas had also found a deposit of carbonate of lead, galena and copper on the eastern shore of Kootenay Lake, later the site of the Bluebell Mine. This outcrop of galena ore was located opposite Hot Springs or Ainsworth. Unfortunately there is no evidence that Douglas ever visited Kootenay Lake. It’s possible one of his assistants did, or else he gleaned information from some Aboriginals who knew of a mountain near Kettle Falls they called Chicamen (metal) Mountain.

In December of 1833, Douglas and his trusty terrier Billy sailed for the balmier climate of Hawaii where he collected ferns and became the first European to make recorded ascents of two great volcanic peaks.

Tragedy struck on July 12, 1834, when, at age thirty-four, David Douglas was supposedly gored to death by a wild bull. An unnamed editor of his journals, unpublished until 1914, provided some details about this supposedly accidental death in a bullock pit, but the circumstances lead to an easy assumption that he was murdered.

“The manner in which that melancholy event was said to have taken place seemed to us all about the Hudson’s Bay Company so very improbable,” wrote Archibald McDonald, “that we were unwilling to give the report implicit credence.”
The British Consul to the Sandwich Islands, Richard Charlton, reported the death to England in a letter dated August 6, 1834. Douglas, it was alleged, had retraced his steps and wandered from a path after being forewarned about the danger of three pits that were built to entrap wild cattle. Inside one pit there was a bullock that trampled Douglas to death, or else the bullock fell into the pit after Douglas was entrapped.

Both scenarios were equally improbable, given that Douglas and his dog had managed to survive approximately twelve thousand miles of travel in the wilderness. On the other hand, Douglas, notoriously short-sighted, once had to be rescued from a ravine in Oregon into which he had fallen.

It is known that Douglas was trekking overland to Byron’s Bay (now called Hilo) in the company of a black man named John, a servant of a missionary who had been lent to Douglas, who couldn’t keep pace with him. On the morning of his death, Douglas breakfasted at the hut of a bullock hunter named Ned Gurney, a fearsome ex-convict from the penal camps in Australia.

Testimony and rumours later surfaced that Douglas had shown Gurney and others his money. Douglas made arrangements with Gurney to leave the servant behind, and departed early in the morning. The servant John was never heard from or seen again.

Gurney disappeared from Hawaii in 1839. No money was found with Douglas’ corpse. A minister who interred the body noticed cuts on Douglas’ body that were not in keeping with injuries that might have been sustained from attacks by a bull. An enquiry was launched, but physicians concluded the bull was the most likely killer. Years later, informants surfaced who accused the notorious Ned Gurney of the murder.

The grave was left unmarked at the time, possibly because Douglas was not officially an employee of the Royal Horticultural Society in Hawaii. Douglas had resigned in response to Royal Horticultural Society wrangles that had ousted his major supporter from the Society.

It has been suggested that Douglas may have committed suicide because he was receiving credit from people he met in Hawaii under false assurances that he was still employed by the Society. As soon as lenders learned that they would not be reimbursed by the Society, Douglas’ reputation would have been ruined and he would have been deeply in debt.

A white marble monument to mark his burial in the cemetery of the Kawaiahao Church (“the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii”) was purchased by a world traveller and author named Reverend Julius L. Brenchley in 1855. An archivist in Honolulu named William F. Wilson published a pamphlet in 1919 entitled David Douglas, Botanist at Hawaii. A plaque to mark his place of death has been installed on Mauna Kea, and there is a large monument to David Douglas in Scone. As well, Mount Douglas in the Rocky Mountains bears his name.

Apart from his one known dalliance with a Chinook “princess” (it seems as if every second Aboriginal woman who had sex with a European in the 1800s was called a princess), Douglas was a loner, keen to make a name for himself, driven by a passion for collecting seeds instead of spreading them. But the definitive work on David Douglas has yet to be written. Allegations have been made that the heroic botanist sometimes was willing to take credit for the findings of others. His preference for Robinson Crusoe as a boy might well have led him to romanticize and inflate his own self-image as a man.

Regardless, the Royal Horticultural Society once published a list of 254 plants that David Douglas introduced to England. These include Picea sitchensis (Sitka spruce), Pinus lambertiana (sugar pine), Pinus ponderosa (Western yellow pine), Pinus radiata (Monterey pine), the California poppy, five species of monkey flower and 18 of lupine. As for the Douglas fir, capable of growing to a height of 270 feet over a 500-year period, it has gained various common names such as Oregon pine, red pine, Puget Sound pine, Oregon spruce, Douglas spruce, red fir, yellow fir, Oregon fir and spruce fir. Its various scientific names include Pinus Douglasii, Pseudotsuga Douglasii, Pseudotsuga Menziesii (in honour of Archibald Menzies) and Pseudotsuga taxifolia.


Douglas, David. Journal Kept by David Douglas During his Travels in North America, 1823-1827... With Appendices Containing a List of the Plants Introduced by Douglas and an Account of his Death in 1834 (London: William Wesley & Son, 1914).

Douglas, David. The Oregon Journals of David Douglas, of his Travels and Adventures among the Traders and Indians in the Columbia, Willamette and Snake River Regions During the Years 1825, 1826 and 1827. (1914; Ashland, Oregon: Oregon Book Society, 1972, 2 volumes, edited and introduced by David Lavender).


Harvey, Athelstan George. Douglas of the Fir, A Biography of David Douglas, Botanist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947).

Morwood, William. Traveler in a Vanished Landscape: The Life and Times of David Douglas, Botanical Explorer (New York: Clarkson N. Potter Inc.; London: Gentry Books, 1973).

Davies, John. Douglas of the Forests: The North American Journals of David Douglas (Paul Harris Publishing, Edinburgh, 1979).

Mitchell, Anne Lindsay & Syd House. David Douglas (Aurum Press, 1999).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "Forts and Fur" "Natural History" "Gold"

Who Killed David Douglas?


"In Honolulu... Douglas discovered that he could not get return passage to England until much later in the year, so he sailed to Kohala in July, intending to hike the Laumai'a Trail skirting Mauna Kea at the 6,000 foot level. A black man named John went ashore with Douglas and was expected to accompany him on the hike to Hilo. John was a servant of Reverend John Diell, chaplain of the American Seamen's Friend Society in Honolulu.

"Mrs. Lyman wrote the first account of Douglas' demise in her journal dated July 14, 1834. "The report is that Mr. Douglas left the vessel at Kawaihae to cross over by land, engaged a foreigner for a guide and several natives to take along his baggage. The guide accompanied him till they passed all the pit falls dug to entrap wild cattle on the north side of Mauna Kea, he then left him to return. Soon after Mr. Douglas went back a short distance for something and in retracing his steps fell into a pit (into which a bullock had previously fallen) and was found dead a short time afterward. This was Sat. Morning."

"As the grave was being dug to bury Douglas' body, the Reverends Diell and Goodrich, as well as a carpenter engaged to build the coffin, noticed that the gashes on his head did not seem to be the type a bull's horns or hooves would inflict. They preserved the body by filling the stomach cavity and surrounding it with salt, shipped it off to Honolulu for further inspection, and began their own investigation. In one letter, they noted, "As far as we can ascertain, the guide (John) is an Englishman, a convict from Botany Bay, who left a vessel at these islands some years ago. He has a wife and one child with him..." But John had simply disappeared, not to be seen again.

"A bullock hunter, Charles Hall, who later became a pioneer coffee planter in Kona, was sent to gather information. Twelve years later, Hall's speculations became the subject of a friend's letter, who wrote: "Davis, (another bullock hunter) at whose house Douglas lodged the night before, affirms as Mr. Hall says, that he saw Douglas have a large purse of money which he took to be gold. None of any consequence was found after his death. Mr. Hall says he has no doubt in his own mind that Douglas was murdered by Ned."

"Speculation about the murder involved Englishman Ned (Edward) Gurney. Gurney was a shady character who had been convicted of larceny, sentenced to seven years in prison and sent to Australia's Botony Bay penal colony in 1819. Gurney had escaped and arrived in Hawai'i on board the Mermaid in 1822, where he built a mountain house thatched with grass, and survived as a bullock hunter. Douglas had breakfast at Ned's house on the morning of his death.

"Gurney was known to have stayed in Hawai'i until 1839, but after that records of him ceased. Over the years, various accounts of who killed David Douglas circulated until finally in 1896, 62 years after his death, the Hilo Tribune published an article titled, "Death of Prof. Douglas, a Bit Of History." Bolabola, a 70-year-old hunter who had lived (when he was ten) near Ned Gurney's house, told the reporter, "The haole (foreigner) was murdered, we all felt so at the time, but were afraid to say so and only whispered it among ourselves." Ten years later, the Hawai'i Herald reported an even more condemning rumor. A surveyor, A.B. Loebenstein, said he had heard from Native Hawaiians that Douglas was incautious enough to show some money when he was at Ned Gurney's house. The bullock hunter was seen following Douglas, but the natives were so afraid of Gurney, that they never dared tell of it. Gurney was said to have killed Douglas with an ax and then deposited his body in the bullock pit."

Mysterious Death

from Hawaiian Tourism magazine
Then & Now: The Mysterious Death of David Douglas, by Robert Oaks

Most residents and visitors to Hawai’i Island are familiar with the Kealakekua Bay monument marking the spot where Captain James Cook was killed in 1779. Less familiar is a monument that marks the spot where David Douglas, a fellow British subject, died over half a century later on the other side of the island.

Born in Scotland in 1799, Douglas developed a keen interest in botany when still a boy. By the time he was in his early 20s, his passion led him to the Pacific Ocean, where he began exploring the west coast of Spanish and British North America and eventually the Hawaiian Islands (then usually known as the Sandwich Islands). He spent more than a decade in what is now California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia cataloguing plants unknown to Europeans. Most famously, he wrote about and gave his name to the majestic Douglas Fir tree that covered much of the coastal region. In addition, several Hawaiian plants, including the hala tree and silversword, were introduced to Europeans through Douglas’ reports.

The reports and journals he sent back to Great Britain established his reputation with fellow botanists. He also acquired—apparently somewhat accidentally—a reputation as a medical doctor. When in Monterey, California, in 1831, nine-year-old, Honolulu-born William Heath Davis, who would later found the city of San Diego, fell down a ship’s hatch and broke his arm. Douglas responded to a plea for help, set the bone cleanly, and was henceforth known as Dr. David Douglas.

By late 1833, in poor health after spending a winter in the chilly regions of the Fraser River in British Columbia, and troubled as he had been for years by poor eyesight, Douglas decided it was time to return home, and wanted to go by way of the warm climate of the Sandwich Islands. He had briefly visited the islands in 1830 and again in 1832, and had done some preliminary exploration and plant categorization on O’ahu.

Accompanied by his trusty terrier Billy, Douglas reached Honolulu two days before Christmas, 1833, and stayed with the British consul Richard Charlton. On this trip he was especially eager to visit the two large volcanoes on Hawai’i Island. He sailed for Hilo, and at Charlton’s suggestion made friends with Reverend Joseph Goodrich, who in addition to being a prominent missionary in the town, was also an experienced climber who had tackled Mauna Kea several times. Through Goodrich, Douglas also met the Reverend David Lyman, and he usually stayed in the Lyman and Goodrich homes when in Hilo.

Douglas was determined to make the 27-mile climb up Mauna Kea himself. He was accompanied by 16 porters, rounded up by Goodrich, and a Hawaiian guide and interpreter, John Honori’i. A fervent Christian, Honori’i had recently returned from the United States, where he had tried to procure additional missionaries for Hawai’i.

Laden with a 60-pound pack of scientific equipment, Douglas and the party set out on January 7, 1834. He wrote of the landscape, the crops and native plants, as well as the feral sheep, goats, and wild cattle, the result of a gift that Captain George Vancouver had made of California livestock to King Kamehameha I 40 years before.

The five-day trek to the summit was hampered by constant rain and falling temperatures as they gained altitude. A violent headache and bloodshot eyes added to Douglas’ discomfort, yet the awe he experienced, the unbelievably clear night sky, the “infinite solitude,” and the feeling that he was “standing on the verge of another world” made up for the pain.

Though their descent brought more unpleasant rain and mud, Douglas collected along the way more than 50 species of ferns, moss, and other plants. Back in Hilo, he and Goodrich calculated the height of Mauna Kea at 13, 851 feet, not that far off from modern calculations, and considerably lower than previous estimates.

Within a week of his return, Douglas and Honori’i set out first for Kilauea and then for Mauna Loa. Kilauea’s lava flow fascinated Douglas, who even cooked chicken and pork, wrapped in banana leaves, in 27 minutes by the heat of a fissure, whose temperature he estimated at 195.5 degrees.

Setting off for Mauna Loa, Honori’i preached two Sunday sermons in the village of Kapapala, where they also recruited some men to help reach the summit. Again, hampered by rain and snow, Douglas and one of his bearers reached the summit on January 29. Douglas became only the second non-Hawaiian to conquer Mauna Loa. The first was fellow Scotsman and fellow botanist Archibald Menzies, a member of Vancouver’s expedition, who succeeded in reaching the summit in 1794.

The descent back to Hilo was dangerous and painful, due to Douglas’ deteriorating health: “I found myself instantly seized with violent pain and inflammation in my eyes…from the effect of the sun’s rays shining on the snow; a slight discharge of blood from both eyes followed, which gave me some relief.” He was exhausted when he reached Hilo, and yet exhilarated by the experience.

He spent the next few months traveling throughout the islands, while waiting for a ship that would take him back to England. In Honolulu he met John Diell, an American chaplain, and persuaded his new friend to go with him back to Hawai’i Island to view the wonders of the volcanoes. Diell and his family wanted to take a side trip to Moloka’i, so they agreed to meet in Hilo. Douglas continued on with his dog Billy and the Diell’s black servant, John.

Their ship reached North Kohala (probably Kauhola Point) on July 9, 1834. Douglas, Billy, and John disembarked intending to walk the 90 or so miles from there to Hilo. Although Douglas was used to such excursions, which he could accomplish in three or four days, John was not. He gave up after one day, so Douglas went on with Billy.

On July 11, Douglas and Billy spent the night at the home of a local rancher named Davis. Setting out the following morning, they reached the dwelling of one Ned Gurney, who, like others in the area, supported himself by trapping wild cattle in deep pits, and them for their meat and hides. Such pits usually were dug around a pond or watering hole and covered with brush and dirt. Lured by the water, the thirsty animals would stumble into one of the pits, where they were easy to kill.

Gurney was a seemingly unsavoury character. English born, he was caught stealing when he was a teenager and shipped off to the penal colony of Botany Bay in New South Wales. He somehow managed to escape, made his way to Honolulu, and then to Hawai’i Island, where he had been living for several years when Douglas and Billy met him.

According to Gurney, he accompanied Douglas for a short distance down the trail the next morning, cautioning him to watch for three pits that he had dug, two of them directly in the road, the third off to the side. Douglas continued on and Gurney returned home.

Sometime later that day, two Hawaiians ran up to Gurney to report that when passing the pits, they saw a piece of clothing on the path. They approached the pit, saw a trapped bull inside, and then noticed a foot and shoulder sticking out from the dirt below. Grabbing his musket, Gurney ran to the pit, shot the bull, and upon climbing down found Douglas’ mutilated body.

The dog Billy was subsequently found a short distance down the road, guarding Douglas’ bundle of possessions. Seemingly Douglas had walked safely past the pits, and after a short distance decided to return for a second look, leaving Billy and his bundle behind. Had he heard a noise perhaps and returned to investigate, only to tumble into the pit to be trampled by the bull? Had his poor eyesight contributed to this accident?

In any case, Gurney and the two Hawaiians carried the body to a nearby village and hired a man with a canoe to transport the corpse to Hilo. July 14, Sarah Lyman related, was “one of the most gloomy days I ever witnessed… Mournful to relate, Mr. Douglas is no more.”

Douglas’ friend John Diell—who had been waiting for him in Hilo, Reverend Goodrich, and others cleaned up the body, ordered a coffin, and were preparing to bury Douglas in the Goodrich garden, when some began to have second thoughts about the cause of death. One neighbour, Charles Hall, claimed that the wounds on Douglas’ face and head could not have been caused by a bull’s horns.

Rather than bury Douglas, Diell and Goodrich concluded that a formal autopsy should be conducted to determine the cause of death. Such a task, however, could only be done in Honolulu. Diell “had the contents of the abdomen removed and cavity filled with salt, and placed in a coffin, which was then filled with salt.” The coffin was then submerged in a box of brine, awaiting a ship that could take the body to Honolulu.

Ned Gurney arrived in Hilo with Billy and Douglas’ belongings. These included his watch and a few other instruments plus a small amount of money. Gurney detailed his belief that Douglas had indeed accidentally fallen into the pit and drew a map of the site. Diell and Goodrich seemed satisfied by Gurney’s story, though doubts remained.

According to the rancher, Davis, with whom Douglas had spent a night on the trail, Douglas had been carrying a rather large amount of money, not the small amount that Gurney returned. Did Gurney, as some suspected, murder Douglas for his money? Or did he simply take the money from the dead man’s possessions? Or what of the two Hawaiians who discovered Douglas body? Were they somehow involved? And then there was Diell’s servant, John, who was nowhere to be found. Was he somehow involved either as a perpetrator or a victim?

Meanwhile, the body arrived in Honolulu in early August, where Consul Charlton had it examined by two local doctors and two surgeons from a British naval vessel then in port. They all agreed that the wounds had been caused by the bull. That verdict was sufficient for Charlton, who arranged for a funeral on August 4. Many of Honolulu’s non-Hawaiian community attended, and the body was buried in the cemetery of a small church.

Douglas’ possessions, along with Billy, were sent back to England, and yet not everyone was satisfied with the outcome. Charles Hall, who first suspected foul play, went to the pit, found the body of the bull, cut off its head, and shipped it to Honolulu as evidence. Of course with Douglas’ salted body in his grave, further examination would have been difficult if not impossible. Rumors and suspicions, mostly focusing on Gurney continued for many years, but we may never know what really happened that day in Hamakua.

Douglas was gone, but not forgotten. The site of his death was soon known as Kaluakauka, literally the doctor’s pit. A memorial plaque was erected at Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu. There is an impressive memorial in his birthplace of Scone in Scotland. In 1934, on the 100th anniversary of his death, the Hilo Burns Club erected a monument at Kaluakauka at the site at the 6,000-foot level of Mauna Kea. It can be visited today, preferably with a four-wheel drive vehicle, by taking Saddle Road to the Mauna Kea access road to the Keanakolu-Mana Road

Douglas is also remembered on the mainland. A high school and entire school district in Portland, Oregon is named for him. Vancouver, Washington has David Douglas Park, and Prince George, British Columbia, has a David Douglas Botanical Garden.

John Goldie on David Douglas
Article (1938)

from BC Historical Quarterly
The legacy of David Douglas on the domestic and "wild" landscapes of Europe can be seen and touched. He urged his peers to use Sitka Spruce to clothe the naked uplands of Scotland, and he was responsible for finding many of the plants that take root in European gardens today, including lupine, phlox, penstemon, balsam root, Indian paint brush, and flowering currants. He died under suspicious circumstances in Hawaii in 1834.

Born in Scotland at the tail end of the eighteenth century, Douglas honed his talents in the great gardens of Scotland. He was hired as a plant collector by the Horticultural Society of London with North America as his beat.

In the summer of 1824, he arrived at Fort Vancouver and remained in northern California and the Columbia basin for almost three years. On his way home to England, he climbed a mountain at the headwaters of the Athabasca and Columbia rivers. Just over nine thousand feet tall Mount Brown lies on the eastern flank of Athabasca Pass in today's Jasper Park. Douglas named it in honour of his friend and botanist Robert Brown. By his next visit to North America in June 1830, his findings had made him famous in Great Britain. He arrived in Fort Vancouver as the guest of the HBC and travelled extensively, collecting all the while, and sending thousands of plant species home.

Three years later, he was returning south on the Fraser River when his canoe was lost in a whirlpool. He managed to save some of his written many records, but lost his entire botanical collection of 400 items to the river. He was described as "broken in spirit" when he finally made his way to Fort Vancouver the following month, where he stayed for a short time before leaving for Hawaii. On 12 July 1834, he disappeared. The mystery around his death remains unsolved.

This article was written by John Goldie (grandson of botanist John Goldie) and published in the British Columbia Historical Quarterly in April of 1938.


In Memory of David Douglas

Shortly before his death in 1886 my grandfather, John Goldie, planted a Douglas Fir in the grounds of a new residence of his son. After the ceremony he was asked by his grandchildren why he had chosen to plant this British Columbian tree. In reply he told us that the man after whom it was named had been a friend and fellow-student in Glasgow, when they were both working under the direction of Sir William Jackson Hooker, then Professor of Botany at Glasgow University. When questioned further he recounted the life-history of David Douglas, and told of his tragic death in Hawaii in 1834. On finishing the story, he said: “Should any of you boys visit the Sandwich Islands, look up the burial place of my college mate.” Forty-four years later it fell to my lot to carry out the suggestion made by my grandfather, during a winter’s stay in Honolulu in 1930.

John Goldie was born near the village of Kirkoswald, in Ayrshire, Scotland, on March 21, 1793. He received a thorough training in the science of botany and in practical gardening, and became connected with the Botanic Gardens at Glasgow. It was here that he met David Douglas. Recommendations from Sir William Hooker enabled both young men to make scientific expeditions abroad; but as John Goldie was Douglas’s senior by five years, he was naturally the first to embark on his travels. In 1817 he set sail for America, where he spent two years in Nova Scotia, Quebec, and the eastern United States. He taught school for a time, but his primary occupation was botanizing. He gathered a rich harvest of specimens, but suffered a heartbreaking disappointment as the three large collections which he forwarded to Great Britain were all lost in transit. However, upon his return in 1819 Goldie was able to introduce many new and rare plants into Europe, a list of which appeared in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal in 1822. Sir William Hooker, following the same practice he afterwards did with David Douglas, named plants after the men who had discovered and classified them.

About the time John Goldie returned to Scotland the Emperor of Russia established a botanical garden at St. Petersburg, and he was employed to make a collection of plants for it. During his residence in Russia he made extensive botanical explorations, and was able to introduce many rare plants into England. About the year 1830 he visited Russia a second time, and travelled in Siberia, following his favourite pursuit. Finally, in 1844, having formed a favourable opinion of Canada as a place of residence during his visits in 1817-19, he brought his family out and settled near the village of Ayr, Ontario, where he continued to reside until his death in July, 1886, at the ripe age of ninety-three.

Meanwhile David Douglas had commenced his scientific travels. In 1823 he made an expedition to the eastern United States for the Royal Horticultural Society, and in 1824 sailed for the Columbia River, again under the auspices of the Society, aboard the Hudson’s Bay Company’s annual supply ship William and Ann. He arrived at Fort Vancouver ... and spent the next two years in exploring the region now known as the Pacific Northwest. In 1827 he travelled overland to Hudson Bay and sailed thence to England. In 1829 he returned to the Pacific Coast, and resumed his botanizing expeditions, which took him over large sections of the present states of California, Oregon, and Washington. Finally he travelled to the Sandwich (now the Hawaiian) Islands, and undertook the survey of their flora which was to cost him his life. On July 12, 1834, he wandered from a path, though he had been warned of the danger of so doing, and fell into a pit intended to trap wild cattle. There he was trampled to death by a bullock which was either in the pit at the time or fell into it soon after.

News of this tragedy was sent to England by Richard Charlton, British Consul in the Sandwich Islands, in a letter dated August 6, 1834. One sentence reads as follows: “I have caused his grave to be built over with brick, and perhaps his friends may send a stone to be placed (with an inscription) upon it.” This would seem to have been a reasonable expectation, as the President and Council of the Royal Horticultural Society had been highly gratified by the results of his expeditions, and Douglas had achieved considerable fame during his stay in Great Britain in 1827-29. For some reason, however, nothing was done, possibly because Douglas was not actually in the employ of the Society at the time of his death; and more than twenty years passed before any effort was made to mark his resting-place.

Then, in 1855, one Julius L. Brenchley purchased a white marble monument in San Francisco, and shipped it to Honolulu for erection in the cemetery of the Kawaiahao Church -- the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii -- where Douglas lies buried. When I reached Honolulu in 1930, nothing seemed to be known about Brenchley, or about how he came to erect a monument to David Douglas. At my request, Mr. A. P. Taylor, the late Archivist of Hawaii, made an exhaustive search through the very numerous letters of Robert Crichton Wyllie, a Scotsman who for over twenty years was Minister of Foreign Relations for the Royal Family of Hawaii. He was a poor penman as well as a voluminous writer, which made it doubly difficult to find anything that might refer to Douglas and his burial in the Hawaiian churchyard; but in the end Mr. Taylor unearthed an exchange of letters between Wyllie and Brenchley with reference to the monument.

It seems that the Rev. Julius Brenchley noticed that Douglas’s grave was unmarked when he visited Hawaii in the early fifties. The rest of the story is told in a letter from Brenchley to Wyllie, dated San Francisco, July 11, 1855, which reads in part as follows:

I have had a tombstone prepared for your compatriot Douglas I take the liberty of asking you if you will do me the favor to have it erected in the graveyard of the stone church where he was buried in Honolulu. Knowing the profound interest you take in science and scientific men, is my excuse for requesting you to see to the erection of this humble tribute to the memory of a man of science, genius and integrity. It was my wish and intention long since to have done this but not being able to get it done in Honolulu I was obliged to defer it until my arrival in San Francisco. I have ordered the stone to be shipped to day on board the Vanquero and have written to Mr Montgomery requesting him to defray for me any expenses that may attend its erection. I should like the grave to be enclosed within a neat fence which you will much oblige me by having done for me. Also I take the liberty of having the case addressed to you.

In a letter dated Honolulu, July 26, 1855, Wyllie replied as follows:

In concurrence with Mr Montgomery I shall do all that you request in regard to the tombstone for the grave of the unfortunate Mr Douglas. It is much to your honour that you bethought yourself of so honouring his memory and thereby leaving a vestige of your presence on these islands.

Difficulties developed, however, which Wyllie explained to Brenchley in a second letter, dated January 31, 1856:

I have lost much time here in endeavors to get the grave of the late Mr Douglas identified, but I find that no one can do it exactly. They point out a place the space of 12 yards square where it was, but as the bricks which covered it have been removed no one can indicate the precise spot.

Mr Armstrong and the Rev Mr Clark have tried all the missionaries and other old residents. Under these circumstances I have obtained permission to put the tablet on the wall inside the church, near which Mr Douglas was interred and of this I hope you will approve.

Although this letter states distinctly that the monument was being placed inside the church, it was, in actual fact, set in the outside wail nearest the grave. Through the years the soft stone of which it was composed began to crumble; and some ten years ago this attracted the attention and interest of W. H. Baird, the British Vice-Consul in Honolulu. He took up the matter with the church authorities, and they agreed to place the memorial in the right vestibule of the building. Mr. Baird also
communicated with the Royal Horticultural Society, with the result that the Society bore the cost of erection inside the church, and also placed two bronze tablets under the stone. The smaller of these, measuring 10 by 6 inches, gives the original Latin inscription, and the following translation:

Here lies Master David Douglas, born in Scotland A. D. 1799. An indefatigable traveller, he was sent out by the Royal Horticultural Society of London, and gave his life for science in the wilds of Hawaii, July 12, 1834.

“E’en here the tear of pity springs
And hearts are touched by human things.”

The larger tablet, 24 by 10 inches, has the following inscription:

The Royal Horticultural Society, grateful for his services to Horticulture and
Botany, caused this copy of the crumbling inscription to the memory of David Douglas to be recorded in 1929.

This belated action of the Society which had sent Douglas to botanize in the Pacific Northwest seems very strange. Even though he was not actually in its service at the time of his death, ninety-five years is a long time in which to show gratitude for distinguished service performed.

One point remains to be considered. Who was the Rev. Julius Brenchley? Careful search of old records and newspapers by the writer in Hawaii, San Francisco, and Sacramento failed to give any clue as to his identity; but through Mr. John Forsyth, former Provincial Archivist, I was able finally to secure a sketch of his career from William F. Wilson, of Honolulu, author of a pamphlet entitled "David Douglas Botanist at Hawaii" (1919).

Julius Lucius Brenchley was born in Maidstone, England, on November 30, 1816. He was educated at the Maidstone Grammar School, and subsequently entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated as an M.A. He was ordained to’ a curacy at Shoreham, Kent, and in 1845 travelled with his parents on the continent of Europe. In 1847, on the death of his father, Brenchley entered on the career of a traveller, which he followed without intermission until 1867. In 1849 he visited the eastern United States, where for a time he lived a forest life amongst the Indians. This was followed by a journey in 1850 up the Mississippi and Missouri to St. Joseph, and thence to Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River, by way of the Rocky Mountains. Thence he proceeded to the Hawaiian Islands, where he discovered the neglected condition of David Douglas’s grave. In Hawaii he met another
traveller, M. Jules Remy, and in his company journeyed to California. From San Francisco he and Remy undertook an adventurous expedition to Utah and Salt Lake City, and upon their return crossed the Sierra Nevada to New Mexico. In 1856 they visited Panama and Ecuador, and later went to Peru and Chili. The year 1857 saw Brenchley and his companion again in the United States where, after visiting the Canadian Lakes, they descended the Mississippi from its source to St. Louis. Ultimately they reached New York and embarked there for England’.

So far as we know, Brenchley did not again visit North America; but in the ten years 1858-1867 he roamed over the vast extent of Africa, Asia, New Zealand, and Australia, arriving finally in St. Petersburg in January, 1867. After visiting Poland and Austria he went to Marseilles. Going thence to Paris, he was in that city when it was first beleaguered by the Prussians in 1870. Subsequently he settled at Milgate House, near Maidstone, but in consequence of ill-health moved to Folkestone in
1872, where he died on February 21, 1873, aged fifty-six years.

Brenchley was buried in the family vault at All Saints, Maidstone. He bequeathed the bulk of his large collections in ethnology, natural history, oriental objects, paintings, and library to the town of Maidstone, leaving also an endowment for their preservation. He was the author of at least two books, A Journey to Great Salt Lake City, published jointly with Jules Remy in 1861, and Jottings during the Cruise of H.M.S Curaçoa among the South Sea Islands in 1865, a copy of which the writer presented to the Provincial Library in 1937. From this sketch it is apparent that Brenchley can have had no personal acquaintance with David Douglas. He was only eighteen when Douglas was killed. His action in securing a monument to mark his grave was due entirely to his desire that the resting-place of an eminent scientist should neither be neglected nor forgotten.


In 2012, after four years of research and production, the documentary film Finding David Douglas was released. It can be purchased from the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission at

For more information on nineteenth-century gentleman explorer Julius Brenchley and his vast artifact collection, see