Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Houghton, Douglass

Douglass Houghton was an American geologist and physician. His efforts on behalf of the State of Michigan contributed greatly to the discovery and subsequent commercial exploitation of copper in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, as well as an enhanced knowledge of the state’s flora, fauna, and geology. While he is primarily remembered for his role as the state's first leading geologist, Houghton was also active in politics and was highly regarded for his erudition and academic knowledge. 

Douglass Houghton was born on September 21, 1809 in Troy, New York. He enrolled in the Rensselaer Scientific School, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1829. Amos Eaton, principal of the school and a former teacher of Houghton, offered a position as an assistant professor for chemistry and natural history to Houghton in 1830, which he accepted. At the same time as pursuing this degree he also learned medicine from a doctor who was a friend of his family and became licensed in 1831.

A year after his graduation in 1830, Houghton was recommended by Eaton to travel to Detroit in response to a personal call from the territorial governor of Michigan, Lewis Cass, who was seeking a lecturer of the sciences to come lecture in Detroit. Upon arrival in Detroit, Houghton quickly established himself as an extremely popular lecturer, and in 1833 he founded the Detroit Young Men's Society. When a virulent epidemic of cholera struck the city in 1834, being a licensed physician, Houghton helped to combat the outbreak providing aid to the poor of the city.

In 1831 Houghton was appointed the physician and botanist for a federal expedition to discover the source of the Mississippi river led by Henry Schoolcraft. During his time, he developed a close friendship with Schoolcraft along with studying and treating smallpox among the Chippewa. In 1837, Houghton was appointed Michigan's first State Geologist and placed in charge of organizing the State Geological Survey. He enthusiastically set about his work and personally conducted many surveys of the state, which resulted in the formation of present day county boundaries and contributed much to the state’s settlement and economic development.  His most lasting contribution would be the numerous pages of reports he turned in on the copper deposits found in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Despite warning that more study was needed before determining how much of the high value copper there was, his reports kicked off a huge mining rush that contributed to the growth of the copper industry in the Upper Peninsula.

In 1842, Houghton was elected as Mayor of Detroit, a position he was at first reluctant to accept as he was unaware that he had been nominated. Upon the advice of his friends he accepted the position, a post he held for two consecutive terms. In 1844, after experiencing a lack of state funding for his mineral explorations of the Upper Peninsula, Houghton travelled to Washington, D.C. and successfully lobbied congress for federal funding for his geological work. It was this federal subsidy which enabled a more complete understanding of the vastness of mineral wealth which lay beneath the Keweenaw Peninsula. 

On the night of October 12, 1845, while completing a survey against warnings from his colleagues, Houghton and two of his colleagues drowned when their small boat capsized in Lake Superior during a sudden storm. Houghton's remains were discovered the next spring and brought to Detroit to be interred in Elmwood Cemetery. Houghton County and the city of Houghton, Michigan are named after Douglass Houghton, as well as Houghton Lake, Michigan's largest inland lake.



Pamphlet highlighting the life of Douglass Houghton, 1970 - 2013.048.033

Pamphlet highlighting the life of Douglass Houghton, 1947 - 2013.048.034

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