Tuesday, December 22, 2009

David Douglas (Douglas Fir) and Hawaii

Living in Connecticut some time ago we always looked for Douglas Firs this time of year for our Christmas tree (“Doug-fir” to my son). Probably as a reaction to growing up in Ohio and having sparse balsam fir trees all my early life (think Charlie Brown trees), I grew to prefer the lush, long-needled Douglas Fir for the holidays.

Moving to Hawaii I was surprised to learn that David Douglas, for whom the tree is named, died here on the Big Island at the young age of only 35. On July 12, 1834 while trying to explore Mauna Kea he fell into a bullock pit, or was pushed, and then died from wounds from being gored by a steer either already in the pit or one that fell in later.

His life is venerated by many, particularly by botanists of all stripes, and by his native Scotland and those of Scottish descent. In fact, there is a marker indicating where his death occurred erected in the 1930’s by the Robert Burns Society of Hilo. It is called Kaluakauka ("Doctor's Pit" in the Hawaiian language).

David Douglas Memorial, Hawaii Island

Photo: Gordon Mason

The circumstances around his passing are confusing because before beginning his trek he was alerted to the location of the three bullock pits on the trail, and he had already passed two. Some think he may have been examining the third and accidentally fallen into it. Others think that his host the prior night, a “well-known scoundrel,” may have followed him and robbed Douglas of his gold – which he was known to carry with him – before pushing him into the pit.

We do know that Douglas was expected back in Hilo to again stay with the Lyman’s, one of the earlier missionary families. Virtually all visitors to the island ended up at the Lyman’s sooner or later, at least for dinner, including Mark Twain and the many whaleboat captains who used Hilo’s harbor for provisioning.

David Douglas had been with the Lymans prior to his successful climb over Mauna Loa and was expected to stay with them on his return from Mauna Kea.

His remains were salted and sent to Oahu for an autopsy which proved to be inconclusive. Douglas was then buried at Kawiaihoa Church in Honolulu, where a plaque commemorates his achievements.

Douglas accomplished an amazing amount in his short life, for instance, he introduced more North American plants to Europe than anyone else (more than 250). There are about 50 plant species and one genus (Douglasia) bearing his name. After his death, the great tree of western North America was given the name Douglas fir. Kathleen Airdrie

A documentary film, Finding David Douglas, about the life and achievements of Douglas has just been completed and its United States premier will be Thursday, April 8, 2010 at the World Forestry Center, 4033 SW Canyon Road, Portland, Oregon – time to be determined (http://www.ochcom.org/).

So heads up to all our friends in Portland! All pictures from Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission website.


  1. Fascinating. We have a David Douglas high school here in Portland. I never made the connection before. Chuck

  2. Hope you and Ann can see the documentary's premier and let us know what you think.

  3. So we do Noble firs...but anyway, we really missed you guys at Christmas this year. So Happy New Year or hau'oli makahiki hou from Del, Nancy, George, Gracie (our faithful westie), Tess and Mr. B.


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