Editor’s Note: David Douglas, namesake of the Douglas fir tree, was one of the first people to document a trip through the rivers of today’s Lewis County. His grand voyage covered areas which today include the cities of Astoria, Aberdeen, Centralia, Toledo, Longview and Vancouver. Today we complete a look back at that journey. Read previous installments at www.chronline.com/Chehalis-River.
David Douglas, age 26 and a world away from his birthplace in Scotland, prepared to embark on a trip down the Cowlitz River. He was impressed by its size and speed in late November of 1825.
“On the 14th I had breakfast and was on my route before five o'clock in the morning,” he wrote about his departure after visiting Chief Scanewa near present-day Toledo.
“This (the Cowlitz) is a large river, 150 to 200 yards wide in many parts, very deep and rapid, the current running more than six miles an hour in many parts.”
By midafternoon he’d made it to the mouth of the Columbia, where he camped on a small woody island at the mouth of the river, about 50 miles from the ocean. He was so eager to get home that he used his blanket and coat as sails.
“At six in the morning of the 15th, I proceeded up the Columbia with a freshening breeze of wind,” he wrote.
It was almost midnight by the time he landed back at his home base at Fort Vancouver after nearly a month of paddling through storms and slogging through swamps.
Had it been worth it?
“I arrived again at Fort Vancouver at half-past eleven at night, being absent twenty-five days, during which I experienced more fatigue and misery, and gleaned less than in any trip I have had in the country,” Douglas wrote.
He did come back with a few botanical samples, including seeds of seashore lupine and beargrass, the pliable sedge that the tribes used to weave elaborate hats. (Douglas had special ordered one with his initials, DD, woven into the crown.)
Douglas visited Grays Harbor twice more, including a trip in December 1826 when he again visited “the house of my old Indian friend Cockqua, who greeted me with the hospitality for which he is justly noted.” He acquired specimens of wild cranberry and Labrador tea. He also picked up a case of violent diarrhea from some late-season dried salmon.
Douglas traveled widely east of the Cascade Mountains, returned to London, but came back to the Columbia River in 1830. He doubtless planned another trip north, his biographer Jack Nisbet writes in “David Douglas, a Naturalist at Work,” but while he was gone, tragedy had swept through the native villages of the region.
A disease the Hudson’s Bay Company fur men called “intermittent fever” ravaged the lower Columbia country and decimated the tribes. Modern epidemiologists believe it was a strain of malaria, brought in by ships that had picked up infected mosquitoes during their passage through the tropics.
Most of the Europeans survived, but it was an apocalypse for the native people.
“Not twelve grown up persons live whom we saw in 1825,” Douglas lamented of his friends among the Chinook and Chehalis tribes. “Villages, which had afforded from one to two hundred effective warriors are totally gone. Not a soul remains! The houses are empty, and flocks of famished dogs are howling about, while the dead bodies lie strewed in every direction on the sands of the river.”
Douglas himself also met a sad fate.
His travels took him into Canada, California and Hawaii, where he became fascinated by volcanoes. He died under mysterious circumstances in 1834 on the Big Island while exploring nature, on a long solo walk toward Hilo with his dog. His body was found in a pit trap, where he had apparently been gored by a wild bull.
Douglas was 35 years old and a true citizen of the world. He was a celebrity among scientists of his day, and his legacy lives on in hundreds of plants he introduced to the wider world, including more than 80 species of plants and animals that bear the douglasii scientific name.
His friend Ranald McDonald, himself a fascinating character and great explorer of the Pacific Northwest and Japan, said this of David Douglas: “With all his enthusiasm in his pursuit, he was ever the most sociable, kind and endearing of men.”