Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Samuel Latham Mitchill Papers, 1802-1815

Finding aid created by
Manuscripts Division Staff, November 1995

Summary Information
Title: Samuel Latham Mitchill papers
Creator: Mitchill, Samuel Latham, 1764-1831
Inclusive dates: 1802-1815
Extent: 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
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1982, 2000. M-2015, M-4102.1.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


No copyright restrictions.

Preferred Citation:

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.

Subject Terms

    • Legislators--New York (State)
    • Marriage.
    • United States--Foreign Relations--Great Britain.
    • United States--Politics and Government--1789-1815.
    • Washington (D.C.)--Social life and customs.
    • United States. Congress. Senate.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   1  
    Samuel Latham Mitchill papers,  1802-1815 [series]
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Related Materials

    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.

    Partial Subject Index
    American Asylum, at Hartford, for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb
    • 4/23/1822
    Bailey, General
    • 12/18/[1808]; 1/15/1809
    Barlow, Joel, 1754-1812
    • 11/15/1807; 12/28/1830-12/30/1830
    Barron, James, 1768-1851
    • 11/15/1807
    Burr, Aaron, 1756-1836
    • 2/11/1807; 2/20/1807
    Camp meetings
    • 11/17/1807
    Clinton, George, 1739-1812
    • 11/9/1807; 11/13/1807; 3/13/1808
    • 1/29/1808; 3/13/1808
    Europe--Politics and government--1789-1815
    • 2/20/1807
    Eustis, William, 1753-1825
    • 12/31/1812
    Finance, Personal
    • 11/7/1807; 11/17/1807
    • 11/1/1807; 1/19/[1812]
    Fulton, Robert, 1765-1815
    • 11/15/1807
    Gallaudet, Thomas Hopkins, 1787-1851
    • 4/23/1822
    Gass, Patrick, 1771-1870
    • 11/7/1807
    Great Britain--Foreign Relations--United States
    • 1/17/[1807?]; 2/20/1807; 11/5/1807
    • 1/17/[1807?]
    Hamilton, Paul, 1762-1816
    • 12/31/1812
    Harding, Seth, 1734-1814
    • 2/6/1807
    Hawkins, Benjamin, 1754-1816
    • 11/17/1807
    Humorous poetry, American
    • 4/8/1812
    Husband and wife
    • passim
    Indians of North America
    • 11/15/1807; 11/17/1807; 12/28/1808-12/30/1808
    Jackson, James, 1757-1806
    • 3/21/1806
    Jay, James, 1732-1815
    • 12/31/1812
    Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826
    • 1/18/1807
    Jonson, Ben, 1573-1637. Dictionary
    • 11/15/1807
    Latrobe, Benjamin Henry, 1764-1820
    • 11/13/1807
    Legislators--New York (State)
    • See Mitchill's letters to his wife, 1807
    Madison, Dolley Payne, 1768-1849
    • 3/21/1806; 2/11/1807
    Madison, James, 1751-1836
    • 11/9/1807
    • 1/18/1807; 2/9/1807; 11/7/1807; 1/31/1808; 2/26/1808; 3/13/1808; 12/18/[1808]; 1/15/1809; 4/8/1812
    Maryland--Description and travel
    • 3/21/1806; 2/11/1807; 10/26/1807
    • 2/11/1807; 11/17/1807
    Military pensions
    • 2/6/1807
    Miller, Edward, 1760-1812
    • 3/15/[1812]; 3/23/1812
    Miller, Samuel, 1769-1850
    • 3/15/[1812]; 3/23/1812
    • 11/17/1807
    Nemo, Nicholas
    • 4/8/1812
    New Jersey--Description and travel
    • 3/21/1806; 2/11/1807; 10/26/1807
    New Orleans (La.)
    • 4/15/1807
    New York (City)
    • 11/1/1807; 11/13/1807; 1/19/[1812]
    New York (City)--Social life and customs
    • 1/29/1808; 2/26/1808
    New York (State)--Politics and government--1789-1815
    • 1/29/1808; 3/13/1808
    Ogilvie, James, 17??-1820
    • 12/18/[1808]; 1/15/1809
    Pike, Zebulon Montgomery, 1779-1813
    • 11/7/1807; 11/9/1807
    Postal service--United States
    • 4/17/1802
    Randolph, Martha Jefferson (Mrs. Thomas Mann Randolph)
    • 3/21/1806
    Sheffey, Daniel, 1770-1830
    • 4/8/1812
    Smilie, James, 1741-1812
    • 12/31/1812
    • 1/17/[1807?]
    • 11/9/1807
    Technological innovations
    • 4/17/1802; 11/1/1807; 11/7/1807
    United States--Foreign Relations--Great Britain
    • 1/17/[1807?]; 2/20/1807; 11/13/1807; 11/15/1807
    United States--History--War of 1812
    • 6/23/[1812]
    United States--Politics and Government--1789-1815
    • 1/4/1807; 2/6/1807; 10/26/1807; 11/9/1807; 11/15/1807; 3/13/1808; 12/31/1812
    Washington (D.C.)--Social life and customs
    • 1/18/1807; 2/20/1807; 11/17/1807; 12/28/1808-12/30/1808
    Webster, Daniel, 1782-1852
    • 11/15/1807
    West (U.S.)
    • 11/7/1807; 11/9/1807; 11/15/1807
    • 11/17/1807; 1/31/1808; 2/26/1808; 3/13/1808
    Women in business
    • 11/7/1807; 11/17/1807; 2/26/1808
    • 5/12/1815
    United States. Congress. Senate
    • See Mitchill's letters to his wife, 1807