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Did you know the namesake of the Douglas fir died on Hawaiʻi Island in 1834?

David Douglas (L) and a Douglas fir at the White House in 2016 (R)
Wikimedia Commons
David Douglas (L) and a Douglas fir at the White House in 2016 (R)

Douglas fir Christmas trees and wreaths are a common sight these days. But you may not be familiar with the story of the Scottish botanist credited with discovering the species, David Douglas. Did you know he's buried here in Hawaiʻi?

Just imagine how exotic our tropical rainforests and rare species might have appeared to him. Douglas died on the Big Island after falling into a pit where he was gored and trampled by a bull.

A rock monument marks the area where he died. Back in the day, there was speculation whether he was pushed or accidentally fell into the pit.

He is buried at Kawaiahaʻo Church, but you won't find his tombstone in the churchyard. The weathered marble marker occupies a space in the vestibule, just to the right as you enter the front doors of the church.

Catherine Cruz
Hawaiʻi Public Radio

Over the years, fellow Scotsmen with bagpipes in tow have been known to pay tribute to the botanist at Kawaiahaʻo Church.

The inscription reads, "Here lies Master David Douglas, born in Scotland A.D. 1799, an indefatigable traveller who was sent out by the Royal Horticultural Society of London and gave his life for science in the wilds of Hawaii, July 12, 1834."

There is a bronze plaque beneath the tombstone because the inscription is so worn. It says, “The Royal Horticultural Society grateful for his services to horticulture and botany caused this copy of the crumbling inscription to the memory of David Douglas to be recorded in 1929.”

Cemetery historian Nanette Napoleon met The Conversation at the site to share his story.

"The first time I came across the story of David Douglas was, I was doing research on something else and I found a map of Maunakea, really not a very good map, but it had an 'X' on the map, and it said, 'David Douglas death place' or something like that," Napoleon said.

Then she started collecting all the information she could find about Douglas. But how did his body come to its resting place in Honolulu?

"There happened to have been some Hawaiian hunters up there at the same time that he died and they came across his body, and they carried him out of there," she said. "They put him in a canoe and rode all the way to Hilo where they reported it to the two missionaries that were stationed in Hilo at the time."

"They brought him (to Honolulu) and there was a big investigation about it and all kinds of people, government people, British people, they were all trying to figure out what happened," Napoleon said.

Now you can think of Douglas the next time you see the fragrant fir trees and wreaths this holiday season.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Nov. 19, 2021. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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