A Historical River Voyage, Part 1: The Harrowing Journey of David Douglas to the Chehalis River


Editor’s Note: One of the earliest written records of a voyage along the Chehalis River came from explorer and botanist David Douglas. As The Chronicle’s journalists paddle the river in 2022, we’ll also explore the records of Douglas’ voyage through the same landscape in a very different time. See coverage of the "Headwaters to Harbor" project as it is compiled at www.chronline.com/Chehalis-River.

David Douglas, a young Scotsman, landed in the Pacific Northwest only a decade after Lewis and Clark. He was a gifted naturalist on a mission to find and study the plants of a landscape that was barely known to European science.

His accomplishments were legendary, so much so that you’ve heard his name even if you’ve never heard of him — he is the namesake of the mighty Douglas fir.

His trip through the Chehalis River valley began in October of 1825. Douglas, then 26 years old, left Fort Vancouver, heading down the Columbia River. Unfortunately he and his fellow voyagers hit a snag — literally. They were delayed when their canoe hit an underwater obstruction, which split the craft from end to end, swamping them. They were able to repair the canoe and make it downstream.

They stayed overnight on the southern shore of the Columbia River with Concomly, the great chief of the Chinooks.

Douglas met the chief’s brother, Tha-a-muxi, or “The Beard,” who lived at what we today call Grays Harbor. Tha-a-muxi — “a fine old man” and an unusual character — agreed to accompany them to his home at the mouth of the Chehalis River.

Concomly sent for a large dugout canoe to carry them across the mighty Columbia River. With a dozen paddlers they made the passage despite a fierce wind.

A shaken Douglas said they survived only due to “the strength of the boat and the dexterity of the Indians.”

Most of his food was ruined, save for some chocolate and rum.

On Oct. 26 Douglas, along with Tha-mux-i and four of his relatives, began their journey for what he called the “Cheecheeler River,” or what we today call the Chehalis.

They carried their canoe across the narrow peninsula that divides the Columbia River from Willapa Bay.

“I found it very laborious dragging my canoe through the wood, over rocks, stumps and gullies,” Douglas grumbled.

They were deluged with rain as they started across the shallow bay. By the time they cleared Leadbetter Point on Long Beach, the wind was “producing an agitation on the shoal water frightful in the extreme.”

They gave up on traveling by canoe and headed overland to Grays Harbor, a 15-mile journey through sloughs and swamps.

They were soaked by the time they passed a fishing village where Tha--a-muxi had planned to buy food. He found it abandoned, so for two days they had nothing to eat but some kinnickinick berries they found, along with the two ounces of chocolate that survived the earlier harrowing trip across the Columbia River.

They camped on the south shore of Grays Harbor. Douglas shot five ducks with one lucky shot from his musket during the thick fall migration.

His first night in the Chehalis River basin, he dined on a bit of duck and some tea. Having slept not at all the night before and very little the two nights before that, he collapsed into a deep sleep. Around midnight, guides arrived from the other side of the bay, but Douglas, exhausted, didn’t hear them until Tha-a-muxi roused him in the morning.

Next time: Up the Cheecheeler River.