In 1793, Captain George Vancouver gave a few cattle to Kamehameha I; when Vancouver landed additional cattle at Kealakekua in 1794, he strongly encouraged Kamehameha to place a 10‐year kapu on them to allow the herd to grow.
In the decades that followed, cattle flourished and turned into a dangerous nuisance. Kamehameha III lifted the kapu in 1830 and the hunting of wild cattle was encouraged. The king hired cattle hunters from overseas to help in the effort.
By 1846, 25,000-wild cattle roamed at will and an additional 10,000-semi‐domesticated cattle lived alongside humans. A wild bull or cow could weigh 1,200 to 1,500-pounds and had a six‐foot horn spread. Vast herds destroyed natives’ crops, ate the thatching on houses, and hurt, attacked and sometimes killed people.
In addition to traditional practices in the forests (i.e. bird feather collecting, harvesting koa and ʻōhiʻa, etc,) wild cattle were hunted for consumption, as well as provisioning ships with salt beef, and hides and tallow to the growing whaling fleets replenished their stocks.
Hunting wild cattle in the upper forest where they roamed was dangerous. Bullock pits were dug to trap the animals (they were about seven or eight feet long, and four feet wide and were walled up and covered with fragile brush;) they were near established trails; cattle were also drawn to the area by adjoining water holes. When animals fall in the pits, they were unable to climb out the steep sides.
On July 12, 1834, the pits proved they can be a peril to people, too. Douglas was killed by a wild bullock at Keahuaʻai (a knoll at the top of Laupāhoehoe near the boundary of Humuʻula and Laupāhoehoe (now called Kaluakauka or Douglas Pit.)) (Maly) “In the forest under the shadow of Mauna Kea I have seen the bullock pit where the dead body of the distinguished Scottish naturalist, (David) Douglas”. (Coan)
Douglas was born at Scone, near Perth, Scotland, in 1799, and started his career, there; he was a botanist. He was affiliated with the University of Glasgow and served as botanical collector for the Horticultural Society of London. He was hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company to do a botanical survey of the Oregon region.
In mid-August 1823, Douglas was in Philadelphia looking at the plants brought back by Lewis and Clark that even then were flourishing in some American, as well as European gardens. By September Douglas was in the Northwest, looking as always for seeds and cuttings of fruit trees, as well as wild woody plants.
Even though first Menzies (1790, while sailing with Captain Vancouver) and then Lewis and Clark (1804, through the expedition through the Louisiana Purchase and to the Northwest) had collected plants in the area, they had found only the obvious. Almost every day Douglas was in the field he was finding curious plants that proved to be new to science.
One of the collections he sent back to England with a home-bound ship was the dried branches and needles of what he called “Oregon pine,” that today is known as Douglas Fir (his namesake that is now a common wood in construction, as well as the festive and adorned Christmas tree.)
For 4 years, he travelled approximately 8,000-miles throughout the Northwest, cataloging and collecting samples. He returned to England in 1827. He achieved fame in Europe for his collection, and has been referred to as “one of the founding fathers of the British forestry industry as it exists today” by one biographer.
He returned to the Northwest in 1829 hoping to convince the Hudson’s Bay Company to finance a trip to Alaska and beyond. They refused, so David Douglas sailed to Hawaiʻi, arriving here just before Christmas of 1833.
Douglas was a gifted collector, but in the field he was often in trouble. He once fell on a nail that penetrated his leg under the kneecap. He nearly drowned in a glacier-fed river, and was weeks away from civilization with little but his wet clothes. He grew blind in one eye, and his vision was slowly failing in the other.
In January 1834, he set out to “to ascend and explore Mauna Kea, as soon as possible” Having completed his trek to both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, Douglas also visited Kilauea and then returned to O‘ahu.
In July of 1834, Douglas returned to Hawai‘i for a second trip to Mauna Kea. This trip was made via the Waimea-Laumai‘a mountain trail.
“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 Mauna Kea, he then left him to return.” (Lyman, Greenwell)
On July 12, 1834, while exploring the Island; “Douglas, a scientific traveller from Scotland, in the service of the London Horticultural Society, lost his life in the mountains of Hawaii, in a pitfall, being gored and trampled to death by a wild bullock captured there. (Bingham)
“This has been one of the most gloomy days I ever witnessed. … 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.”
“Sunday he was taken the shortest distance to the sea side, wrapped in a hyde, put on board a canoe and brought here as he was taken from the pit. His close are sadly torn and his body dreadfully mangled. Ten gashes on his head.” (Lyman, Greenwell)
Some have suggested it was not an accident. “(T)he dead body of the distinguished Scottish naturalist, Douglas, was found under painfully suspicious circumstances, that led many to believe he had been murdered for his money.” (Coan)
While examination at the time suggested death by the bullock – “On the 3rd instant the body was brought here (Oʻahu) in an American vessel. I immediately had it examined by the medical gentlemen, who gave it as their opinion that the several wounds were inflicted by the bullock.” (Charlton, British Consul) – many remain skeptical.
As Titus Coan noted (1882,) “A mystery hangs over the event which we are unable to explain.”
David Douglas was buried in the Kawaiahaʻo Church Cemetery. A plaque on the wall of Kawaiahaʻo Church and a stone marker at Kaluakauka (near where the pit was located) commemorate David Douglas’s death.