The David Bates Douglass Papers contain 554 letters, documents, and manuscripts relating to every aspect of Douglass' professional life between approximately 1814 and 1840, with some scattered personal correspondence and one volume of lectures entitled Reminiscences of the Campaign of 1814. The collection consists mainly of incoming letters from scientific and military associates of Douglass, but also includes drafts and retained copies of some responses. While substantial, the correspondence is nevertheless incomplete, lacking anything relating to Douglass' youth, to his family, his life after leaving New York City in 1841 or his personal life, with the exception of a small number of letters from the late 1830s and early 1840s. Douglass' interests in internal improvements, in natural history, in developing and fostering a system of academic scientific exchange, and in the Military Academy at West Point are very well documented and make the collection a resource of significant historical importance.
For most readers, the primary interest in the Douglass Papers lies in its relation to the development of the natural and applied sciences in America. Douglass and his associates were instrumental in the foundation and growth of several lyceums, and thus played a role in public scientific education, and they were particularly avid in promoting the field of mineralogy. Approximately 28 items in the collection stem from Douglass' participation in the Lewis Cass Expedition of 1820, with others bearing an indirect relation. Several letters from Cass written in 1820-21 include observations on Native Americans and on the natural history of the region, and there are valuable letters from Torrey, Barnes, Schoolcraft, Silliman, and others relating to the planning of the expedition, to the research carried out by its participants, and to the publication of results. Douglass' position as coordinator of publication for the results provides a unique perspective on the dissemination of scientific information in the early Republic, and along with the correspondence relating to lyceums and the exchange of specimens, helps to define the beginnings of a wide-spread network of scientific communication in the U.S. The collection offers less complete coverage of Douglass' other survey work, but includes a partial set of notes kept by him during his survey of the U.S.-Canadian boundary in Lake Erie (1819) and several letters pertaining to his survey and assessment of New England coastal defenses (1815-1817).
Coverage of Douglass' engineering work on canal systems in the 1820s and 1830s is selective, with only about 15 letters, but includes some interesting speculation on the possibility of linking the Ohio River with the Chesapeake, and three fine letters from the engineer, Alexander Catlin Twining, on construction of the Pennsylvania Canal (1828) and employment difficulties for canal engineers (1832). Perhaps the most interesting scientific letters, however, are two from Mrs. Mary Griffith (1772-1846), of New Brunswick, N.J., a woman who published extensively in both science and literature. Mrs. Griffith wrote to Douglass, apparently a family acquaintance, to ask his opinions on her theory on the origin of artesian waters, an important issue for hydrologists and geologists of the time. Douglass' reply, contained in a retained draft, was a respectful, but curt dismissal, in which he implied that her ideas were not sufficiently up to date nor properly expressed scientifically. Not dissuaded, three years later Griffith published a modified version of her theory anonymously as An essay on the art of boring the earth for a spontaneous flow of water... (Rutgers: New Brunswick, N.J., 1826). Her essay is the first separate publication of geological research carried out by an American woman.
Douglass was an officer in the Corps of Engineers for almost twenty years, yet despite this, there is only selective documentation of his military career. The most thorough coverage, over 75 items, relates to his duties at West Point, including interesting, but far from comprehensive coverage of his relations with the student body and other faculty members. These letters do offer some insight into the intellectual life at West Point between Douglass' arrival in 1813 and his resignation in 1831, particularly with respect to the development of scientific education. A very few items relate directly to the War of 1812. The collection includes a brief journal kept by Douglass while on a march from Albany to Buffalo, as well as a few receipts and minor documents. A small number of post-war letters, most notably one from Edmund P. Gaines, make reference to Douglass' heroics. On the other hand, Douglass' lengthy account of his participation the Niagara Campaign of 1814 is of considerable importance. This account was apparently composed in preparation for a series of lectures that Douglass was asked to deliver on the war, and is in the hand of one of his sons, apparently acting as secretary. Although the narrative can be repetitious and wandering, it is a balanced and informed account of the campaign, covering the several weeks from the Battle of Chippewa in July, 1814, through the retreat of the British following the attack on Fort Erie in August. The volume holds three maps including a map of the Niagara River from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario (opposite page 1), a plan of Old Fort Erie (page 54), and a rough sketch of General Brown's encampment on the Battle of Sunday's Lane or Bridgewater (page 63).
The remainder of the collection includes a small series of important letters with descriptions of military life in the northwestern territories. Of particular note are the four letters written by Lt. John Bliss from Fort Howard in 1822-1825, describing his difficult journey to Wisconsin and the rough edged life at the Fort. Bliss writes fluidly, displaying a fine sense of humor, and his close friendship with Douglass leads him to be very candid in his observations. While ambitious and a career military man, Bliss was not averse to criticizing military policy. Typical of his attitude and style is a letter sent from St. Louis in 1833, while bringing his wife and children to Fort Snelling. Bliss wrote that he anticipated getting involved in the war between the Sioux and Chippewa, but added that "until we have taken a part in the affairs, & used up some scores of our worthless fellow citizens in behalf of humanity we shall not be able to save the lives of half as many of those 'noble sons of the forest.' These things, however, are mere trifles compared to the noble purpose of humanizing these destroyers of buffaloe & muskrat & I hope my friends will not find me backward in this great work."
Lastly, the collection is highly selective in its representation of Douglass' professional work in New York City, 1821-1840. Several letters contain discussions of his financial difficulties, and a small, but interesting series relate to a dispute over the sale of a pew at Saint Ann's Church, 1840. A small number of items have an interest for postal historians, including an 1819 cancellation from the steamboat Walk-in-the-Water and others from Wisconsin Territory in the 1820s.