The fascinating history and untimely death of Douglass Houghton

Douglass Houghton“Wading the streams by day, tortured by swarms of mosquitoes at night – often short of provisions, and often drenched by rain – were it not that courage is uplifted by the love of science, both for its own sake and the good it is to accomplish, the task of the pioneer explorer would be hard indeed.”

 – Douglass Houghton

While most Michiganders all know the name of Houghton Lake, few know about the fascinating history and untimely death of Douglass Houghton.

Although he resided in Detroit while he lived in Michigan, Houghton is often remembered in connection with the Keweenaw Peninsula. He explored the area in 1831 and 1832 and conducted a survey of the peninsula in 1840 as State Geologist of the newly formed state of Michigan. His discoveries of iron and copper ore, limestone and coal were highly beneficial in the state’s initial solvency.

Douglass Houghton was a person of smaller stature, with a nervous, active temperament. In spite of a slight speech impediment and facial scarring from a youthful experiment with gunpowder, he came across at ease with all levels of society. His interests inclined toward the practical and scientific. He was born in Troy, NY; the son of a lawyer. Houghton was a fine student. He studied at the Rensselaer School at Troy, New York in 1829 where he received both a bachelor’s degree and a teaching appointment in chemistry and natural history. He also studied medicine with a doctor who was a friend of his family and was licensed to practice in 1831. Houghton first came to Michigan to lecture on science in 1830. He was then selected by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft to act as physician/naturalist on expeditions through Lake Superior region from 1831 to 1832. Houghton did extensive botanical collecting, investigated the Lake Superior copper deposits of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and provided medical assistance to the Native American tribes which they encountered.

Houghton first came to Michigan to lecture on science in 1830. He was then selected by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft to act as physician/naturalist on expeditions through Lake Superior region from 1831 to 1832. Houghton did extensive botanical collecting, investigated the Lake Superior copper deposits of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and provided medical assistance to the Native American tribes which they encountered.

In 1833, he married his childhood friend Harriet Stevens, with whom he would have two daughters. They chose to settle in Detroit, where he established a medical practice in Detroit. His popularity earned him the affectionate nickname, “the little doctor, our Dr. Houghton.”  By 1836, Houghton had largely set aside his medical practice to concentrate on real estate speculation. His scientific interests remained strong.

He was a founding member and treasurer of the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists (the predecessor of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and served on several of its committees. A lifelong Episcopalian and staunch Democrat, Houghton was elected for a term as mayor of Detroit in 1842, apparently against his wishes.  His competent administration raised the possibility of higher political office, including talk of him for governor.

When Michigan achieved statehood in 1837, he was convinced to combine both public service and his love of the natural world. One of the first acts of the new Michigan state government was to organize a state geological survey. Houghton’s appointment as the state’s first official geologist was unanimously hailed. He would occupy that position for the remainder of his life. In 1839, he was also named the first professor of geology, mineralogy, and chemistry for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The newly formed state of Michigan had its share of  financial difficulties and many projects were subject to budget cuts.  Houghton’s personal influence with state legislators kept his geological surveys moving in the face of these financial difficulties. His fourth annual report, based on fieldwork done in 1840, appeared February 1, 1841. It helped generate the first great mining boom of American history and earned him the title of father of copper mining in the United States.

Houghton, Douglas TMA  037Houghton’s report of 1841 was eighty-eight pages in length and he spent more than twenty-seven pages detailing the copper ore he observed in his travels. He surmised, “the copper ores are not only of superior quality, but also that their associations are such as to render them easily reduced.” He also noted that samples of ore he had tested were richer than the copper ore being then mined in Cornwall. He also warned those who would rush into the region in vast hopes of striking it rich: “look closely before the step is taken, which will most certainly end in disappointment and ruin.

In 1845, while working on a survey, he and two companions were in a boat on Lake Superior near Eagle River, Michigan. A storm came up which capsized their small boat capsized in a storm. His remains were discovered on the shoreline during the next spring 1846 and returned to Detroit, where they were buried in Elmwood Cemetery. Neither of the geological surveys on which he was working at the time was ever completed.

With his untimely death at age 36, Douglass Houghton was unable to complete a comprehensive final report of his findings. He did create an undeniable impact on Michigan. The city of Houghton, Houghton County, Houghton Lake, and Douglass Houghton Falls are among many Michigan features named in his honor.  A plaque commemorating the spot where he drowned is embedded into a stone monument was erected in the town of Eagle River.

Houghton also left his mark on education in the state. The Douglass Houghton Hall residence hall at Michigan Technological University is a. A plaque commemorating Houghton is at the entrance to the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences building at the University of Michigan.  In 2006, the University created the Douglass Houghton Scholars Program, designed to encourage students interested in careers in science. He was also honored with a plant named after him: Houghton’s Goldenrod, a variety he discovered in 1839 along the southern shore of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.


The State of Michigan has published an interesting eBook on the life and times of the man: DOUGLASS HOUGHTON MICHIGAN’S FIRST STATE GEOLOGIST 1837 – 1845 by Helen Wallin, Illustrated by James Campbell. You may download a copy of it for free at http://1.usa.gov/1NfEjTT

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