By Jack Nisbet
The Hudson's Bay Company's original Fort Vancouver was still under construction when Scottish naturalist David Douglas arrived in the spring of 1825. He carried a letter of introduction to Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin explaining his mission to collect seeds and specimens of Northwest plants for the London Horticultural Society.
Help came from all sides. McLoughlin provided the newcomer with his personal support as well as the Hudson's Bay Company's available resources. Many of the agents were young Scottish men who shared not only Douglas's background, but also his love of fishing and shooting game. Whenever he went into the field, Douglas traveled with French Canadian hunters and voyageurs who were intimately acquainted with the landscape. The American Indian wives and mixed families of these company employees held deep cultural knowledge of plants as food, medicine, and textiles.
During the spring of 1825, Douglas explored the prairies and woodlands around the new fort, marveling at the blend of big-leaf and prairie lupines: "they thrive in the highest perfection and make two of the most beautiful plants I ever beheld." He collected a broomrape and deervetch that emerged after Indigenous controlled burns on the open terraces above the Columbia River. By summer's end he had amassed 499 species of plants from the vicinity, many of them new to science.
Using Fort Vancouver as a home base, Douglas roamed the Columbia Department during visits in 1825-27, 1830, and 1832-33. Even though his main focus was on seeds for British gardens, his observations covered the entire range of natural science. He watched pocket gophers munch their way through camas fields and the first Fort Vancouver potato patch. He puzzled over the species of local deer, and the common tree squirrel of the area still carries his name. During the winter months, he studied the behavior or local birds and mammals and compiled "An Account of the Zoology of the Columbia."
Adept at generating local excitement, Douglas inspired local hunters to bring in items of special interest such as sugar pine nuts and bighorn sheep. When one of the Hudson's Bay Company hunters brought a freshly shot California condor into Fort Vancouver, the workers "had a hearty laugh at the eagerness with which the Botanist pounced upon it. In a very short time he had it almost in his embrace fathoming its stretch of wings...This satisfied him, and the bird was carefully transferred to his studio for the purpose of being stuffed."
After Douglas's collections outgrew a hide tent on the post grounds, workers fashioned a cedar bark hut for him. There he examined pitch from native conifers and artifacts woven from native fibers. He asked the post blacksmith to forge a rock hammer so he could crack out mineral samples. When he brought an extensive kit of surveying equipment from London in 1830, a clerk trained in surveying helped Douglas determine latitudes, longitudes, and peak elevations around the vicinity of the fort. "In all that pertained to nature and science," wrote clerk George Barnston, "he was the perfect enthusiast."
Barnston, George. "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).
Douglas, David. Journal Kept by David Douglas during his Travels in North America. London: William Wesley and Sons, 1914.