The Columbia River Maps and Meteorological Calculations of David Douglas: An Archival Discovery

21 January 2019

Area Studies | Cultural Studies | History

This is the first in a two-part blog in which David G. Lewis, PhD, Adjunct Professor of Anthropology and Native Studies at Oregon State University, tells the story of discovering some previously unknown documents from Pacific Northwest explorer David Douglas within Adam Matthew Digital's collection Age of Exploration.

About nine months ago I was poking around in the New York archives online and came upon a reference to a document which had the keyword Fort Vancouver. This library reference led me to Adam Matthew Digital’s collections, specifically Age of Exploration. In the collection I was able to find significant information about the Oregon territory of the 19th century that has yet to be included in modern scholarship.

After I was granted trial access to the Age of Exploration collection, I began a keyword search to locate documents which may relate to my research interest of the ethnohistory of the Pacific Northwest, specifically Oregon. Every search I conducted led me to the Sir Edward Sabine papers. Sabine was active in the 1820s and 1860s; an important period for British exploration and the fur trade in Oregon. The keyword match suggested that perhaps he was in contact with explorers or British personnel in Oregon. After a search revealed several pages with the name “Douglas” I began to get excited.

Douglas is an extremely important early botanist and explorer in the Oregon Territory, who is best known for naming the famous Douglas Fir tree, and collecting hundreds of seeds from all manner of plants which he describes, draws, and names. He also collected samples of animals, and native artifacts from tribes throughout the region. His journals and publications form the foundation of many studies in the tribal ethnography and the traditional environment of the region. The time in which Douglas walked around Oregon (1824-1827, 1832-1833), predates and is contemporary with, the massive epidemics of introduced diseases which killed some 90% of the Native peoples. He also describes in some detail native cultural practices, visits Chinookan, Kalapuyan, and Umpqua tribal villages, describes native traditions of preparing foods, impresses natives with his ability to shoot birds on the fly, was a keen study of native character and actions, and commissions Tillamook hats from a young girl who delivers them to him in the Willamette Valley. His experiences with the tribes in his journals from the 1820s are rare windows into tribal cultures which ceased to exist in 1856, when the majority of tribes were removed to the reservations.

David Douglas Esq., Fort Vancouver, correspondence wrapper signature. Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

One file in the Sabine collection had all of the Douglas references and so I began looking through the collection and found a series of rough pencil drawn maps, perhaps 50 of them in all. The maps were composed on the back of what appear to be military financial reports. After the maps, there were over 100 pages of roughly organized data and what appeared to be geolocations of known place names along the Northwest Coast.  On at least two pages I found locations on the Columbia River (Astoria, Fort Vancouver), and within the Willamette Valley (Willamette Falls, Sandiam). The last word, “Sandiam” translates to Santiam, a Kalapuyan tribe on the center of the Willamette valley. This was very interesting. I then found two other pages, which appeared to be the backs of letters or scrap pages with the name D. Douglas. David Douglas, in his published journals wrote “Sandiam,” for Santiam. All of these pages then appeared to be directly related to, if not, the work of Scottish botanist and explorer David Douglas. Since Sabine never came to Oregon, and Douglas did twice, these had to be papers that came from Douglas. However, I needed to fully confirm they were originals from his hand, and not copies of his work by Sabine or some other scholar.

Map page 1, note Fort Vancouver at left, campsite of 20th March, Quick Sand River (Sandy River) at right, note also geolocation marks (45,37,15) at left. This is the Columbia River in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington. Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The corresponding journal page states:

[1826] “On the afternoon of Monday, the 20th, at four o’clock, I left Fort Vancouver in company with John McLeod, Esq., a gentleman going across to Hudson’s Bay, and Mr. Ermatinger, for the interior, with two boats and fourteen men. The day was very rainy, and we camped on a low piece of ground among poplars and willows, on the north side of the river, a few miles from the establishment, at dusk. The following morning at daylight we proceeded up the river.”

I had already compared the handwriting to that in the handwritten journals from Douglas that I had in a digital format. This comparison suggested that the handwriting was Douglas’. I also began consulting with a couple other anthropological colleagues , Dr. Robert Boyd, researcher and author, and Dr. Thomas Connolly, Research Director for the State Museum of Anthropology, about these papers, and they indicated that they had never seen them before and that there are no known published maps from David Douglas. Besides his journal, the majority of his publications are about botanical finds, with nice artistic drawings, many were published by the Linnaean Society.

But why did Sabine have these papers, why are they associated with him, and where did they come from? These questions have been the subject of much research for months. I contacted the staff at Adam Matthew Digital to answer these questions and to see if they had the metadata related to the collection. They led me to the Kew Archives and the National Archives, UK. After consulting with archivists at these archives I was able to easily acquire copies of digital letters from Sabine that addressed his work with David Douglas. These letters and reports, along with other sources (Sabine’s exploratory journals, Jack Nesbit’s books, The Collector and David Douglas a Naturalist at Work) had revealed an amazing story of collaboration between Douglas and Sabine, for years.

Sabine, a military explorer who was a veteran of many naval expeditions to the frontiers of the earth, taught Douglas how to use a magnetometer and calculate the latitude and longitude equations, during the time they collaborated in London. Sabine, who was also the secretary of the Linnaean Society, something of a naturalist collector himself, helped David with his publications. On his explorations afterwards, Douglas continued corresponding regularly with Sabine and many other naturalists, botanists and members of the Linnaean Society, while he was looking for botanical and other natural history collections. This collaborative relationship explained why Sabine may have had the Douglas papers.

Section of page 135 from the document. Meteorological latitude and longitude readings from the Willamette (Multnomah) and Sandiam (Santiam) rivers. These are likely near a campsite. Douglas’s Journal states two Santiam villages in this vicinity, one abandoned, and one where Douglas is prepared a meal by a Kalapuyan woman. Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Click here to read the second part of the blog to find out what happened next with David's research, and how Douglas' papers came to be at The National Archives.

Age of Exploration is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

David G. Lewis

David G. Lewis

David G. Lewis, PhD is an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology and Native Studies at Oregon State University. He researches regional tribal histories and is an expert in accessing government archives related to the federal administration of tribes. David has numerous articles published on tribal histories from the 19th and 20th centuries and writes original ethnohistorical articles on his blog ndnhistoryresearch.com. David is a member of the Confederated tribes of Grand Ronde of Oregon, a descendant of the Chinook, Santiam Kalapuya, and Takelma peoples of Western Oregon.

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