Scottish naturalist David Douglas made his first trip to North America in spring 1823, sailing from Liverpool to New York City as a raw collector. Assigned by the London Horticultural Society to assess new cultivars of soft fruit, the qualities of oak timber, and promising garden plants, the 24-year old son of a village stonemason proved energetic at his tasks and, perhaps more importantly, adept at dealing with a wide assortment of Americans who could help him perform them.
While Douglas was in London between his two trips to the Pacific Northwest, the well-known Scottish artist Daniel Macnee (1806-1882) painted this portrait of him in 1829.
Over the course of the summer, Douglas tasted 24 different cultivars of peaches grown by an old Dutchman on Long Island, complained about the rootstock of a Flushing nurseryman, raided the New Jersey pine barrens for pitcher-plants, and matched oak species to barrel staves at an upstate cooperage. In between these adventures, the novice found time to accept some remarkable plums from Dr. David Hosack, who had served as attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel. He dug lady slipper orchids at a site suggested by New York governor DeWitt Clinton, just then in the midst of completing an important section of the Erie Canal. And by a lucky chance, he preserved the living slip of an Oregon grape plant grown from stock that the Lewis and Clark Expedition had picked up in the Pacific Northwest.
During his three-month stay in the United States, Douglas steamed all the way west to Detroit and rode south as far as Wilmington, Delaware, but the touchstone of his first expedition turned out to be Philadelphia, long the center of natural science in the fledgling country. At the University of Pennsylvania he watched a master propagator work with seeds from the Long Expedition, which had only recently returned from the Colorado Rockies. Thomas Nuttall, who had made his own collecting trip up the Arkansas River and written the plant book that Douglas used as his main reference, took him on a visit to the famous Bartram Gardens on the Schuylkill River. There the niece of the recently deceased William Bartram presented him with seedlings from a sourwood tree that her uncle had brought back from his own legendary collecting foray into Georgia and Florida at the dawn of the American Revolution.
William Bartram had served as a key consultant for Thomas Jefferson during preparations for the Corps of Discovery, and David Douglas certainly had that expedition on his mind when he toured Charles Wilson Peale's famous Philadelphia Museum. There the young collector was particularly taken with a bighorn sheep that the captains had shot on the Missouri River. Douglas may not have been quite as conscious of the fact that in 1804, as the Corps began to make their way to the Northwest, the German polymath Alexander von Humboldt had stopped by same museum on his way home from South America. Artist and proprietor Peale had personally escorted the man Charles Darwin later called "the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived"1 to Washington D.C., where he was welcomed by Jefferson as a guest at the White House.
"Of the manners of this majestic animal I can say nothing, never having had an opportunity of seeing it alive."3 -David Douglas
The president and Humboldt shared many common interests, and at least one later historian would compare the multifaceted approach Jefferson used in his Notes on the State of Virginia with Humboldt's groundbreaking work in the realm of bio-geography.2
As David Douglas traveled extensively through the Pacific Northwest, California, and Hawaii over the years 1824-34, he sought to uncover the same kinds of deep connections within the physical world that Jefferson and Humboldt had pursued. Along the way, Douglas maintained the knack he first displayed in Philadelphia for serendipitously combining his everyday work as a collector with seminal characters and events. The course of Douglas's journeys not only provides a backward glance into the context of early 19th century natural science, but also points forward toward the shaping of our modern landscape.
1. Paul H. Barrett and Alain F. Corcos, "A Letter from Alexander Humboldt to Charles Darwin." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 27 (1972):161.
2. Silvio Bedini, Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1990), 490.
3. David Douglas, "Observations of Two Undescribed Species of North American Mammalia," Zoological Journal, 4 (1829), 332.
Funded in part by the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation