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Early Career

Douglass Houghton was born in Troy, New York, in 1809.  As a boy, he was a good student and liked to study science and geology.  After going to college, he moved to Detroit. Soon, he became a well-known speaker, teacher, and doctor.  In 1831, American geographer, Henry Schoolcraft, chose Houghton to join him on an expedition to find the source of the Mississippi River. Douglass Houghton was only 22 years old.

When Michigan became a state in 1837, Douglass Houghton became the first state geologist. As part of his job, he had to survey the land, take notes, draw maps, and write reports.  He wrote about the Saginaw Valley salt beds in the Lower Peninsula, as well as the copper deposits in the Upper Peninsula.

Copper Boom

In 1841, Houghton reported his findings to the state legislature.  Soon, news of copper in the Upper Peninsula spread across the country.  As a result, miners, explorers, and scientists all thought they could strike it rich. By 1843, the “Copper Rush” began.  Surprisingly, Michigan’s copper-not California gold- was the first great mining boom in American history.

Houghton continued to work as a surveyor, but he was also Detroit’s mayor, and as professor of geology, mineralogy, and chemistry at the University of Michigan.  Sadly, in October 1845, his boat sank on Lake Superior.  He, along with two companions, drowned near Eagle River.  The nation mourned this loss, and as a part of his legacy there is a city, county, waterfall, and inland lake named after him.


Douglass Houghton

Douglass Houghton with a sample of copper in Eagle Harbor, Michigan.

man kneeling on beach beside a dog

Archives of Michigan, RG 2018-51

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