Douglass Houghton

2017 ILSG Pioneer

Douglass Houghton: A Professional Scientist

Douglass Houghton, born in 1809, became a pioneer when his parents moved, around 1810, with their children some 400 miles into the wilderness to Fredonia, New York (Wallin, 2004). At age 20, in late 1829, Douglass was among the earliest graduates from Rensselaer Scientific School (now Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) with a B.A. degree in the areas of natural history (including geology) and chemistry. As a result of his exceptional performance in early 1830 he became an assistant professor at Rensselaer. Rensselaer is the oldest technological university in North America, established 1824 in Troy, New York. Modern geology began with the publications of James Hutton in 1785, hence modern geological studies were still “young” by 1824 when Rensselaer was founded and Houghton graduated. Rensselaer was the preeminent educational institution for geology from its founding until the latter part of the 1800’s and as such many prominent American geologists were graduates of Rensselaer (Krause, 1992). Thus, by being a graduate of Rensselaer, Houghton had recognized credentials as a professional scientist.  

The Territory of Michigan was organized in 1805 and in 1830, the Territorial Governor of Michigan, General Cass, asked Douglass Houghton to lecture in Detroit on geology, chemistry, and botany. His lectures were such a success that he quickly became a scientific pioneer and an important citizen of Detroit and the Michigan Territory. By 1830, Douglass Houghton was recognized as Michigan’s leading geological expert and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft asked him to be part of his federally approved 1831 expedition to the Lake Superior area. While Schoolcraft was uncertain as to the source of the copper boulders, Houghton’s report connected the copper boulder to the trap-rock bedrock (Krause, 1992). In 1831, Houghton returned to Fredonia and became a licensed physician leading to accounts of him as Dr. Douglass Houghton although he did not have a formal degree in medicine.

Michigan was admitted to Statehood at in January of 1837 after it yielded to Ohio a strip of land, including Toledo, for the Upper Peninsula with the copper district described by Douglass Houghton in 1831-1832. The new state legislature quickly created the state geological survey in February of 1837 and Douglass Houghton was appointed the first State Geologist of Michigan (Wallin, 2004). In 1838 the American Journal of Science published a review commending the new State of Michigan for initiating a geological survey of the state by Douglass Houghton, a recognized professional (Krause, 1992). Houghton’s geological surveys of 1837 to 1839 were focused on Lower Michigan and his 1840 geological survey focused on the Upper Peninsula (Wallin, 2004).  His copper report published in 1841 was his greatest contribution to Michigan geology (Krause, 1992) and triggered the beginning of migration to the Keweenaw Peninsula in search of copper. Houghton’s national and Michigan recognition gave credibility and instant recognition to his report. While Schoolcraft previously reported on the existence of copper in the Keweenaw Peninsula a decade earlier, Schoolcraft did not have the professional credentials or recognition of Houghton.

From 1842 to 1844 Houghton’s geological surveys waned although the rush to the Keweenaw Peninsula was increasing (Krause, 1992). Houghton was elected mayor of Detroit in 1842 despite being absent and his success at being mayor led people to consider him as having potential for higher political office (U.S. senate) (Krause, 1992). In 1844 Houghton presented a convincing paper in Washington and as a result was contracted by the federal government to continue his geological survey of the Upper Peninsula. In 1844 he was also lauded by Michigan newspapers for his personal geological investigations having more impact that any single person in any state (Krause, 1992).  By the summer of 1845 the first mining rush in North America to the Keweenaw Peninsula was well underway. Houghton’s federal geological survey began in May of 1845. However, in October of 1845, only one month after he turned 36, Douglass Houghton drowned in a boating accident in Lake Superior not far from Eagle River, Michigan.

Houghton struggled to understand the significance of predominance of native copper in glacial boulders and in surface outcrops of the Keweenaw Peninsula. He believed, consistent with scientific thought of the day that at depth there should be copper sulfides (Krause, 1992). Unfortunately, Houghton died just before native copper began being produced in significant quantities from the Cliff Mine near Eagle River (Wallin, 2004). 

Since his death Houghton has been the subject of multiple memorials (see Wallin, 2004; Krause, 1992).  In the Keweenaw Peninsula there are several geographic features are named after him such as the City of Houghton, Houghton County, Mount Houghton and Douglass Houghton Falls. In the lower peninsula of Michigan, Houghton Lake (the largest inland lake in Michigan) is named after him. There are monuments that mention Houghton and in Eagle River, Michigan a stone monument stands as a tribute to Douglass Houghton. In Eagle River, near the historic bridge across Eagle River and adjacent to the former Eagle River School an official State of Michigan historic marker was dedicated September 2016.

Douglass Houghton was a nationally-recognized modern professional geologist. He was among early modern geologists of North America. He was the first official geologist of the newly formed State of Michigan. His geological investigations and copper report in 1841, 176 years ago, led to the first mining rush in North America to the Keweenaw Peninsula on the south shore of Lake Superior.

Douglass Houghton is a Pioneer of Lake Superior Geology.


Krause, David, 1992, The making of a mining district: Keweenaw native copper 1500-1870:  Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI, 305 p.
Wallin, H., 2004, Douglass Houghton, Michigan’s First State Geologist 1837-1845: Geological and Land Management Division, Pamphlet 1, 20p.  

Theodore J. Bornhorst
A. E. Seaman Mineral Museum, Michigan Technological University
Lawrence J. Molloy
President, Keweenaw County Historical Society
This tribute to Douglass Houghton was modified with permission from "A tribute to Douglass Houghton: "Michigan's Pioneer Geologist" by Bornhorst and Molloy published in 2017 by the Michigan Basin Geological Society. We have principally relied Wallin (2004) and Krause (1992) to summarize Houghton's contributions.