David Douglas (1799–1834)

David Douglas

photo: portrait sketch of David Douglas

Courtesy of Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

No other botanical explorer in western North America is more famous than David Douglas. His name is associated with hundreds of western plants, and may also be found on mountains, rivers, counties, schools and even modern-day streets. He was a remarkable adventurer even though the fates were mostly unkind to his person.

He was born at Scone, near Perth, Scotland, in 1799. After attending school for a few short years, at eleven he began his botanical career at the garden estate of the Earl of Mansfield. For the next seven years, young Douglas worked on the estate under the strict tutorage of the head gardener, William Beattie, who disdained formal education. Upon completing his apprenticeship, Douglas moved to Valleyfield and the estate of Sir Robert Preston, where he tended a diverse variety of plants from around the world—those grown both indoors and out. He also had access to Sir Robert's library and began again his education among these garden and botany books.

In the spring of 1820, Douglas obtained an appointment at the botanic garden at Glasgow University. A few months later a new professor of botany, William Jackson Hooker, was appointed, and he and Douglas began their long professional association.1 By 1821, Hooker and Douglas were in the field, with Douglas learning the fine art of pressing and drying plants. After two years together, Hooker recommended his young assistant to the Royal Horticultural Society of London. They were looking for a skilled gardener and collector to send to America.

Douglas sailed from Liverpool in June of 1823, bound for New York. Douglas visited Dr. David Hosack, who had hired Frederick Pursh years earlier. In mid-August the Scotsman was in Philadelphia looking at the plants brought back by Lewis and Clark that even then were flourishing in some American as well as European gardens. By September Douglas was in southeastern Canada, looking as always for seeds and cuttings of fruit trees as well as wild woody plants. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, while Douglas was in a tree looking at a mistletoe one of his guides stole his coat, money, field books and a textbook.

He made important botanical connections while in the United States. In New York he met John Torrey, who was rapidly becoming the foremost botanist in the United States. Later in the fall of 1823, in Philadelphia, he encountered Thomas Nuttall. Together the two men sought out some of the rarer plants found near the city, with Douglas gathering seeds for his sponsor, the Royal Horticultural Society.

The results were minimal at best. Still, the Society, and in particular its secretary, Joseph Sabine, was impressed with the quality of the material sent back to London. Thus, when word came in the spring of 1824 that the Hudson's Bay Company was willing to sponsor a collector along the Columbia River, Douglas was the immediate choice.

Sabine arranged for him to get three books: Pursh's Flora americae septiontrionalis, Nuttall's The genera of North American plants, and François-André Michaux's The North American sylva. The latter, published in three volumes (1817-1819), was an improved edition of the original French edition published earlier (1810-1813). Illustrated with 150 colored engravings, this work contained the latest information on western North American trees.2 Overseeing Douglas' study was the Society's assistant secretary, John Lindley. As a final step in his education, Sabine sent Douglas to call upon Archibald Menzies. Thus, in the late spring of 1824, the two men who would come to play such important roles in the discovery and naming of Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menzesii, came together for a chat over tea.

Douglas had a long-standing interest in the discoveries made by Lewis and Clark. He knew some of their discoveries from the English garden, and he had sought out others when he visited Philadelphia the year before. It is possible that when he visited Aylmer Bourke Lambert, he examined the collections used by Pursh to describe such new genera as Lewisia, Clarkia, and Calochortus.

On July 25, 1824, he boarded the William and Ann, bound for Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, and reached his destination in April of 1825. He began to collect at once.

1. Born in 1785, William Jackson Hooker, eventually Sir William Jackson Hooker, would move from Glasgow and become director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew in 1841. He would build it into one of the world's leading botanical institutions, serving there until his death in 1865. Equally comfortable with the algae, lichens, fungi, mosses and flowering plants, he published numerous works on each group of plants. He published and edited several journals as well as books of horticultural interest. He wrote floras of Scotland, the British Isles and, for our purposes, northern North America. His Flora boreali-americana, published in two volumes and twelve parts from 1829 until 1840, was mainly a vehicle for accounting for the collections of David Douglas and two other collectors of the Canadian north, Sir John Richardson (1787-1865) and Thomas Drummond (1780-1835). His son, Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), became the director at Kew in 1865, retiring in 1885. Joseph was Charles Darwin's confidant and primary source of information about plants prior to Darwin's 1859 publication of the Origin of species.

2. In 1793, François-André's father, botanist André Michaux (1746-1802), offered his services to Jefferson and others in the American Philosophical Society to explore the West, and Thomas Jefferson sent him instructions similar to those Meriwether Lewis would receive in 1803. However, Michaux was also in the employ of certain French officials whose aim was to raise a western force to attack Spanish territory in America, and he got no farther west than Kentucky before the French government prudently recalled him. François-André Michaux (1770-1855), the son, carried on his father's interest in North American plants, returning to the United States in 1801-1803 and in 1806-1807. His Histoire des arbres forestiers de l'Amerique septentrionale (3 vols., 1810-1813) became The North American Sylva (3 vols., 1817-1819) when published in Philadelphia. Nuttall redid and greatly expanded the work in 1841-1842, producing the "New Harmony edition" in which the first three volumes are a translation of the original French edition as reissued (in 1819) with an additional three volumes by Nuttall.