In the spring of
1825, the first ship dispatched by the Hudsons
Bay Company from London to Fort Vancouver finally arrived, having waited six weeks for
favorable conditions to cross the Columbia River bar. Named the William and Ann, the ship brought
trading goods, clerks, news, fruit, and botanist David Douglas, then 25,
representing the Horticultural Society of London.
was the first of three trips the well-known botanist would make to the
Northwest, where he would spend a total of four years — 1825-1827, and
1830-1832. It was on the first voyage, near the mouth of the river, that he saw
the signature tree of the Northwest, a tree he would describe and that later
would carry his name: pinus taxifolia, actually a type of pine but
called the Douglas fir.
wrote about the Columbia and the Northwest in his book, Sketch of a Journey, which
included a description of the recently completed Fort Vancouver. Douglas
was impressed with the river and the countryside:
[The country is] sublimely grand [with]
lofty, well wooded hills, mountains covered with perpetual snow, extensive
natural meadows, and plains of deep, fertile, alluvial deposit covered with a
rich sward of grass, and profusion of flowering plants.
wrote about a difficult encounter with the early-summer runoff in the Columbia
as he journeyed upriver:
My ascent was
slow, the current at this season [mid-June] being exceedingly powerful, so that
I had many excursions on the banks and adjoining hills. The water ran with such
rapidity that when the wind blows from a contrary direction it produces a swell
like an inland sea; frequently we had to take shelter in the creeks, and
although our canoes were considered good, yet we could not see each other
except at a short distance, so great was the swell.
1826 Douglas visited Spokane House, the former North West Company trading post
now operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company, where he had his gun repaired, and
also Fort Colville, the Hudson’s Bay Post near Kettle
visits occurred during a four-month tour of the interior Columbia Basin with
Hudson’s Bay Company parties. He saw the prairies of the Big Bend country of
central Washington and the Palouse region to the southeast. These he described
as “destitute of timber” and characterized by “a light gravelly soil, with a
scant sward of grass.” The summer of 1826 was hot and dry, with afternoon
temperatures in the interior basin regularly ranging from 97 to 106 degrees in
the shade. Douglas found the country disagreeable, describing himself as
“parched like a cinder with heat and thirst.” Nothing about the interior
Columbia Basin, save its rivers, he wrote, was “superior to the deserts of
Arabia.” In this he seems to have agreed with the Hudson’s Bay Company that the
Cascade Mountains formed a dividing line between good land, for agriculture, to
the west and bad land to the east.
his travels Douglas described and named literally hundreds of botanical items
peculiar to the Northwest, including trees, flowers, shrubs, herbs, and, to a
lesser extent, grasses. Geographer D.W. Meinig says it was not unusual for
botanists of the time to be disinterested in grasses. “Though the Columbia
Plain was a new botanical province to him, it obviously had little to excite
his curiosity,” Meinig wrote.