by Betty Fullard-Leo
In 1832, David Douglas, a respected Scottish botanist,
was found dead in a pit dug to trap wild bullocks at
Kaluakauka, in the ahupua'a (land division) of Laupahoehoe.
His clothes were torn, his body mangled and ten gashes
marked his head. The bull that was trapped in the pit
with him officially was blamed for killing Douglas,
but throughout the islands people speculated about the
mysterious circumstances. Few believed that this experienced
naturalist could have accidentally fallen into the pit,
which he had passed previously on the trail before retracing
his steps to the same area.
At the time, Douglas was only 35 years old. This was
his third trip to the "Sandwich Islands."
For the pioneer botanist, Hawai'i had become a regular
side trip each time he traveled from England to the
rugged west coast to study plants growing from Monterey
to the Washington-Oregon border. During the brief span
of his life, he introduced to Europe more than 200 plant
species. Perhaps the best-known of those is the Douglas
Fir, Pseudotsugo douglasii. Several Hawaiian plants,
among them Pukeawe (Cyathodes douglasii) and Hala (Pandanus
douglasii) are named for this first botanist to explore
Northwest America and California.
In the Islands he was well liked, particularly among
the missionaries, many of whom noted his comings and
goings in their journals. Emma Lyons Doyle, a granddaughter
of the Reverend Lyons of Waimea, wrote, "He was
loved on Hawai'i, this amusing Britisher who must always
have his tea. In the Lyman home in Hilo he became as
one of the family. Tactfully he brought home household
supplies, and once delighted the heart of his missionary
hostess by the gift of a French muslin dress."
On what became his last visit, he arrived in December
of 1833, traveling as usual with Billy, his little terrier.
In January, he and guide/interpreter Honori trekked
up Mauna Kea, over-nighting in a lodge owned by two
bullock hunters. Douglas noted in his journal, "the
grassy flanks of the mountain abound with wild cattle,
the offspring of the stock left here by Captain Vancouver,
and which now prove a very great benefit to this island."
Unfortunately, they would not prove at all beneficial
Mrs. Lyman, in her January 16, 1834 journal entry,
noted "Mr. Douglas has returned from Mauna Kea.
Ascended its height to be not far from 13,000 feet above
the level of the sea. Hitherto it has been computed
at 18,000 feet."
In Honolulu some time after this, Douglas discovered
that he could not get return passage to England until
much later in the year, so he sailed to Kohala in July,
intending to hike the Laumai'a Trail skirting Mauna
Kea at the 6,000 foot level. A black man named John
went ashore with Douglas and was expected to accompany
him on the hike to Hilo. John was a servant of Reverend
John Diell, chaplain of the American Seamen's Friend
Society in Honolulu.
Mrs. Lyman wrote the first account of Douglas' demise
in her journal dated July 14, 1834. "The report
is that Mr. Douglas left the vessel at Kawaihae to cross
over by land, engaged a foreigner for a guide and several
natives to take along his baggage. The guide accompanied
him till they passed all the pit falls dug to entrap
wild cattle on the north side of Mauna Kea, he then
left him to return. Soon after Mr. Douglas went back
a short distance for something and in retracing his
steps fell into a pit (into which a bullock had previously
fallen) and was found dead a short time afterward. This
was Sat. Morning."
As the grave was being dug to bury Douglas' body, the
Reverends Diell and Goodrich, as well as a carpenter
engaged to build the coffin, noticed that the gashes
on his head did not seem to be the type a bull's horns
or hooves would inflict. They preserved the body by
filling the stomach cavity and surrounding it with salt,
shipped it off to Honolulu for further inspection, and
began their own investigation. In one letter, they noted,
"As far as we can ascertain, the guide (John) is
an Englishman, a convict from Botany Bay, who left a
vessel at these islands some years ago. He has a wife
and one child with him..." But John had simply
disappeared, not to be seen again.
A bullock hunter, Charles Hall, who later became a
pioneer coffee planter in Kona, was sent to gather information.
Twelve years later, Hall's speculations became the subject
of a friend's letter, who wrote: "Davis, (another
bullock hunter) at whose house Douglas lodged the night
before, affirms as Mr. Hall says, that he saw Douglas
have a large purse of money which he took to be gold.
None of any consequence was found after his death. Mr.
Hall says he has no doubt in his own mind that Douglas
was murdered by Ned."
Speculation about the murder involved Englishman Ned
(Edward) Gurney. Gurney was a shady character who had
been convicted of larceny, sentenced to seven years
in prison and sent to Australia's Botony Bay penal colony
in 1819. Gurney had escaped and arrived in Hawai'i on
board the Mermaid in 1822, where he built a mountain
house thatched with grass, and survived as a bullock
hunter. Douglas had breakfast at Ned's house on the
morning of his death.
Gurney was known to have stayed in Hawai'i until 1839,
but after that records of him ceased. Over the years,
various accounts of who killed David Douglas circulated
until finally in 1896, 62 years after his death, the
Hilo Tribune published an article titled, "Death
of Prof. Douglas, a Bit Of History." Bolabola,
a 70-year-old hunter who had lived (when he was ten)
near Ned Gurney's house, told the reporter, "The
haole (foreigner) was murdered, we all felt so at the
time, but were afraid to say so and only whispered it
among ourselves." Ten years later, the Hawai'i
Herald reported an even more condemning rumor. A surveyor,
A.B. Loebenstein, said he had heard from Native Hawaiians
that Douglas was incautious enough to show some money
when he was at Ned Gurney's house. The bullock hunter
was seen following Douglas, but the natives were so
afraid of Gurney, that they never dared tell of it.
Gurney was said to have killed Douglas with an ax and
then deposited his body in the bullock pit.
Douglas was buried near the Mission House in Honolulu
in an unmarked common burying ground. The site was distinguishable
only because it was bricked over and looked different
from other burial sites. Finally in 1856, a marker was
erected on an outside wall at Kawaiaha'o Church, but
by then the grave was unknown. Eventually the marker
was moved inside the church and the Royal Horticultural
Society added a bronze tablet. In 1934, 100 years after
Douglas' death, a stone cairn memorial was erected to
the botanist at Kaluakauka, near where his body was
found. The complete truth of the demise of David Douglas
has been lost to history, but perhaps the best memorial
for this intrepid adventurer/botanist are the more than
200 Douglas fir trees that were planted at the dedication
of this memorial.
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Folks. I just read your article on David Douglas's death
and noted one glaring discrepancy you should probably
correct if you can, as follows: At the first of the
article, "1832" is cited as the year of his death, but
proceeding through the article I was confused by later
date references, until it was further revealed that
he actually died in 1834. So there is a date typo up
at the top that could mislead people using your article
as a reference. That's all. It's a very interesting
story and nice that you could tell it here when I need
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