Then & Now: The Mysterious Death of David Douglas

By Robert Oaks

Most residents and visitors to Hawaiʽi Island are familiar with the Kealakekua Bay monument marking the spot where Captain James Cook was killed in 1779. Less familiar is a monument that marks the spot where David Douglas, a fellow British subject, died over half a century later on the other side of the island.

Born in Scotland in 1799, Douglas developed a keen interest in botany when still a boy. By the time he was in his early 20s, his passion led him to the Pacific Ocean, where he began exploring the west coast of Spanish and British North America and eventually the Hawaiian Islands (then usually known as the Sandwich Islands). He spent more than a decade in what is now California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia cataloging plants unknown to Europeans. Most famously, he wrote about and gave his name to the majestic Douglas Fir tree that covered much of the coastal region. In addition, several Hawaiian plants, including the hala tree and silversword, were introduced to Europeans through Douglas’ reports.

The reports and journals he sent back to Great Britain established his reputation with fellow botanists. He also acquired—apparently somewhat accidentally—a reputation as a medical doctor. When in Monterey, California, in 1831, nine-year-old, Honolulu-born William Heath Davis, who would later found the city of San Diego, fell down a ship’s hatch and broke his arm. Douglas responded to a plea for help, set the bone cleanly, and was henceforth known as Dr. David Douglas.

By late 1833, in poor health after spending a winter in the chilly regions of the Fraser River in British Columbia, and troubled as he had been for years by poor eyesight, Douglas decided it was time to return home, and wanted to go by way of the warm climate of the Sandwich Islands. He had briefly visited the islands in 1830 and again in 1832, and had done some preliminary exploration and plant categorization on O‘ahu.

Accompanied by his trusty terrier Billy, Douglas reached Honolulu two days before Christmas, 1833, and stayed with the British consul Richard Charlton. On this trip he was especially eager to visit the two large volcanoes on Hawaiʽi Island. He sailed for Hilo, and at Charlton’s suggestion made friends with Reverend Joseph Goodrich, who in addition to being a prominent missionary in the town, was also an experienced climber who had tackled Mauna Kea several times. Through Goodrich, Douglas also met the Reverend David Lyman, and he usually stayed in the Lyman and Goodrich homes when in Hilo.

Douglas was determined to make the 27-mile climb up Mauna Kea himself. He was accompanied by 16 porters, rounded up by Goodrich, and a Hawaiian guide and interpreter, John Honoriʽi. A fervent Christian, Honoriʽi had recently returned from the United States, where he had tried to procure additional missionaries for Hawaiʽi.

Laden with a 60-pound pack of scientific equipment, Douglas and the party set out on January 7, 1834. He wrote of the landscape, the crops and native plants, as well as the feral sheep, goats, and wild cattle, the result of a gift that Captain George Vancouver had made of California livestock to King Kamehameha I 40 years before.

The five-day trek to the summit was hampered by constant rain and falling temperatures as they gained altitude. A violent headache and bloodshot eyes added to Douglas’ discomfort, yet the awe he experienced, the unbelievably clear night sky, the “infinite solitude,” and the feeling that he was “standing on the verge of another world” made up for the pain.

Though their descent brought more unpleasant rain and mud, Douglas collected along the way more than 50 species of ferns, moss, and other plants. Back in Hilo, he and Goodrich calculated the height of Mauna Kea at 13,851 feet, not that far off from modern calculations, and considerably lower than previous estimates.

Within a week of his return, Douglas and Honoriʽi set out first for Kīlauea and then for Mauna Loa. Kīlauea’s lava flow fascinated Douglas, who even cooked chicken and pork, wrapped in banana leaves, in 27 minutes by the heat of a fissure, whose temperature he estimated at 195.5 degrees.

Setting off for Mauna Loa, Honoriʽi preached two Sunday sermons in the village of Kapapala, where they also recruited more men to help reach the summit. Again, hampered by rain and snow, Douglas and one of his bearers reached the summit on January 29. Douglas became only the second non-Hawaiian to conquer Mauna Loa. The first was fellow Scotsman and fellow botanist Archibald Menzies, a member of Vancouver’s expedition, who succeeded in reaching the summit in 1794.

The descent back to Hilo was dangerous and painful, due to Douglas’ deteriorating health: “I found myself instantly seized with violent pain and inflammation in my eyes … from the effect of the sun’s rays shining on the snow; a slight discharge of blood from both eyes followed, which gave me some relief.” He was exhausted when he reached Hilo, and yet exhilarated by the experience.

He spent the next few months traveling throughout the islands, while waiting for a ship that would take him back to England. In Honolulu he met John Diell, an American chaplain, and persuaded his new friend to go with him back to Hawaiʽi Island to view the wonders of the volcanoes. Diell and his family wanted to take a side trip to Molokaʽi, so they agreed to meet in Hilo. Douglas continued on with his dog Billy and the Diell’s black servant, John.

Their ship reached North Kohala (probably Kauhola Point) on July 9, 1834. Douglas, Billy, and John disembarked intending to walk the 90 or so miles from there to Hilo. Although Douglas was used to such excursions, which he could accomplish in three or four days, John was not. He gave up after one day, so Douglas went on with Billy.

On July 11, Douglas and Billy spent the night at the home of a local rancher named Davis. Setting out the following morning, they reached the dwelling of one Ned Gurney, who, like others in the area, supported himself by trapping wild cattle in deep pits, and then killing them for their meat and hides. Such pits usually were dug around a pond or watering hole and covered with brush and dirt. Lured by the water, the thirsty animals would stumble into one of the pits, where they were easy to kill.

Gurney was a seemingly unsavory character. English born, he was caught stealing when he was a teenager and shipped off to the penal colony of Botany Bay in New South Wales. He somehow managed to escape, made his way to Honolulu, and then to Hawai‘i Island, where he had been living for several years when Douglas and Billy met him.

According to Gurney, he accompanied Douglas for a short distance down the trail the next morning, cautioning him to watch for three pits that he had dug, two of them directly in the road, the third off to the side. Douglas continued on and Gurney returned home.

Sometime later that day, two Hawaiians ran up to Gurney to report that when passing the pits, they saw a piece of clothing on the path. They approached the pit, saw a trapped bull inside, and then noticed a foot and shoulder sticking out from the dirt below. Grabbing his musket, Gurney ran to the pit, shot the bull, and upon climbing down found Douglas’ mutilated body.

The dog Billy was subsequently found a short distance down the road, guarding Douglas’ bundle of possessions. Seemingly Douglas had walked safely past the pits, and after a short distance decided to return for a second look, leaving Billy and his bundle behind. Had he heard a noise perhaps and returned to investigate, only to tumble into the pit to be trampled by the bull? Had his poor eyesight contributed to this accident?

In any case, Gurney and the two Hawaiians carried the body to a nearby village and hired a man with a canoe to transport the corpse to Hilo. July 14, Sarah Lyman related, was “one of the most gloomy days I ever witnessed…. Mournful to relate, Mr. Douglas is no more.”

Douglas’ friend, John Diell—who had been waiting for him in Hilo, Reverend Goodrich, and others cleaned up the body, ordered a coffin, and were preparing to bury Douglas in the Goodrich garden, when some began to have second thoughts about the cause of death. One neighbor, Charles Hall, claimed that the wounds on Douglas’ face and head could not have been caused by a bull’s horns.

Rather than bury Douglas, Diell and Goodrich concluded that a formal autopsy should be conducted to determine the cause of death. Such a task, however, could only be done in Honolulu. Diell “had the contents of the abdomen removed, and cavity filled with salt, and placed in a coffin, which was then filled with salt.” The coffin was then submerged in a box of brine, awaiting a ship that could take the body to Honolulu.

Ned Gurney arrived in Hilo with Billy and Douglas’ belongings. These included his watch and a few other instruments plus a small amount of money. Gurney detailed his belief that Douglas had indeed accidentally fallen into the pit and drew a map of the site. Diell and Goodrich seemed satisfied by Gurney’s story, though doubts remained.

According to the rancher, Davis, with whom Douglas had spent a night on the trail, Douglas had been carrying a rather large amount of money, not the small amount that Gurney returned. Did Gurney, as some suspected, murder Douglas for his money? Or did he simply take the money from the dead man’s possessions? Or what of the two Hawaiians who discovered Douglas body? Were they somehow involved? And then there was Diell’s servant, John, who was nowhere to be found. Was he somehow involved either as a perpetrator or a victim?

Meanwhile, the body arrived in Honolulu in early August, where Consul Charlton had it examined by two local doctors and two surgeons from a British naval vessel then in port. They all agreed that the wounds had been caused by the bull. That verdict was sufficient for Charlton, who arranged for a funeral on August 4. Many of Honolulu’s non-Hawaiian community attended, and the body was buried in the cemetery of a small church.

Douglas’ possessions, along with Billy, were sent back to England, and yet not everyone was satisfied with the outcome. Charles Hall, who first suspected foul play, went to the pit, found the body of the bull, cut off its head, and shipped it to Honolulu as evidence. Of course with Douglas’ salted body in his grave, further examination would have been difficult if not impossible. Rumors and suspicions, mostly focusing on Gurney continued for many years, but we may never know what really happened that day in Hāmākua.

Douglas was gone, but not forgotten. The site of his death was soon known as Kaluakauka, literally the doctor’s pit. A memorial plaque was erected at Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu. There is an impressive memorial in his birthplace of Scone in Scotland. In 1934, on the 100th anniversary of his death, the Hilo Burns Club erected a monument at Kaluakauka at the site at the 6,000-foot level of Mauna Kea. It can be visited today, preferably with a four-wheel drive vehicle, by taking Saddle Road to the Mauna Kea access road to the Keanakolu-Mana Road.

Douglas is also remembered on the mainland. A high school and entire school district in Portland, Oregon is named for him. Vancouver, Washington has David Douglas Park, and Prince George, British Columbia, has David Douglas Botanical Garden.

For further reading:
Barnard, Walther M. “Earliest Ascents of Mauna Loa Volcano, Hawaiʽi,” Hawaiian Journal of History, Vol. 25 (1991), p. 53-70.

Greenwell, Jean. “Kaulakauka Revisited: The Death of David Douglas in Hawaiʽi,” Hawaiian Journal of History, Vol. 22 (1988), p. 147-169.

Nisbet, Jack. The Collector, David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2009.

Wilson, William Frederick. David Douglas, Botanist at Hawaii. Honolulu, 1919.

Color photos by Geoffrey Leist: geoffleist AT
Contact writer Robert Oaks: boboaks AT

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