Who Killed David Douglas?

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 to Douglas.

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.

Readers Respond:

Hi 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 the info.
Joline Shroyer 

Readers may submit editorial comments to any of our stories by sending an email to les@lbdcoffee.com. We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest.

Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.