David Douglas makes the first recorded ascent of the Cascade Mountains above the Columbia River Gorge in September 1825.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 4/20/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7300
On September 3, 1825, exploring naturalist David Douglas (1799-1834) sets out from an Upper Chinookan village at the Cascades of the Columbia River to climb the mountain ridges above the Cascades in present-day Skamania County. Guided by the brother of his friend Chumtalia, a chief of the village, Douglas reaches the summit after a laborious two-day ascent. Several days later he makes an easier climb to the summit on the south bank of the river. Douglas's summit ascents are the first known of the mountain range that divides Washington into two distinct climate zones. Douglas is also the first writer to refer to the range as the the Cascade Mountains.

Appointed by the London-based Horticultural Society (later the Royal Horticultural Society) to bring back specimens and seeds of Northwest Coast plants for introduction into British gardens and forests, Douglas reached the Columbia River in April 1825. Basing himself at Fort Vancouver, the Hudson's Bay Company's newly opened headquarters, he traveled the lower Columbia, its tributaries, and the Washington coast in search of plant specimens.

Cascades of the Columbia

Douglas first saw the Cascades of the Columbia, which he generally called the Grand Rapids (as had Lewis and Clark), in June when he traveled upriver with a Hudson's Bay Company party headed for the interior posts. Located slightly above the present site of Bonneville Dam, whose impounded waters have covered the rapids, the Cascades marked the river's final major drop on its way from the mountains to the sea. When Douglas passed in June, the salmon season was at its height, and both banks of the Cascades were crowded with Indians who gathered from hundreds of miles around for the fishing. Douglas described how they made channels among the rocks, then stood on platforms above the channels and used long poles to position nets fastened around hoops to catch fish coming through the channel. He even recorded the species used for each part of the fishing gear. The hoops were vine maple, the nets were made from Indian hemp bark, and Douglas called the poles "balsam pine."

Douglas accompanied the Hudson's Bay party on through the Columbia Gorge past The Dalles to Celilo Falls (then generally called the Great Falls), noting the dramatic change in vegetation as the huge trees of the moist west side diminished in size and eventually disappeared on the dry eastern slopes, where only a few wildflowers grew on the barren soil. A few miles beyond the falls, Douglas turned back to Fort Vancouver, from where he made other collecting journeys to the mouth of the Columbia and up the Willamette River to its falls.

In September, Douglas made a second trip to the Cascades, to collect seeds of plants that he had seen in flower in June. In a reference to the tensions that had long existed between the non-native fur traders and the Indians who owned the portage routes at the Cascades, Douglas noted that his visit was the first ever made without a guard. He traveled with only two companions, a Canadian voyageur and Chumtalia, a leader of the village on the north bank at the Cascades, and attributed the fact that he "received no harm or insult" to the attentiveness of his Indian friend (Journal, 142).

A Most Laborious Undertaking

They left Fort Vancouver on September 1, and reached Chumtalia's village at the Cascades the following evening. The next morning, Saturday, September 3, 1825, Douglas set off to climb the mountain above the village, with Chumtalia's younger brother as a guide. He wrote of the climb:

"This took three days, and was one of the most laborious undertakings I ever experienced, the way was so rough, over dead wood, detached rocks, rivulets, &c., that very little paper [for collecting plants] could be carried. Indeed I was obliged to leave my blanket (which, on my route is all my bedding) at my first encampment about two-thirds up. My provision was 3 oz. tea, 1 lb. sugar, and four small biscuits. On the summit all the herbage is low shrub but chiefly herb plants. The second day I caught no fish, and at such a great altitude the only birds to be seen were hawks, eagles, vultures, &c. I was fortunate enough to kill one young white-headed eagle, which (then) I found very good eating. I roasted it, having only a small pan for making tea. On the summit of the hill I slept one night. I made a small fire of grass and twigs and dried my clothes which were wet with perspiration and then laid myself down on the grass with my feet to the fire. I found it very cold and had to rise four times and walk to keep myself warm, fortunately it was dry and a keen north wind prevented dew. On Monday evening at dusk I reached my tent at the village much fatigued and weak and found all things going on smoothly" (Journal, 143).
After resting for two days, Douglas crossed the river and with Chumtalia climbed the mountain on the south (Oregon) side, a somewhat easier ascent that took only 15 hours.

A Name for the Mountains

Douglas returned to Fort Vancouver on September 13, and spent the rest of the month packing seeds and specimens to be sent to England on the Hudson's Bay Company ship departing that fall. Douglas himself remained in the Columbia region for another 18 months, ranging widely through present-day Washington and Oregon before crossing the Canadian Rockies to Hudson's Bay on his return journey to England in 1827.

When he described his September 1825 climbs, Douglas did not give any name for the mountains, but by 1826 his journals identify them with the name of the rapids -- the Cascade Mountains. Douglas may have been employing a term already used by other travelers, but his writings are the first recorded appearance of the name by which the range is known today. Douglas also did not name or precisely identify the particular peak he climbed in present-day Skamania County, but historian Jack Nisbet suggests it was the 3,417-foot Table Mountain, whose sheer pyramid rises dramatically above the Columbia Gorge.


Sources: David Douglas, Journal Kept By David Douglas During His Travels in North America, 1823-1827 (London: William Wesley & Son, 1914); 56-60, 126-29, 142-43, 146; John Davies, Douglas of the Forests (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980); Athelstan George Harvey, Douglas of the Fir (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1947); William Morwood, Traveler in a Vanished Landscape (New York: Charles N. Potter, Inc., 1973); Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (Washington State Historical Society, 1985), 39; Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923), 38-39; Robert Boyd, People of the Dalles (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 37-40, 52; Jack Nisbet, The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2009).
This essay was updated on January 2, 2010.

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