The Geographer

Page 6 of 6

Figure 16

Hudson Bay Trading Posts

in the Columbia and New Caladonia Districts, 1833

thompson and fraser rivers

Jack McMaster, courtesy of Sasquatch Books

As David Douglas progressed around Cape Horn on his 1829-30 voyage to the Columbia River, he diligently practiced with the tools of his new trade. When he arrived at Fort Vancouver in June 1830, Hudson's Bay Company clerk and trained surveyor George Barnston described with great delight the careful unpacking of his friend's new tool kit. Barnston appreciated Douglas's meticulous recalibration and trial of each device as the former plant collector demonstrated his mastery over the full range of his new discipline. "His astronomical work advanced surely and rapidly. The regularity of barometrical and magnetical figurings was conspicuous, and the diurnal variations of temperature remarkably equal, the humidity of the atmosphere generally a mere trifle,"36 Barnston wrote. The clerk was equally impressed with his friend's diligence as he calculated shot after shot for longitude, using two different methods of the time, to determine the exact position of Fort Vancouver. These coordinates would serve as his benchmark for future observations.

Traveling upstream to Fort Walla Walla, Barnston assisted Douglas in surveys at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers, a place of great importance to any British claims for the proposed international boundary settlement. As they set up their instruments, the pair would have been well aware that they were repeating observations taken by the Corps of Discovery in 1805 and by David Thompson in 1811. While Thompson, the Hudson's Bay Company, and stalwarts of the British Empire assumed that this shot would represent the boundary between American and British territory, the vision of Thomas Jefferson disagreed.

Edward Sabine had hoped that Douglas would be able to next move south from the Columbia River, taking magnetic observations along overland fur trade routes through Oregon and into California. When a malaria epidemic coupled with an erosion of tribal relationships made for dangerous traveling, Douglas decided to sail to Spanish territory instead. Based in Monterey, he spent the next two years working in California. There he often stayed at Franciscan missions on the Camino Real, and although his personal journal for that time is lost, the survey notebooks he sent back to Sabine display a list of coordinates stretching north to Santa Rosa and south to Santa Barbara.


Figure 17

Early 19th Century Mountain Barometer

early 19th century mountain barometer

A mountain barometer was crucial to Douglas's accurate determination of elevation for the Hawaiian peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.

When he returned to Fort Vancouver from California in the spring of 1833, Douglas had his sights set on a northerly excursion that combined several of his stated goals in the realms of surveying, geography, and comparative botany. Russian naval officer Fyodor Litke, one of von Humboldt and Edward Sabine's many associates, had encouraged Douglas to think about returning to London via the North Pacific and Siberia; Baron von Wrangel, chief officer of the Russia-America Fur Trade Company, offered the naturalist secure quarters in Alaska and free passage to the Russian mainland.

Traveling with a fur trade brigade north from Fort Okanogan to Fort Kamloops, then west to the Fraser River, Douglas arrived at Fort Alexandria in early May. This was the place where in 1793 another of his heroes, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, had broken off from that wild river to follow a tribal trail to the Pacific, and Douglas worked hard to determine an accurate latitude and longitude of the place. While at Fort Alexandria, he also spent an entire night observing how a particularly intense burst of aurora borealis affected his magnetic bars.

Douglas continued north as far as Fort Saint James, but rather than attempt an overland trek to a Russian fur outpost on the coast, he decided to return south via canoe. A canoe accident in Fort George Canyon on the Fraser River carried off his personal journal and plant specimens, but Douglas did manage to rescue his surveying instruments and astronomical calculations. One of those notebooks contained a set of sketch maps depicting his route from Fort Okanogan to the junction of the Fraser and Quesnel Rivers, as well as a series of coordinates attached to landmarks that extended further north. His latitudes and longitudes represented the most accurate positions taken up to that time for the region.

After canoeing back to Fort Vancouver, Douglas dropped his plans for a Siberean excursion and sailed instead for Hawaii, where he focused the entire range of his skills on the volcanic landscape of the Big Island. Guided by a Hawaiian named John Honorii, he ascended first Mauna Loa and then Mauna Kea. From their summits, he recorded a series of barometric readings and coordinates. Douglas was then able to calculate the first accurate altitudes for these peaks by comparing his data with coordinated measurements taken at sea level by an American missionary.


Figure 18

Walls of the Crater

Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii

volcano walls

Charles Wilkes expedition to Hawaii, 1834

"One day there madam" [at Kilauea Crater], "is worth one year of common existence."37

Douglas and his missionary friends had been greatly excited by the publication of Charles Lyell's Elements of Geology, which provided a basis for understanding many of the elemental earth-building processes. Addressing the subject in a letter, Douglas echoed Alexander von Humboldt's grand ideas when he described his studies at the active Kileuea Crater as a synthesis of his botanical, surveying, and geological pursuits: "All will be reconciled, and we shall see no longer as ëthrough a glass, darkly,' the infinitude, the beauty, the harmony of nature. I must return to the volcano, if it is only to look—to look, and admire."38

In his last report to Captain Sabine, in May 1834, Douglas wrote that although he intended to return to England at the first opportunity, he was far from being finished with his work. "I shall continue to labour at these islands," he promised, "to the best of my ability."39 In fact, he carried on his surveying and plant-hunting until he perished in a cattle pit trap on the Big Island that July, at age 35. The missionaries he worked with transferred Douglas's survey books to the British envoy in Honolulu, who in turn shipped them back to England. There his data contributed to pioneering work on geomagnetism that Edward Sabine published over the next several years.

Like Meriwether Lewis, David Douglas's sudden death was surrounded by questionable circumstances, and for two centuries there has been a lively debate over whether it was the result of an accident or foul play.40 Also like Lewis, Douglas's meteoric career served to create a mythic figure that often distorts the man's true achievements. But there can be no question that the sum of David Douglas's work certainly exceeded the boundaries of a collecting horticulturalist. Rather than isolating his work as a pioneering silvaculturalist, ethnobotanist, herpatologist, surveyor, geomagnetic measurer, ecologist, condor enthusiast, and studier of small rodents, perhaps it is best to simply call him by the title that Alexander von Humboldt applied to all the facets of natural history: David Douglas was a geographer in the purest sense of the word.


36. George Barnston, "Abridged Sketch of the Life of Mr. David Douglas, Botanist, with a Few Details of His Travels and Discoveries," Canadian Naturalist and Geologist, 5 (1860), 268.

37. Douglas, letter to Mrs. Richard Charlton. Hawaiian Spectator, April 1839, 100-101.

38. Ibid.

39. "Extract from a Private Letter addressed to Captain Sabine, R.A., F.R.S., by Mr. David Douglas, F.L.S. Dated Woahoo (Sandwich Islands), 3d of May, 1834. in Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, vol. 4 (1834): 342.

40. Nisbet, The Collector, 240-248.