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#7 How the Douglas fir was named

"Should any of you boys visit the Sandwich Islands, look up the burial place of my college mate." Botanist John Goldie (1793-1886) reflecting on David Douglas's grave

April 04th, 2014

One of the most prominent of the roving fraternity of nineteenth-century plant hunters who scoured North America for plant species new to Europe, David Douglas left his mark on British Columbia through his lofty namesake, the stately Douglas fir, Pseudotsugo menziesii. In a homage to his friend Douglas, botanist John Goldie planted a Doug fir near the end of his life and urged his grandchildren to remember the brotherhood of botanists of which he was a part.

David Douglas introduced at least 254 plants to Britain and reputedly sent approximately seven thousand species to Kew Gardens and the Linneaus Society, comprising 13 percent of the then-known plant species in Europe—more than any other person in history. The legacy of David Douglas on the domestic and “wild” landscapes of Europe can be seen and touched. He urged his peers to use Sitka Spruce to clothe the naked uplands of Scotland, and he was responsible for finding many of the plants that take root in European gardens today, including lupine, phlox, penstemon, balsam root, Indian paint brush, and flowering currants. He died under suspicious circumstances in Hawaii in 1834.

Born in Scotland at the tail end of the eighteenth century, Douglas honed his talents in the great gardens of Scotland.  As a boy he showed a keen interest in animals and nature, collecting birds and keeping pet owls. His favourite book was Robinson Crusoe. At age eleven he gained an apprentice position with William Beattie, in charge of the palace garden in Scone, once the ancient capital of Scotland. During his teens he received access to the library of Sir Robert Preston at Valleyfield, where he rose to the postion of under-gardener. Later, he was hired as a plant collector by the Horticultural Society of London with North America as his beat.

In the summer of 1824, he arrived at Fort Vancouver and remained in northern California and the Columbia basin for almost three years.  On his way home to England, he climbed a mountain at the headwaters of the Athabasca and Columbia rivers. Just over nine thousand feet tall Mount Brown lies on the eastern flank of Athabasca Pass in today’s Jasper Park.  Douglas named it in honour of his friend and botanist Robert Brown. By his next visit to North America in June 1830, his findings had made him famous in Great Britain.  He arrived in Fort Vancouver as the guest of the HBC and travelled extensively, collecting all the while, and sending thousands of plant species home.

Three years later, he was returning south on the Fraser River when his canoe was lost in a whirlpool.  He managed to save some of his written many records, but lost his entire botanical collection of 400 items to the river.  He was described as “broken in spirit” when he finally made his way to Fort Vancouver the following month, where he stayed for a short time before leaving for Hawaii.  On 12 July 1834, he disappeared.  The mystery around his death remains unsolved.

This article was written by John Goldie (grandson of botanist John Goldie) and published in the British Columbia Historical Quarterly in April of 1938.

For a great deal more information on David Douglas, particularly the bizarre circumstances surrounding his death, see his extensive entry on ABCBookWorld.


In Memory of David Douglas

Shortly before his death in 1886 my grandfather, John Goldie, planted a Douglas Fir in the grounds of a new residence of his son. After the ceremony he was asked by his grandchildren why he had chosen to plant this British Columbian tree. In reply he told us that the man after whom it was named had been a friend and fellow-student in Glasgow, when they were both working under the direction of Sir William Jackson Hooker, then Professor of Botany at Glasgow University. When questioned further he recounted the life-history of David Douglas, and told of his tragic death in Hawaii in 1834. On finishing the story, he said: “Should any of you boys visit the Sandwich Islands, look up the burial place of my college mate.” Forty-four years later it fell to my lot to carry out the suggestion made by my grandfather, during a winter’s stay in Honolulu in 1930.

John Goldie was born near the village of Kirkoswald, in Ayrshire, Scotland, on March 21, 1793. He received a thorough training in the science of botany and in practical gardening, and became connected with the Botanic Gardens at Glasgow. It was here that he met David Douglas. Recommendations from Sir William Hooker enabled both young men to make scientific expeditions abroad; but as John Goldie was Douglas’s senior by five years, he was naturally the first to embark on his travels. In 1817 he set sail for America, where he spent two years in Nova Scotia, Quebec, and the eastern United States. He taught school for a time, but his primary occupation was botanizing. He gathered a rich harvest of specimens, but suffered a heartbreaking disappointment as the three large collections which he forwarded to Great Britain were all lost in transit. However, upon his return in 1819 Goldie was able to introduce many new and rare plants into Europe, a list of which appeared in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal in 1822. Sir William Hooker, following the same practice he afterwards did with David Douglas, named plants after the men who had discovered and classified them.

A cone from a , or Douglas fir tree.

A cone from a Pseudotsugo menziesii, or Douglas fir tree.

About the time John Goldie returned to Scotland the Emperor of Russia established a botanical garden at St. Petersburg, and he was employed to make a collection of plants for it. During his residence in Russia he made extensive botanical explorations, and was able to introduce many rare plants into England. About the year 1830 he visited Russia a second time, and travelled in Siberia, following his favourite pursuit. Finally, in 1844, having formed a favourable opinion of Canada as a place of residence during his visits in 1817-19, he brought his family out and settled near the village of Ayr, Ontario, where he continued to reside until his death in July, 1886, at the ripe age of ninety-three.

Meanwhile David Douglas had commenced his scientific travels. In 1823 he made an expedition to the eastern United States for the Royal Horticultural Society, and in 1824 sailed for the Columbia River, again under the auspices of the Society, aboard the Hudson’s Bay Company’s annual supply ship William and Ann. He arrived at Fort Vancouver and spent the next two years in exploring the region now known as the Pacific Northwest. In 1827 he travelled overland to Hudson Bay and sailed thence to England. In 1829 he returned to the Pacific Coast, and resumed his botanizing expeditions, which took him over large sections of the present states of California, Oregon, and Washington. Finally he travelled to the Sandwich (now the Hawaiian) Islands, and undertook the survey of their flora which was to cost him his life. On July 12, 1834, he wandered from a path, though he had been warned of the danger of so doing, and fell into a pit intended to trap wild cattle. There he was trampled to death by a bullock which was either in the pit at the time or fell into it soon after.

News of this tragedy was sent to England by Richard Charlton, British Consul in the Sandwich Islands, in a letter dated August 6, 1834. One sentence reads as follows: “I have caused his grave to be built over with brick, and perhaps his friends may send a stone to be placed (with an inscription) upon it.” This would seem to have been a reasonable expectation, as the President and Council of the Royal Horticultural Society had been highly gratified by the results of his expeditions, and Douglas had achieved considerable fame during his stay in Great Britain in 1827-29. For some reason, however, nothing was done, possibly because Douglas was not actually in the employ of the Society at the time of his death; and more than twenty years passed before any effort was made to mark his resting-place.

David Douglas memorial scone today.

The David Douglas memorial scone today.

Then, in 1855, one Julius L. Brenchley purchased a white marble monument in San Francisco, and shipped it to Honolulu for erection in the cemetery of the Kawaiahao Church — the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii — where Douglas lies buried. When I reached Honolulu in 1930, nothing seemed to be known about Brenchley, or about how he came to erect a monument to David Douglas. At my request, Mr. A. P. Taylor, the late Archivist of Hawaii, made an exhaustive search through the very numerous letters of Robert Crichton Wyllie, a Scotsman who for over twenty years was Minister of Foreign Relations for the Royal Family of Hawaii. He was a poor penman as well as a voluminous writer, which made it doubly difficult to find anything that might refer to Douglas and his burial in the Hawaiian churchyard; but in the end Mr. Taylor unearthed an exchange of letters between Wyllie and Brenchley with reference to the monument.

It seems that the Rev. Julius Brenchley noticed that Douglas’s grave was unmarked when he visited Hawaii in the early fifties. The rest of the story is told in a letter from Brenchley to Wyllie, dated San Francisco, July 11, 1855, which reads in part as follows:

I have had a tombstone prepared for your compatriot Douglas I take the liberty of asking you if you will do me the favor to have it erected in the graveyard of the stone church where he was buried in Honolulu. Knowing the profound interest you take in science and scientific men, is my excuse for requesting you to see to the erection of this humble tribute to the memory of a man of science, genius and integrity. It was my wish and intention long since to have done this but not being able to get it done in Honolulu I was obliged to defer it until my arrival in San Francisco. I have ordered the stone to be shipped to day on board the Vanquero and have written to Mr Montgomery requesting him to defray for me any expenses that may attend its erection. I should like the grave to be enclosed within a neat fence which you will much oblige me by having done for me. Also I take the liberty of having the case addressed to you.

In a letter dated Honolulu, July 26, 1855, Wyllie replied as follows:

In concurrence with Mr Montgomery I shall do all that you request in regard to the tombstone for the grave of the unfortunate Mr Douglas. It is much to your honour that you bethought yourself of so honouring his memory and thereby leaving a vestige of your presence on these islands.

Difficulties developed, however, which Wyllie explained to Brenchley in a second letter, dated January 31, 1856:

I have lost much time here in endeavors to get the grave of the late Mr Douglas identified, but I find that no one can do it exactly. They point out a place the space of 12 yards square where it was, but as the bricks which covered it have been removed no one can indicate the precise spot.

Mr Armstrong and the Rev Mr Clark have tried all the missionaries and other old residents. Under these circumstances I have obtained permission to put the tablet on the wall inside the church, near which Mr Douglas was interred and of this I hope you will approve.

Although this letter states distinctly that the monument was being placed inside the church, it was, in actual fact, set in the outside wail nearest the grave. Through the years the soft stone of which it was composed began to crumble; and some ten years ago this attracted the attention and interest of W. H. Baird, the British Vice-Consul in Honolulu. He took up the matter with the church authorities, and they agreed to place the memorial in the right vestibule of the building. Mr. Baird also communicated with the Royal Horticultural Society, with the result that the Society bore the cost of erection inside the church, and also placed two bronze tablets under the stone. The smaller of these, measuring 10 by 6 inches, gives the original Latin inscription, and the following translation:

The stone and bronze tablets with dedications to David Douglas.

The stone and bronze tablets with dedications to David Douglas.

Here lies Master David Douglas, born in Scotland A. D. 1799. An indefatigable traveller, he was sent out by the Royal Horticultural Society of London, and gave his life for science in the wilds of Hawaii, July 12, 1834.

“E’en here the tear of pity springs

And hearts are touched by human things.”


The larger tablet, 24 by 10 inches, has the following inscription:

The Royal Horticultural Society, grateful for his services to Horticulture and

Botany, caused this copy of the crumbling inscription to the memory of David Douglas to be recorded in 1929.

This belated action of the Society which had sent Douglas to botanize in the Pacific Northwest seems very strange. Even though he was not actually in its service at the time of his death, ninety-five years is a long time in which to show gratitude for distinguished service performed.

One point remains to be considered. Who was the Rev. Julius Brenchley? Careful search of old records and newspapers by the writer in Hawaii, San Francisco, and Sacramento failed to give any clue as to his identity; but through Mr. John Forsyth, former Provincial Archivist, I was able finally to secure a sketch of his career from William F. Wilson, of Honolulu, author of a pamphlet entitled “David Douglas Botanist at Hawaii” (1919).

Julius Lucius Brenchley

Julius Lucius Brenchley, a fellow explorer who took to seeing Douglas’s gravesite restored.

Julius Lucius Brenchley was born in Maidstone, England, on November 30, 1816. He was educated at the Maidstone Grammar School, and subsequently entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated as an M.A. He was ordained to a curacy at Shoreham, Kent, and in 1845 travelled with his parents on the continent of Europe. In 1847, on the death of his father, Brenchley entered on the career of a traveller, which he followed without intermission until 1867. In 1849 he visited the eastern United States, where for a time he lived a forest life amongst the Indians. This was followed by a journey in 1850 up the Mississippi and Missouri to St. Joseph, and thence to Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River, by way of the Rocky Mountains. Thence he proceeded to the Hawaiian Islands, where he discovered the neglected condition of David Douglas’s grave. In Hawaii he met another traveller, M. Jules Remy, and in his company journeyed to California. From San Francisco he and Remy undertook an adventurous expedition to Utah and Salt Lake City, and upon their return crossed the Sierra Nevada to New Mexico. In 1856 they visited Panama and Ecuador, and later went to Peru and Chili. The year 1857 saw Brenchley and his companion again in the United States where, after visiting the Canadian Lakes, they descended the Mississippi from its source to St. Louis. Ultimately they reached New York and embarked there for England.

So far as we know, Brenchley did not again visit North America; but in the ten years 1858-1867 he roamed over the vast extent of Africa, Asia, New Zealand, and Australia, arriving finally in St. Petersburg in January, 1867. After visiting Poland and Austria he went to Marseilles. Going thence to Paris, he was in that city when it was first beleaguered by the Prussians in 1870. Subsequently he settled at Milgate House, near Maidstone, but in consequence of ill-health moved to Folkestone in 1872, where he died on February 21, 1873, aged fifty-six years.

Brenchley was buried in the family vault at All Saints, Maidstone. He bequeathed the bulk of his large collections in ethnology, natural history, oriental objects, paintings, and library to the town of Maidstone, leaving also an endowment for their preservation. He was the author of at least two books, A Journey to Great Salt Lake City, published jointly with Jules Remy in 1861, and Jottings during the Cruise of H.M.S Curaçoa among the South Sea Islands in 1865, a copy of which the writer presented to the Provincial Library in 1937. From this sketch it is apparent that Brenchley can have had no personal acquaintance with David Douglas. He was only eighteen when Douglas was killed. His action in securing a monument to mark his grave was due entirely to his desire that the resting-place of an eminent scientist should neither be neglected nor forgotten.



In 2012, after four years of research and production, the documentary film Finding David Douglas was released.  It can be purchased from the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission at http://www.ochcom.org/David-Douglas.

For more information on nineteenth-century gentleman explorer Julius Brenchley and his vast artifact collection, see www.brenchleycollection.co.uk



Douglas, David. Journal Kept by David Douglas During his Travels in North America, 1823-1827… With Appendices Containing a List of the Plants Introduced by Douglas and an Account of his Death in 1834 (London: William Wesley & Son, 1914).

Douglas, David. The Oregon Journals of David Douglas, of his Travels and Adventures among the Traders and Indians in the Columbia, Willamette and Snake River Regions During the Years 1825, 1826 and 1827. (1914; Ashland, Oregon: Oregon Book Society, 1972, 2 volumes, edited and introduced by David Lavender).


Harvey, Athelstan George. Douglas of the Fir, A Biography of David Douglas, Botanist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947).

Morwood, William. Traveler in a Vanished Landscape: The Life and Times of David Douglas, Botanical Explorer (New York: Clarkson N. Potter Inc.; London: Gentry Books, 1973).

Davies, John. Douglas of the Forests: The North American Journals of David Douglas (Paul Harris Publishing, Edinburgh, 1979).

Mitchell, Anne Lindsay & Syd House. David Douglas (Aurum Press, 1999).


Jane Watt of the BC Historical Federation

This article is part of an ongoing series of looks into the Rear View Mirror of the past that is presented by our colleagues at British Columbia History, the province’s most venerable literary periodical, dating back to 1937. As the journal of the B.C. Historical Federation, BCH is published quarterly in March, June, September and December. It provides feature-length articles as well as documentary selections, essays, pictorial essays, memoirs, and reviews relating to the social, economic, political, intellectual, and cultural history of British Columbia. British Columbia History began in 1923 as the Annual Report and Proceedings of the British Columbia Historical Association (now the British Columbia Historical Federation). From 1937-58 it was published as the British Columbia Historical Quarterly. From 1965-2005, it was called the BC Historical News. The BCHF is fortunate to have the support of the UBC Library in digitizing the back issues of its publications and supporting the stewardship of these important links to the past (available here).

Subscriptions to British Columbia History are managed by the Magazine Association of BC. To subscribe for $20 per year, visit the journal at http://www.bchistory.ca/publications/journal/ or email subscriptions@magsbc.com or send a cheque to #201-318 Homer St., Vancouver, BC V6B 2V2.

For book reviews or queries related to British Columbia History, contact K. Jane Watt at magazine@bchistory.com . For its editor Andrea Lister, contact bcheditor@bchistory.com.

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