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The Mysterious Death of the Namesake of the Douglas-fir

Was David Douglas trampled by a wild bull, or lured into a trap?

Hidden off the beaten path, the slopes of Mauna Kea, the dormant Hawaiian volcano, there’s a rough stone spire that marks the spot where the famed botanist David Douglas is said to have died. But what this monument to the namesake of the Douglas-fir doesn’t allude to is the story of the strange events surrounding Douglas’s death. There is no mention, for example, of the former convict who will likely always be implicated.

Edward “Ned” Gurney was an Englishman from Middlesex, about the same age as Douglas, but the two couldn’t have been more different. “Gurney is raised just above street urchin,” says Mills. Where Douglas had come up surrounded by education and palace finery, Gurney had run afoul of the law at an early age and had been paying for it ever since. According to Mills, Gurney had been caught stealing around three shillings worth of lead fixtures off a house, and as punishment, he was sent to the infamous Botany Bay penal colony in Australia. At the time there were only three sentences for those sent to the Australian penal settlements: 7 years, 15 years, and life. Gurney got the lightest sentence.

Eventually, Gurney was sent to work on a ship and by simply disembarking in Hawaii, he was able to start a new life. He became a cattle hunter, establishing himself in a hut on the slopes of Mauna Kea. Gurney had been on the island for years by the time Douglas stopped by for breakfast that fateful morning. What exactly happened to Douglas that morning may never be fully known, but whether his death was the result of a simple hiking accident or something more sinister, the lives of both he and Gurney effectively ended that day.