Douglas’ “Multnomah pine”

Sugar Pine

…August 19, 1825 Mr. Douglas, who had been exploring the upper country of the Columbia, started from his headquarters at Vancouver to proceed southward, ascending the Multnomah towards the mountains at the extreme (south) end of the Willamette Valley. After a perilous three days’ trip he reaches the natives of the region and finds in their tobacco pouches “seeds of a remarkably large size, which they eat as nuts”, and which he knew to be pine seeds. He learns that the tree grows on the mountains to the south—that is, down nearly to the present California line.

“No time was to be lost,” he writes, “in ascertaining the existence of the tree,” which he at once, with only a few imperfect seeds in hand, names Pinus Lambertiana, in honor of his friend, Aylmer Bourke Lambert, the distinguished Vice-President of the Linnaean Society of England. But sickness and inclement weather, also Indian hostilities, prevented further search southward for that season. However, he explores other regions eastward, discovering two new species of pine, which he names Pinus nobilis and Pinus amabilis (now well known firs, but then included in the genus of pines), making headquarters for the winter at Fort Vancouver. During the spring and summer months of the next year, 1826, he makes various extensive journeys, rewarded constantly by important discoveries, for the country was all unknown then. In February a hunter brings him a cone of his Multnomah pine. It “was 16 inches long and 10 in circuit” and he was assured that “trees were met with that were 170-220 feet high, and 20-50 feet in circumference”.

In June, while at the junction of the Lewis and Clarke Rivers, he planned a long trip southward to the Umpqua River, in search of “the gigantic pine”, but could not get off in that direction until October. On the eighteenth Douglas, with a companion, “set off due south through the dominions of the Chief, Center-Nose, and having climbed wearily a high divide, we were cheered by the sight of the broad Umpqua River in the valley far below”. A raft was necessary for crossing it, and in its construction Douglas “grievous blistered his fingers”..October 23rd they reach the headwaters Of the Umpqua, guided by the son of old Center-Nose, and still “intent upon finding the Grand Pine so frequently mentioned in my journal”.

…Early in the morning of the same day (October 25th) Douglas quitted camp, and “after an hour’s walk met an Indian, who, on perceiving me, instantly strung his bow, then slung his raccoon skin of arrows upon his left arm, and stood on the defensive. Being quite sure that he was not hostile, but prompted by fear only, I laid my gun at my feet and beckoned him to approach me, which he did slowly and with many precautions. I then made him place his bow and quiver beside my gun, and, striking a light, gave him a smoke out of my pipe. Then with pencil and paper I drew a rough sketch of the cone and tree which I desired to find, and exhibited the sketch to him, when he quickly pointed towards the hills, fifteen or twenty miles distant, and southward.”

Hastening on, at midday Douglas “reached the locality of my longwished-for pines, and lost no time in examining them, and endeavoring to collect twigs, specimens, and seeds. “New and strange things,” Douglas pauses here to remark, sententiously, “seldom fail to make strong impressions, and are, therefore, often faulty or overrated; so, lest I should never again see my friends in England, to inform them verbally of this most beautiful and grand tree”.

“I shall here state the dimensions of the largest found among several that had been felled by the wind. At three feet from the ground its circuit was fifty-seven feet nine inches (that is, nearly nineteen feet in diameter). At one hundred and thirty-four feet it was seventeen feet five inches. Extreme length, two hundred and forty-five feet. The trunks are uncommonly straight, the bark smooth, the tallest stems unbranched for two thirds of their height, the branches outreaching or pendulous, with long cones hanging from the points like sugar loaves in a grocer shop. The cones are borne only by the largest trees, high suspended in air, and the putting myself into possession of three of them, all I could procure, nearly brought my life to a close.”

“As it was impossible either to climb the trees or to hew one down I resorted to knocking them off by firing at them with ball. The report of my gun almost instantly brought into view eight Indians, all armed with bows, bone-tipped spears, and flint knives. I endeavored to explain to them what I was doing there and what I wanted, and they seemed satisfied, sitting down to smoke with me; but presently I perceived one of them to string his bow, and another to whet his knife with a pair of wooden pincers. Further testimony of their intention was unnecessary.

“To save myself by flight was impossible, so without hesitation I sprang backwards about five paces, cocked my gun, drew one of the pistols from my belt, and showed myself determined to fight for my life. As much as possible I endeavored to preserve coolness, and thus we stood facing each other without the slightest movement or uttering a word for full ten minutes. At last the leader dropped his hand and made signs for tobacco and pipe. I signified that they should have a smoke if they would fetch me a quantity of cones. They went off immediately, and no sooner were the out of sight than I picked up my precious cones and made the quickest possible retreat.”

Poor Douglas never saw his “Grand Pine” again, and upon his second tour of western exploration the next season, after visiting Monterey Bay and vicinity, where he discovers Pinus insignia and P. sabiniana, he sailed for the Hawaiian Islands, and while exploring there he fell into a pit prepared for capturing wild cattle, and was trampled to death by an entrapped steer.

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5 thoughts on “Douglas’ “Multnomah pine”

  1. A gruesome finish. I’d have preferred he dispatch the “entrapped steer” and then set forth to roast a great loin in anticipation of his rescue from the pit. But such outcomes are not always on offer.

    Have you personally seen such specimens of Pine? It would have to border on a religious experience.

    • Yep, sure have. These kind of trees grow all around my study area. And not just sugar, but monster ponderosas, Jeffreys and up higher, western whites as well. Not to mention white and red fir, Douglas-fir and incense cedar. There’s really no way to describe old growth mixed conifer and fir forests in the Sierra to somebody–you have to experience it.

  2. In the book “A Forest Journey,” a case is made that Britain came to rule the seas due to the English Oak. The largest oaks that grew in the deep forest were cut to make main masts for the largest and so most formidable sailing war ships. Before too long, all the tall straight oaks were cut, and oaks that grew near what was by then agricultural fields would never grow straight and tall. Before the inevitable decline, though, the English found a replacement in their American colonies, the Eastern White Pine. But then it wasn’t too long after that before all the suitable EWPs were cut as well.

    I have always wondered whether Douglas’ obsession with Sugar Pine had something to do with that but have found no evidence for it. He did not mention it as far as I know, and the Western White Pine should have been suitable for tall masts as well. In fact, given what must have been gargantuan WWPs in the Pacific Northwest, I suppose it could only have been horticultural interest that drew him to make a risky trip to see the Sugar Pines.

    • What a great book that is–I’d forgotten all about it. Thanks for reminding me of it.

      There was a similar push on the live oaks in the southern states I believe. I once met a researcher at the National Archives in DC who was studying the reserves created to protect them. And I have heard that same story regarding Pinus strobus and ship masts, and it seems entirely reasonable.

      I’m not sure what drove Douglas, but that the English have a thing for horticulture and plant variety seems foregone. Not sure if that hold for the Scots as well. And there was money to be made on this stuff too let’s not forget. But as you and I know, when you get into the mountains of the Pacific states, that might go out the window to some degree as the sense of adventure takes over.

      And I probably ought to tell the story of Jacob Creutzfield at some point, especially given the recent reference to the Gunnison river. He wasn’t so lucky.

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