Douglass Houghton

Douglass Houghton: Michigan's First Pioneer Renaissance Man

Douglass Houghton (Portrait courtesy of the University of Michigan)

A look back through history at how Houghton’s esteemed gem and mineral collection came home to the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum.

Douglass Houghton
Douglass Houghton (Portrait courtesy of the University of Michigan)

Douglass Houghton's legacy is far from small. There's the residence hall. And the town. And the waterfall. And a whole lot more. Houghton's name can be seen in a lot of places, both in the Keweenaw and other parts of Michigan. But the New York-born physician has left more of a legacy at Michigan Tech than just signs and plaques—the Copper Country icon's personal mineral collection recently moved to the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum, bringing the work of Michigan's first State Geologist full circle.

Houghton's mineral collection was a side note of his serious work studying the geology and geography of Michigan. His annual reports detailed the stark differences between Michigan's peninsulas, as well as the changes seen in the Western UP. In addition to his expertise, botany and zoology specialists joined these expeditions to begin cataloging the bounty of the state.

"I hope to see the day when instead of importing the whole of the immense amount of copper and brass used in our country we may become exporters of both." —December 26, 1840 (All quotes are from Douglass Houghton's personal letters as collected in Memoir of Dr. Douglass Houghton by Alvah Bradish, 1889.)

1849 land survey map of the Upper Peninsula
1849 land survey map of the Upper Peninsula

"The topography and general features of the upper and lower peninsulas differ so widely from each other, that, with the simple exception of a part of the easterly extremity of the upper peninsula, they scarcely admit of a comparison." —Fourth Annual Report of the State Geologist, February 1, 1841

During these trips, his business and real estate interests still spoke for him, representing a man considered to be honest, transparent, and thorough in his work. That's not to say that he was thrilled with the voters of Detroit when he heard the election results.

Douglass Houghton Falls
Douglass Houghton Falls: Houghton's name is easy to find in the Keweenaw (Photo courtesy of Gowtham)

"During my absence from the city, and without any knowledge whatever, on my part, I have been elected mayor. Upon first hearing the result, I had determined to refuse to serve. But my friends advised differently, and I have consented to qualify..." —March 13, 1841

Douglass Houghton was the second faculty member at the University of Michigan, and he began construction on a large home there for when he took up his position. He held back, however, from committing himself to his professorship.

"It is now somewhat doubtful whether I will remove to Ann Arbor in the spring. My house there is finished, and is quite a splendid mansion; but I am not desired to be upon the ground until the institution is fairly organized, and at least a sufficient number of the faculty to make a society of our own." —January 17, 1841

Malachite, from Sing Sing (Ossining), New York.
Cerussite on galena from Galena, Illinois.

"This collection of specimens, which is exceedingly choice, has now been a long time in boxes, and our people are desirous to have a portion at least so arranged as to permit examination."

"Although I do not propose to remove to Ann Arbor for the present, I shall spend some little time there before the winter sets in, in arranging a portion of the collections. This collection of specimens, which is exceedingly choice, has now been a long time in boxes, and our people are desirous to have a portion at least so arranged as to permit examination." —November 14, 1841

That collection was indeed eventually curated, becoming part of the mineral collection of the University of Michigan—the very same collection that moved to the Seaman Mineral Museum this year.

Copper Crystal
Copper Crystal: One of the choice examples from Houghton's collection now on display at the Seaman Mineral Museum.
Copper specimen
Copper from Ontonagon River, Michigan.

But the life of Michigan's most renowned renaissance man was not to last much longer. In 1843, overriding the objections of his crew, he commanded two canoes out of Eagle Harbor heading west in a building October storm. They navigated a stretch of scenery familiar to anyone who has lived in the Keweenaw. It would be the last time Houghton set foot on solid ground. His body was found the following spring on the beach near what is now Eagle River, his life and work cut tragically short, but with an enduring legacy that will never be forgotten.

Houghton Memorial Plaque
Houghton Memorial Plaque
"Wading the streams by day, tortured by swarms of mosquitos 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

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.