Early life and education
Houghton was born in Troy, New York, the son of Jacob Houghton, a lawyer and later a county judge, and Mary Lydia Douglass. Raised in a close-knit, cultured home in Fredonia, New York, Douglass was a small person with a nervous, active temperament inclined toward the practical and scientific. He exhibited early his lifelong interest in the natural world, and in spite of a slight speech impediment and facial scarring from a youthful experiment with gunpowder he was at ease with all levels of society.
In 1829 Houghton entered the Rensselaer School at Troy, New York where, under the direction of Amos Eaton scientific training was emphasized, particularly in geology. That same year he received both the bachelor's degree and a teaching appointment in chemistry and natural history there. He also studied medicine with a doctor friend of his family and was licensed to practice in 1831.
His association with the Michigan Territory began the previous year, when the city fathers of Detroit took their search for a public lecturer on science to Eaton, who strongly recommended the youthful Houghton. He was enthusiastically received in Detroit and rapidly became one of its best-known citizens, with the young men of his acquaintance soon styling themselves “the Houghton boys.”
Houghton quickly was selected by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft to act as physician-naturalist on expeditions through Lake Superior and the upper Mississippi valley in 1831 and 1832. On these trips Houghton did extensive botanical collecting, investigated the Lake Superior copper deposits of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and provided medical services to the Indian tribes they encountered.
In 1833 he married his childhood friend Harriet Stevens, with whom he had two daughters. The establishment of a flourishing medical practice in Detroit earned him the affectionate designation, "the little doctor, our Dr. Houghton," but by 1836 he had largely set aside the medical profession to concentrate on real estate speculation. His scientific interests remained strong, however, and as Michigan achieved statehood in 1837 he returned again to public life 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, following a pattern already established in other states. Houghton's appointment as the first state geologist was unanimously hailed, and he occupied that position for the remainder of his life.
In 1839 he was also named the first professor of geology, mineralogy, and chemistry at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but he continued to reside in Detroit. He and his survey assistants spent many weeks in the field each season, mapping and evaluating Michigan's natural resources, and his personal influence with state legislators kept the project moving in the face of many financial difficulties. His fourth annual report, based on field work done in 1840, appeared February 1, 1841. It helped trigger the first great mining boom of American history, and earned him the title of "father of copper mining in the United States."
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, he was elected to a term as mayor of Detroit in 1842, apparently against his wishes, but his competent administration raised the possibility of higher political office, perhaps governor.
In 1845, with the state survey moribund because of the lack of funds, Houghton organized a combined linear and geological survey of the Lake Superior region that was funded by the federal government, but while working on that survey he and two companions drowned in Lake Superior near Eagle River, Michigan when their small boat capsized in a storm. His demise sent waves of shock through Michigan and the entire country, but his reluctance to yield to the expressed concerns of his voyageurs about the worsening weather conditions may have contributed to the disaster. His remains were discovered on the shoreline the next spring 1846 and returned to Detroit, where they were buried in Elmwood Cemetery. Neither of the surveys on which he was working at the time was ever completed.
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. Houghton's report of 1841 which resulted from his survey was eighty-eight pages in length and he spent more than twenty-seven pages discussing the copper and copper ore he witnessed in his travels. He famously concluded, "the copper ores are not only of superior quality, but also that their associations are such as to render them easily reduced." He noted that samples of ore he had tested were richer than the copper ore being then mined in Cornwall. He also famously warned against prospectors rushing to the area in hopes of striking it rich: "look closely before the step is taken, which will most certainly end in disappointment and ruin." Nevertheless, Houghton's report prompted a major rush of settlers to the peninsula.
Houghton's place in American history is somewhat problematic. Although he was the state geologist of Michigan for eight years, he never completed a comprehensive final report of his findings. One major reason for this may simply have been his unexpected death at the age of 36. His multiple abilities were ideally suited to the needs of the society of his day, but he was not always successful in reconciling the conflicting demands of the various roles he filled. As a scientist his potential seems to have been considerable, but his death prevented that potential from being fully realized.
The city of Houghton, Houghton County, Houghton Lake, the largest inland lake in the state, and Douglass Houghton Falls, southeast of Calumet are among many Michigan features named in his honor, as is Douglass Houghton Hall, a residence hall at Michigan Technological University. A plaque commemorating Houghton is at the entrance to the Department of Geological Sciences (now Earth and Environmental Sciences) at the University of Michigan. A plaque embedded into a stone monument was erected in the town of Eagle River, just a few miles where his boat went down. He and three other professors are also memorialized by a monument near the University of Michigan's Graduate Library that features a broken pillar symbolizing lives cut short. In 2006 the University created the Douglass Houghton Scholars Program, designed to encourage students interested in careers in science. There is also a plant named after him: Houghton's Goldenrod, a variety he discovered in 1839 along the southern shore of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
- Bradish, Alvah, Memoir of Douglass Houghton, 1889. Appendix, "The Fourth Annual Report," pp. 156-200.
- Lankton, Larry and Hyde, Charles: Old Reliable, an Illustrated History of the Quincy Mining Company, 1982
- Helen Wallin, Douglass Houghton, Michigan's First State Geologist 1837-1845, Michigan Geological and Land Management Division (2004).
- Biography written at Elmwood Cemetery where he is interred.
Laudatory biographies are:
- Alvah Bradish, Memoir of Douglass Houghton, First State Geologist of Michigan (1889).
- Edsel K. Rintala, Douglass Houghton, Michigan's Pioneer Geologist (1954).
A brief introduction to Houghton and the Lake Superior copper deposits can be found in:
- Ira B. Joralemon, Copper: The Encompassing Story of Mankind's First Metal (1973).
A revisionary analysis of Houghton's geological work is found in:
- David J. Krause, The Making of a Mining District: Keweenaw Native Copper 1500-1870 (1992).
- Significant Houghton papers are in the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and in the Clarke Historical Library of Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant. His annual geological reports are compiled in George N. Fuller, ed., Geological Reports of Douglass Houghton 1837-1845 (1928).
- Burt, Williams A., and Hubbard, Bela Reports on the Mineral Region of Lake Superior (Buffalo: L. Danforth, 1846), 113 pages.
- Michigan's Columbus : the life of Douglass Houghton / by Steve Lehto. Publisher : Momentum Books, Royal Oak, MI. c2009.
- Douglass Houghton memorial at Find a Grave.
- The Douglass Houghton Scholars Program at the University of Michigan