William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan
Finding aid for
Finding aid created by
Samuel Latham Mitchill Papers, 1802-1815
Manuscripts Division Staff, November 1995
Samuel Latham Mitchill papers
Mitchill, Samuel Latham, 1764-1831
31 items (0.25 linear feet)
One of the great polymaths of the early Republic, Samuel Latham Mitchill was a man with extraordinarily wide ranging interests, including medicine, law, science, and politics. The core of the collection consists of letters to his wife, Catherine, written from Washington in 1807. Mitchill served in the Senate during a particularly interesting period, and comments at length on Aaron Burr's trial for treason, the political parties, American relations with European nations, and western exploration coming in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase.
Language: The material is in English
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1982, 2000. M-2015, M-4102.1.
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Samuel Latham Mitchill papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan.
One of the great polymaths of the early Republic, Samuel Latham Mitchill was born in North Hempstead, Long Island, on August 20, 1764, to Quaker parents, Robert and Mary (Latham) Mitchill. After receiving basic medical training from an uncle, Dr. Samuel Latham, Mitchill attended the University of Edinburgh, from which he received his medical degree in 1786. A man with extraordinarily wide ranging interests, a "chaos of knowledge," Mitchill was seldom tied long to any single discipline, and after returning to New York and obtaining a license to practice medicine, he launched into the study of law. Very shortly, too, he entered into the public affairs of the young country. In 1788, he was appointed a commissioner to negotiate with the Six Nations for the purchase of lands in western New York state, and he served three terms in the New York state legislature beginning in 1791. Mitchill was again in the legislature in 1798, when he supported Fulton and Livingston's monopoly of steam navigation in New York waters. His last term in state office came in 1810.
Mitchill's scientific career began in earnest in 1792, when he was appointed to the chair of natural history at Columbia University, where he later also taught chemistry and botany, 1793-1795. His early analysis of the spring waters at Saratoga, N.Y., brought him widespread public attention. As an avid dabbler in many areas of science, from chemistry and mineralogy to biology and a host of applied sciences, Mitchill's scientific productivity was impressive, even by the prolific standards of the day, and while his theories often proved erroneous, equally often his research formed the foundation for later, more fruitful work. His research in chemistry, for example, led to better products in gunpowder, detergents, and disinfectants, and as an offshoot of his interest in agricultural development, he explored the mineralogy of the Hudson River valley.
Mitchill's contributions to the development of the natural sciences in the United States, however, lie mainly in the structural, rather than theoretical realm. In 1797, he, Edward Miller and Elihu H. Smith, founded the Medical Repository, a leading scientific journal of the day, and Mitchill served as its chief editor for over twenty-three years. Most crucial of all, though, may have been his role as one of the most ardent promoters of the sciences in the U.S. Congress. Mitchill resigned his chair at Columbia in 1801 to take a seat in the House of Representatives (1801-4), followed by a term in the Senate (1804-9), and again in the House (1810-13). He became an advocate of quarantine laws and the exploration of the Louisiana Purchase, and a strong supporter of the Library of Congress. Proving that his back, and not just his brain, were useful to his country, Mitchill helped dig trenches for the defense of New York City during the War of 1812.
While in Congress, Mitchill continued to pursue his own scientific research. He received an appointment as Professor of Chemistry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, 1807, and from 1808 to 1820, held the chair of natural history, and afterwards that of botany. In 1826 he helped found Rutgers Medical College and served as Vice-President of that school during the four years of its existence. His furious rate of publication never abated.
On June 23, 1799, Mitchill married Catherine, the daughter of Samuel Akerly and widow of William Cock. They had no children. He died September 7, 1831.
Collection Scope and Content Note
The core of the Samuel L. Mitchill papers consists of fourteen letters from Samuel L. Mitchill to his wife Catherine, written from Washington in 1807. These letters describe in vivid detail not only matters of domestic government and international policy, but Washington society as well. Mitchill served in the Senate during a particularly interesting period, and comments at length on Aaron Burr's trial for treason, the political parties, American relations with European nations, and western exploration coming in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase. Mitchill's eclectic interests are reflected throughout these letters. These letters also provide a glimpse into Mitchill's relationship with his wife, apparently a deeply caring, even tender one. In addition to the 1807 letters, there is one letter each written in 1802 and 1812.
The Mitchill papers contain four letters of Catherine Mitchill, all written from Washington to her sister Margaret Miller in New York, 1806-1812. Catherine's letters are as literate and eclectic as her husband's, and are full of gossip from the District of Columbia, providing an excellent view of the capital as seen by the wife of a legislator. Among Catherine's more amusing letters is the one in which she describes a young congressman who entered the wrong hotel room on his wedding night (letter 27). Five of Margaret Miller's letters to Catherine, written from New York, 1808-1812, rival her sister's letters for quality. Miller's letters resemble Catherine Mitchill's in their concern for elite social life, though in New York City, rather than Washington, but they are also a very useful source for the study of marital relations of the period. At the time, Miller's husband, Sylvanus, was serving in the state legislature at Albany, with Margaret left alone to carry on the family's business affairs in her husband's absence, and doing very well at it. Her letter (number 20) in which she tries to persuade her husband to give up politics and come home to the family is of particular interest.
- Legislators--New York (State)
- United States--Foreign Relations--Great Britain.
- United States--Politics and Government--1789-1815.
- Washington (D.C.)--Social life and customs.
- United States. Congress. Senate.
| Container / Location
Samuel Latham Mitchill papers, 1802-1815 [series]:
Additional Descriptive Data
The Book Division of the Clements Library has a number of Mitchill's publications, and several publications in which Mitchill, always a visible public figure, appears.
American Asylum, at Hartford, for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and DumbBailey, GeneralBarlow, Joel, 1754-1812
Barron, James, 1768-1851Burr, Aaron, 1756-1836Camp meetingsClinton, George, 1739-1812
- 11/15/1807; 12/28/1830-12/30/1830
DiseasesEurope--Politics and government--1789-1815Eustis, William, 1753-1825Finance, PersonalFiresFulton, Robert, 1765-1815Gallaudet, Thomas Hopkins, 1787-1851Gass, Patrick, 1771-1870Great Britain--Foreign Relations--United States
- 11/9/1807; 11/13/1807; 3/13/1808
HaitiHamilton, Paul, 1762-1816Harding, Seth, 1734-1814Hawkins, Benjamin, 1754-1816Humorous poetry, AmericanHusband and wifeIndians of North America
- 1/17/[1807?]; 2/20/1807; 11/5/1807
Jackson, James, 1757-1806Jay, James, 1732-1815Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826Jonson, Ben, 1573-1637. DictionaryLatrobe, Benjamin Henry, 1764-1820Legislators--New York (State)
- 11/15/1807; 11/17/1807; 12/28/1808-12/30/1808
Madison, Dolley Payne, 1768-1849Madison, James, 1751-1836Marriage
- See Mitchill's letters to his wife, 1807
Maryland--Description and travel
- 1/18/1807; 2/9/1807; 11/7/1807; 1/31/1808; 2/26/1808; 3/13/1808; 12/18/; 1/15/1809; 4/8/1812
MedicineMilitary pensionsMiller, Edward, 1760-1812Miller, Samuel, 1769-1850MissionariesNemo, NicholasNew Jersey--Description and travel
- 3/21/1806; 2/11/1807; 10/26/1807
New Orleans (La.)New York (City)
- 3/21/1806; 2/11/1807; 10/26/1807
New York (City)--Social life and customsNew York (State)--Politics and government--1789-1815Ogilvie, James, 17??-1820Pike, Zebulon Montgomery, 1779-1813Postal service--United StatesRandolph, Martha Jefferson (Mrs. Thomas Mann Randolph)Sheffey, Daniel, 1770-1830Smilie, James, 1741-1812SpainStormsTechnological innovations
- 11/1/1807; 11/13/1807; 1/19/
United States--Foreign Relations--Great Britain
- 4/17/1802; 11/1/1807; 11/7/1807
United States--History--War of 1812United States--Politics and Government--1789-1815
- 1/17/[1807?]; 2/20/1807; 11/13/1807; 11/15/1807
Washington (D.C.)--Social life and customs
- 1/4/1807; 2/6/1807; 10/26/1807; 11/9/1807; 11/15/1807; 3/13/1808; 12/31/1812
Webster, Daniel, 1782-1852West (U.S.)
- 1/18/1807; 2/20/1807; 11/17/1807; 12/28/1808-12/30/1808
- 11/7/1807; 11/9/1807; 11/15/1807
Women in business
- 11/17/1807; 1/31/1808; 2/26/1808; 3/13/1808
ZoologyUnited States. Congress. Senate
- 11/7/1807; 11/17/1807; 2/26/1808
- See Mitchill's letters to his wife, 1807