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Two hundred years before the first Earth Day Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies, who accompanied the Vancouver voyage in the 1790s, was the first scientist to explore the botany of the Puget Sound region. His reports, and possibly seeds or specimens, eventually led to much of Scotland being reforested with Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. While Menzies’ entire voyage with Vancouver could and has filled a book, with the anniversary of Vancouver’s anchoring at Dungeness Spit and Discovery Bay upon us, we thought we would share with you the thoughts of Port Townsend writer, historian and naturalist Jerry Gorsline recounting Menzies’ journey around the Quimper Peninsula.
Two hundred and twenty eight years ago the Scottish surgeon and botanist Archibald Menzies arrived at Discovery Bay and began his exploration of the northeastern Olympic Peninsula flora.
Menzies was 36 years old when the British government appointed him as the Ship Surgeon and Naturalist to accompany Captain George Vancouver in the royal naval ship HMS Discovery on its voyage to the northwest coast of America.
The Vancouver expedition entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca on April 29, 1792, and on May 1, Menzies set out with Vancouver and some other officers in a longboat to search for a harbor while the Discovery and her sister ship HMS Chatham lay off Dungeness Spit.
After a row of about twelve miles, they arrived at an island at the mouth of the bay that would provide anchorage for the expedition for the next few weeks. Because the island sheltered that bay from the northwest winds, Vancouver gave it the name of Protection Island, and named the bay Port Discovery after his vessel. The explorers chose anchorage at a low sandy point on the west shore of the bay known today as Contractors Point.
When they arrived at the northeastern Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver and Menzies both commented on a landscape that included open prairies, which Vancouver described as “extensive lawn[s]…covered with luxuriant grass,,,[and] diversified with an abundance of flowers…that would have puzzled the most ingenious designer of pleasure grounds to have arranged more agreeably.”
The landscape Vancouver observed, which he likened to the manicured landscape of his native England, and could not imagine “had ever been indebted for any of its decorations to the hand of man,” was in fact occupied, and actively managed, by indigenous people. For the native people, these openings in the forested landscape were an important source of specialized plants for food, medicine and technology; provided forage for game, and were maintained by deliberate burning.
While exploring this northeastern part of the Olympic Peninsula, Menzies would observe and describe the unique plant life characteristic of this area, located in the leeward rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains and receiving only a fraction of the heavy rainfall on the coastal slopes west of the mountains.
On the afternoon of May 2, Menzies accompanied Vancouver to the head of the Discovery Bay, where they found “a species of small Oyster “[with] which the bottom was plentifully strewd,” This was the native Olympia oyster whose numbers today, due to habitat loss and overfishing, are a fraction of what they were. One small population located in Discovery Bay is now the focus of a restoration effort under supervision of the Jefferson County Marine Resources Committee, one part of a broader effort to restore self-sustaining native Olympia oyster populations throughout their historic range in Puget Sound. Here they also observed: “…remains of a deserted village of a few houses…neither of them seemed to have been inhabited for some time. On a Tree close to it we found the skeleton of a child which was carefully wrapped up in some of the Cloth of the Country made from the Bark of a Tree & some Matts.”
This village site was still remembered by S’Klallam informants interviewed by the anthropologist Erna Gunther in the late 1920s. Tree burial was typical of Coast Salish tribes, including the S’Klallam. The village was probably not “deserted.” Thirty years after Menzies, another Scottish surgeon-naturalist, Dr. John Scouler, was told by some of the Indians at Discovery Bay that ”between the months of October and April they abandoned their summer residence near the shore and retreat into the interior of the country.” In fact, during the two-week period while the ships were anchored at Discovery Bay, native people came daily with fresh fish and venison, which they traded for trinkets. They wore ear ornaments, and were dressed in tanned skins, or a unique cloth woven partly from the wool of specially bred dogs
On May 6, Menzies recorded the discovery by members of the crew of a number of human bones deposited in a thicket covered with planks and moss, while others were found suspended in an old canoe, also covered with bark and moss; but what much surprised them in one place of the forest they came to was a cleared area where there had been a large fire around which they found a number of incinerated bones and a half dozen human skulls scattered about.
Later, on May 12, while exploring the upper reaches of Hood Canal, Menzies noted the marks of smallpox on the faces of native people. Disease acquired through contact with sailors from vessels engaged in the maritime fur trade had spread inland by this time. It seems likely these bones bore witness to the ravages of smallpox.
From May 7 to 15, Vancouver, Menzies, and some of the other officers and crew ” …in three Boats manned & armed & provided with five days provision…” explored Admiralty Inlet and its bays, proceeding south into Hood Canal.
On May 8, 1792, Vancouver named the bay at this northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula for the Marquis of Townshend. The city of Port Townsend, founded in the 1850s at the mouth of the bay, adopts that name (without the “h”).
Reaching the point of land known today as Point Wilson, they went ashore, and Menzies walked along a beach curving to the southeastward, reaching another point “low & flat with some Marshy ground behind it & a pond of water surrounded with willows & tall bulrushes” (present day Point Hudson).
That evening, he ascended the bank directly behind the salt marsh and described the vegetation of the northern Quimper Peninsula as “an extensive lawn, where solitude rich pasture & rural prospects prevailed,” bounded by conifer forest to the south and west.
On May 9, while camped in the vicinity of Oak Bay, Menzies first described and collected the type-specimen for the native Garry oak. Like the prickly pear cactus that would surprise him on his last visit to Protection Island, the Garry oak is typical of the rain shadow vegetation Menzies encountered in the northeastern Olympic Peninsula. Here he also first described the Pacific madrone, with its unique smooth reddish brown bark, whose species name, Arbutus menziesii, commemorates Menzies.
Exploring the east side of the Coyle Peninsula, the expedition proceeded deep into Hood Canal, arriving back at Port Discovery the afternoon of May 15 “wet hungry & uncomfortable.” On May 18, the expedition weighed anchor and departed Discovery Bay.
Upon retiring from the Navy, Menzies followed his profession of doctor and surgeon. To the end of his days he tended his extensive private herbarium, and was especially fond of mosses, ferns and lichens. He died in London in 1842 at the age of 88.
Today numerous plant names, both common and scientific, honor his name.
Photo by Jerry Gorsline of Arbutus menziesii, the Pacific madrone native to the western coastal areas of North America, from British Columbia to California.
Quotations are taken from Vancouer’s and Menzies journals