David Douglas Shaves Comcomley’s Brother

David Douglas traveled around Oregon, Washington, California, British Columbia and Hawaii from 1824 to 1834. Most of the time Douglas was accompanied by Native packers who helped transport his equipment, hunt for food, translate with local tribes and fend off attackers. Sometimes Douglas has the company of as Euro-American, some mountain man, fur trader or explorer. Most times Douglas was in the company of Native peoples. He could fend for himself when he needed to, shoot with the best men, and was diplomatic enough, or just odd enough,  that tribes treated him well and even tried to help him. He may have been the image of the learned wiseman that tribal people saw him as not a threat but as someone to be aided. They were likely quite amused that he would collect seeds, flowers, leaves of plants, and then hunt and kill birds, bugs and insects, small and large animal,  and save the bones and hides, or try to preserve them by drying them out. Regardless he got the respect and help of most tribal people he encountered.

in April of 1826 Douglas was stationed at Fort Vancouver and venturing from the Fort on short forays into rivers to find new species to kill and collect. This area was so rich with species yet to get a Latin name and surname of some famous British man who had never visited the area, that the trips were only about 10 days before he would fill his containers and need to return to the fort. Once he returned to the fort, he would pack his collections into seaworthy barrels for transportation to England. In England he donated much of his collections to the Royal Horticultural society and has his own sizable greenhouse and garden where he would replant the various species he found to see if they would grow in the English soil. He passed much of his time in this manner with scientific aristocracy, and rubbed shoulders with none less than the fellows of the Linnean Society, while planning his next journey, his next publication, and learning how to take geographical measurements from Sir Edward Sabine.

In October 1825 Douglas ventures downriver on the Columbia and lands at Oak Point. Every landing there was the opportunity of collecting new species, of measuring the size and fecundity of the species already found to see if they are different here, and meet up with new Indian people. On about the 23rd he meets Chief Comcomley’s brother Tha-a-mutei, a Clatsop leader,  and they immediately appear to strike up a friendship, after Douglas shaves him, at his request, in the style of King George’s men.

Afterwards, Tha-a-mutei  guides him inland past Mount St Helens and to the Cowlitz river. On the journey Douglas collects many species and finds that an old injury to his leg begins to cause him enough pain so that he turns lame. This injury bothers him until the end of his life, as he is unable or unwilling to rest up long enough for it to completely heal. He seems to always be tramping through underbrush and regularly falling into some hole or pit and re-injuring himself.

Assumedly, with the help of Tha-a-mutei, Douglas has a native hut made for him to lay up and heal near Cape Foulweather. There, he appears to lead a meager existence, unable to hunt well, and he gains another illness, for some reason his sight begins to dim. Whether he had glaucoma or something else we do not know, but it is bad enough that he is unable to hunt. His ability to shoot and handle a gun was always a great plus, as he would wow the tribal peoples with his ability to shoot birds from the sky.

The following is a partial transcript of Douglas’ experiences with Tha-a-mutei  and his illnesses.  Letter of April 3 1826 to William Scouler (Kew Archives Correspondence Collection),

I left Fort Vancouver on the 22 of Oct (1825?) for the purpose of seeing on my way to Whitby’s Harbor on the Cheeheelin River- on the evening of the 23rd – I put ashore at Oak Point to procure a little food where an Indian gave me your letter in which you state your belief of remaining a few days and as the ship was seen That day by some of them, without loss of time I boiled my kettle and embarked at 11 o’clock at night expecting to reach the Bay before daylight- unfortunately the wind was unfavorable and as my Indians were much fatigued I did not reach till 10 o’clock when I learned much to my disappointment you had left the river only one hour before. I found Tha-a-mutei or the Beard, Com Comley’s brother whom you saw and spoke of me to him. He is a fine old man. I shaved him at his own request to make him like King George’s chiefs.

He accompanied me all the way along the coast and 60 miles up the Cheeleelis River, where I crossed a track of land near Mount St Helens to the Cow-a-lidsk river, which I descended to its Junction with the Columbia. This was the most unfortunate trip I have had leaving so late in the season and my knee becoming worse I was under the necessity of laying an invalid for 3 days on Cape Foulweather in a hut made of pine branches and grass. I was unable to go and shoot: and if course, fared hut scantily. I killed several species of Procellaria larus (gull) and one of Cohymbus but the excessive rain prevented me from preserving any of them. The only plant I found ….

The trip took 25 days and reduced me to such a state that I
could do but little.

My sight which was always weak is within these few months much impaired without the least pain or inflammation- just a dimness. This is a great loss particularly in the use of the gun which you know I could handle to advantage.

The letter comes at a time when Oregon is turning to spring. Douglas likely is holed up on the coast until he could return to Fort Vancouver. The letter is addressed from Priest Rapids on the Upper Columbia River, so he is already off on another adventure.

Its common to find the name of native people in such early journals.   Tha-a-mutei is a name that few know, as it is in a letter and not from his journals.  (The journals need to be checked for additional details.)

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PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher. I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.

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