ALTHOUGH IT IS likely that scientists accompanied the earlier Spanish explorers on their voyages to our area, the first documented studies of the flora, fauna, minerals and native life along the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound were performed by Archibald Menzies, who was appointed by the British government to be the naturalist on Capt. George Vancouver’s ships during their exploration of this area.
Menzies (pronounced “Mingis”) was born March 15, 1754, in Perthshire, Scotland, into a family of gardeners and botanists.
He was educated first in the parish school in Weems and worked as a gardener for Sir Robert Menzies, the Menzies clan chief.
His four brothers also were gardeners.
Archibald went on to study botany at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Garden and trained as a surgeon at the University of Edinburgh.
He served as an assistant to a surgeon in Caernarvon, Wales, for a brief period.
In 1782, he joined the Royal Navy as an assistant surgeon.
In 1782, he served onboard the HMS Nonesuch at the Battle of the Saints in the West Indies.
In 1784, he was posted to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he also pursued his interest in botany.
Menzies collected botanical specimens and sent seeds for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London.
He came to the notice of Sir Joseph Banks, who was an influential patron of science.
When Menzies returned to London, in 1786, he studied in Banks’ extensive library and herbarium.
On the recommendation of Banks, he was appointed surgeon to a fur trading expedition, onboard the HMS Prince of Wales, that took him around Cape Horn to northwestern North America, China and Hawaii.
During that three-year journey, in addition to keeping the ship’s crew in good health, he collected a number of new plants.
In 1790, Menzies became a fellow of the Linnean Society of London, now the world’s oldest active biological society, founded in 1788 by Sir James Edward Smith.
Appointed to voyage
That same year, again with the recommendation of Banks, he was appointed naturalist to Vancouver’s voyage to survey the northwest coast of North America.
Banks provided an extensive list of instructions for the journey.
Menzies was to investigate the entire natural history of the countries visited, enumerate all trees, shrubs, plants, grasses, ferns and mosses by scientific name, as well as make note of the names by which they were known to local residents.
He was also asked to determine whether plants cultivated in Europe were likely to survive in the area visited, due to the possibility that settlers might be sent out from England.
Menzies was asked to dry specimens, collect seeds, and to dig up and plant any “curious or valuable” plants that could not be propagated from seeds in a glass frame garden box onboard the Discovery.
He was also instructed to keep a regular journal “of all occurrences” and to collect specimens of animals, vegetables and minerals.
He was also supposed to collect samples of “clothes, arms, implements and manufactures of the native peoples.”
The British government considered Menzies’s work to be one of the most important objectives of the expedition.
The journals Menzies kept on the expedition show that he was capable of the tasks assigned to him.
“Rainshadow,” a publication sponsored by the Jefferson County Historical Society to accompany the 1992 Vancouver Bicentennial exhibit of Menzies’ drawings and pressed plant specimens loaned by the British Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanical Gardens, contains the entries from his journal during the days spent exploring Discovery Bay, Port Townsend Bay and Hood Canal.
The emphasis of the publication is on the plants he found in this area.
In his introduction to the book, editor Jerry Gorsline wrote, “The Olympic Peninsula is now recognized as a world-class botanical treasure. … There are more rare plants listed by the Washington Natural Heritage program … for the Peninsula … than any other area in Washington state.”
Examples of Menzies’ observations include:
• May 1, 1792, On landing on Protection Island: “… the shore was skirted with long grass & a variety of wild flowers in full bloom, but what chiefly dazzled our eyes … was a small species of wild Valerian with reddish colord [sic] flowers growing behind the beach in large thick patches.” [Plectritus congesta, or Rosy plectritus]
• May 2, 1792, Menzies wrote of the “Oriental Strawberry Tree” as “a peculiar ornament to the Forest by its large clusters of whitish flowers & ever green leaves, but its peculiar smooth bark of a reddish brown colour will at all times attract the Notice of the most superficial observer.” [Pacific Madrona, later given the scientific name Arbutus menziesii, to honor Menzies]
• May 11, 1792, near Dabob Bay: “At a place we landed on near the bottom of the Bay I saw vast abundance of a beautiful new species of Vacciniuim with ever green leaves in full bloom & was of a dark green colour like Myrtles which it much resembled. I therefore employd [sic] this afternoon in making a delineation of it as we went along in the boat.” [Vaccinium ovatum, or Evergreen huckleberry].
“Rainshadow,” which is still available at the Jefferson County Historical Society shop, also contains line drawings of regional plants and a listing of local native plants which were, or could have been, encountered by Menzies in the northeast lowlands of the Peninsula, based on C.F. Newcombe’s appendix to the text of Menzies’ journal in its Archives of British Columbia edition.
A sample of Menzies’ descriptions of inhabitants of the area near Port Ludlow on May 10, 1792: “After crossing Oak Cove we kept the Starboard Shore on board & about nine fell in with a few Canoes of Indians seemingly a fishing party as they had no women with them or any thing to traffic. We landed soon after on the inside of the point of a Cove which was named Indian Cove to Breakfast & about eighteen of the Natives landed close to us upon the Beach, where they very quietly laid down their Bows an& Quivers upon the stump of a tree & sat themselves down very peaceably. They were but indifferently cloathed with the Skins of Animals chiefly/ Deer Lynx Martin & Bear Skins. One of them had a very large skin of the brown Tyger Felis concolor which was some proof of that Animal being found thus far to the Northward on this side to the Continent … .”
As the Vancouver expedition moved on to Canada, Menzies also took on the role of surgeon when the doctor onboard became too ill to continue the voyage and was sent home to England.
Vancouver later praised Menzies for his medical services, stating that not one man died while under his care.
The author of a biographical sketch of Menzies for a Bed and Breakfast lodging in Victoria, B.C., states that contemporaries of Menzies found him to be: “Genial of disposition and painstakingly thorough in his work, … held in high regard throughout his long life.”
When the ships spent the winter of 1794 in the Sandwich [Hawaiian] Islands, Menzies and three of the other men made the first recorded ascent to Moku’aweoweo, the summit of Mauna Loa, where he used a portable barometer to calculate its height at 4,134 meters. Current measurements list it as 4,169 meters.
In 1834, when Scottish botanist David Douglas visited the islands, he found Hawaiians who remembered Menzies as “the red-faced man who cut off the limbs of men and gathered grass.”
Menzies and Vancouver seem to have usually been on good terms, though a serious conflict between them occurred in 1795, when Menzies criticized Vancouver for assigning the man in charge of the plants in the glass frame garden to another task, resulting in the plants not being covered during a rain storm.
Many of the plants were destroyed.
They had been collected and preserved with difficulty and were, by then, irreplaceable.
The quarrel escalated and Vancouver demanded that Menzies hand over his journals, charts and drawings.
Though, as head of the expedition, Vancouver had a right to do so, Menzies refused to hand over anything, except the “sick book” and he was placed under arrest for insolence and contempt.
Orders for a court-martial were issued.
At the beginning of October, when the Discovery returned to London, Menzies apologized and Vancouver withdrew his demand for a court-martial.
Ten days later Menzies was discharged from the ship.
Menzies continued to serve in the Royal Navy, mostly in the West Indies, until 1802, when asthma forced him to resign.
He then practiced medicine in London, and continued his work as a naturalist, with a special interest in mosses and ferns.
He married late in his life.
He and his wife, Janet, had no children.
He retired in 1826, and died in 1842 at the age of 88.
Between 1783 and 1795, Menzies gathered at least 400 species new to science, many of them from the northwest coast of North America.
Through his collections in an area so little known, botanically, at that time, he added a great deal to scientific knowledge.
He was also a skilled botanical artist and several of his “accurate and sensitive” drawings were published.
Western species of delphinium and spiraea and the Douglas fir bear scientific names that include the term menziesii.
Menzies Bay and Mount Menzies in British Columbia are named for him.
His private herbarium is in the Royal Botanical Garden, in Edinburgh and numerous specimens he collected are in the herbaria of the British Museum of Natural History and the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London.
Author’s note: Through an inexplicable author error, in the May 20 Back When column, Archibald Menzies’ first name was written as Peter.
Linnea Patrick is a historian and retired Port Townsend Public Library director.
Her Jefferson County history column, Back When, appears on the third Sunday of each month, alternating with Alice Alexander’s Clallam County history column on the first Sunday of the month.
Patrick can be reached at [email protected]. Her next column will appear Sept. 16.