His name is both eponymous and anonymous. Eponymous because he gave it to the Pacific Northwest’s hardest working tree: the Douglas fir. Anonymous because few know who David Douglas was.
“We felt Douglas was well-known to many people and utterly unknown,” said the Washington State History Museum’s Redmond Barnett.
The museum has just opened a traveling exhibit on Douglas, a 19th century Scottish naturalist. “David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work” was organized by Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture. The State Capital Museum in Olympia has a companion display featuring Douglas’s London workroom. The show runs through Feb. 23, 2014.
Though Douglas doesn’t have the name recognition of the Pacific Northwest’s most famous explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, his adventures in the region are comparable in daring and discovery. One key difference: Douglas worked alone, accompanied by an American Indian guide and Douglas’ Scottish terrier.
“I think of Douglas as that wonderful individualist: the loner,” Barnett said.
Whereas Lewis and Clark were seeking a passage between the East and the uncharted West, the 25-year-old Douglas first came to the Northwest in 1825 looking for plants that might grow in English gardens. Supported by the London Horticultural Society, he preserved specimens of more than 200 plants, birds, and animals that were new to western science.
The exhibit recreates what Douglas’s working environment would have looked like, with specimen bottles, a plant press and rustic accommodations.
The exhibit contains 10 plant specimens collected by Douglas, pressed and mounted on paper. They include hollyhock, peony, Mariposa lily and a monkshood he collected along the “Wallahwallah River.”
Just getting to the Northwest was an arduous task. What is now more than an eight-hour journey by air between Portland and London, took eight months at sea in 1824-25.
Like Lewis and Clark, Douglas often interacted with local tribes, particularly the Chinooks. Douglas met the Chinook equivalent of a celebrity: Chief Comcomly, who was mentioned often in Lewis and Clark’s journals.
Douglas’s journals and letters provide accounts of the Columbia fur trade, traditional ways of life for Northwest tribes, and the evolving relationships between European and native cultures. Rather than dry ethnographic studies, his observations are more down to earth and often humorous.
During a shooting competition with the Chinooks, Douglas shot the crown out of a tossed cedar hat. “My fame was hereupon sounded through the whole country,” he wrote. When he placed his spectacles upon the noses of nearsighted American Indians, “they immediately place the hand tight on the mouth, a gesture of dread or astonishment.”
Douglas also noted that eating camas root gave him and the American Indians he was living with extreme cases of flatulence. “I was almost blown out (of the hut) by strength of the wind,” he said.
Douglas made his base at the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, but explored throughout the Northwest and even made his way to Hawaii. It was there his body was found at the bottom of a pit used to capture wild cattle in July 1834. His terrier, Billy, was found faithfully waiting by the pit where Douglas had apparently been trampled to death by a trapped bull. Billy was sent back to England where he was adopted by an official with the Colonial Office.
Douglas’ most well known legacy, the Douglas Fir, is now a timber industry staple both in the Northwest and Europe.
David Douglas: A Naturalist At Work
Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
When: Through Feb. 23, 2014
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., with days varying by season; extended hours and free admission every third Thursday, 2-8 p.m.
Admission: $9.50 adults; $7 seniors and students; free for children age 5 and younger.
Special presentation: From 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, the museum presents curator and author Jack Nisbet for a presentation about David Douglas, sponsored by the local Washington Native Plant Society. View the exhibit from 6:30-7:30 p.m.; Nisbet speaks from 7:30-8:30 p.m.
What: The State Capital Museum in Olympia will host a slideshow and garden walk followed by a reception to honor the Washington Native Plant Society South Sound Chapter. The museum also is hosting an exhibit on Douglas’s London workroom.
When: 1:30 p.m. slideshow and walk; 4 p.m. reception
Regular museum hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays, plus by appointment
Where: 211 21st Ave. SW, Olympia
Information: 360-753-2580Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 firstname.lastname@example.org