Elisha Mitchell And The East’s Highest Mountain


According to a relief map that hangs near my writing desk, the University of North Carolina stands roughly 180 miles from the East’s highest peak. But today, as I battle morning commuters in a frantic search for downtown parking, the mountains seem a world away.

At 8 a.m. the temperature on Chapel Hill’s main street hovers near 80 degrees. Deciduous trees are already in full leaf, providing a powerful visual antidote to the still-gray oaks and budding maples I left behind in the Blacks two days ago.

Walking toward the university, I pause briefly at a two-foot-high stone wall that marks the boundary between town and campus. “The Wall” (as the students call it) is a nondescript but well-known UNC landmark first erected nearly a century and a half ago. Today it serves notice that even in this urban atmosphere, the Black Mountains are closer than they seem.

The geologist who commissioned the original stonework was none other than Elisha Mitchell, university professor of science, ordained Presbyterian minister, and legendary explorer of the East’s highest peaks.

To step across the Wall is to step into Mitchell’s world. Even now, at the modern university, evidence of his presence abounds. A science building bears his name. Books from his personal collection gather dust on library shelves; a few volumes still bear his trademark signature, “E. Mitchell.” Those same libraries hold collections of his letters, memorandum books, course syllabi, and other papers. Eventually I will see them all.

But first I seek out the most celebrated piece of Mitchell memorabilia: a large, silver-plated pocket watch housed in the Gallery of the North Carolina Collection, the university’s matchless array of documents and artifacts pertaining to state history.

Mitchell carried the watch in the summer of 1857 when he ventured into the Blacks for the last time, a trip that he hoped might settle a long and rancorous debate with a former student named Thomas Clingman. For two years the two had sniped at each other — most recently in the Asheville newspapers — arguing fiercely about who had been first to measure the highest mountain in the East.

But on the evening of June 27, Elisha Mitchell fell to his death while walking alone through an isolated ravine on the headwaters of the Cane River. When searchers recovered his broken timepiece, its hands were stuck at 8:19:56 p.m., presumably the exact hour, minute, and second of the fatal accident. The watch remains frozen at that instant in time, a macabre reminder of the professor’s death and the feud that preceded it.

The saga of Elisha Mitchell and Thomas Clingman is an old and oft-told story full of pathos and irony that still ranks as a central event in North Carolina’s antebellum history. But even now few who repeat the tragic tale know all its nuances or recognize how it altered public perceptions of the Black Mountains. To tell that story — to understand how an argument between two men lent new meaning to a mountain landscape — we must begin here, on this campus, when Chapel Hill was a rustic village in the middle of a Piedmont forest, when a young professor, recently arrived from New England, began to read and wonder about the rugged country to the west.
Elisha Mitchell was born in Washington, Connecticut, in 1793, about a year before Andre Michaux declared Grandfather Mountain the highest peak in America. The Mitchells came from old Yankee stock, a lineage that extended to the 1630s and included the Puritan missionary John Eliot. By the time Elisha came of age, his family had the necessary means and social standing to send him to Yale.

There he studied science with Benjamin Silliman, eminent professor of chemistry and natural history and founder of the American Journal of Science and Arts. Popularly called Silliman’s Journal, the prestigious periodical was perhaps “the greatest single influence in the development of the American scientific community” during the nineteenth century.

Mitchell entered that community at an opportune moment. Fifty years earlier American science had been dominated by “gentleman amateurs,” men with independent income who devoted their abundant leisure time to botany, astronomy, or other personal interests. When Silliman began teaching at Yale in 1802, he was one of fewer than 20 scientists working full time in the United States.

But less than a decade later the academic climate had changed. The nation had a new assortment of state-funded colleges, most of which needed university-trained specialists to fill faculty rosters. In 1816 William Gaston, University of North Carolina trustee and U.S. congressman, learned of two young professionals fresh from Silliman’s tutelage who sought academic appointments.

One was Elisha Mitchell; the other was a Yale classmate named Denison Olmsted. Gaston eventually brought both men to Chapel Hill. Olmsted taught geology, mineralogy, and chemistry; Mitchell, who arrived on the last day of January 1818, took charge of mathematics and natural philosophy, a course similar to physics.
Moving south was a shock for the young professor. Thick forests of white oak and loblolly pine still covered much of Piedmont North Carolina. Chapel Hill and the other villages in the region were accessible only by way of crude horse paths or deeply rutted wagon roads.

[Mitchell] taught mathematics and science on a campus populated by 100 rowdy boys. In keeping with his New England upbringing, Mitchell was a devout and introspective man steeped in the traditions of Calvinism and constantly concerned about the state of his soul…

Mitchell also had a Calvinist’s disdain for trivial pastimes. During his first years in Chapel Hill he became an avid collector of Piedmont plants, often spending five afternoons a week in fields and forests near the university. But botany was no mere hobby. Quickly frustrated by his poor knowledge of southern flora, Mitchell enlisted the help of Lewis David Schweinitz, a Moravian theologian and expert on local greenery who lived in Salem, North Carolina.

For several years the two men carried on regular correspondence and traded specimens collected during forays into the Carolina countryside. Mitchell admitted that his expertise never approached that of his Moravian mentor. But thanks to Schweinitz the professor became acquainted with some of America’s most renowned naturalists, including John Torrey and Asa Gray.

Mitchell was also a passionate collector of books, for both himself and the university. Many of his early purchases reflected his newfound interest in botany. Among his first acquisitions were Andre Michaux’s volume on American oaks, his Flora of North America, and North American Sylva, a multivolume work authored by Francois-Andre Michaux and based on his and his father’s travels. Somewhere in those books Mitchell must have read about the unique environment of North Carolina’s high mountains and the exotic foliage that grew there. At some point during those early years at the university he resolved to explore the western part of the state.

His chance came sooner than he expected. In 1825 Denison Olmsted left North Carolina to return to Yale. A year or so earlier Olmsted had begun North Carolina’s first Geological and Mineralogical Survey. Funded with $250 from the state legislature, the survey was designed to provide the first scientific assessment of North Carolina’s geography and natural resources.

When Olmsted departed, responsibility for the survey fell to Mitchell. He began to travel extensively across the state — mostly on horseback but occasionally on foot — during the summer, when the university was not in session. In 1827 and 1828, after touring the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont, he headed west, intent on having a look at the Blue Ridge and the peaks beyond.

Although taken with the region’s scenic splendor, Mitchell found the mountains an intolerably primitive place. During his early journeys he repeatedly chastised Appalachian folk for what he regarded as laziness. While traveling in Ashe County he noted that some of the lands he saw were “as fine as the good parts of N[ew] England.” But, he lamented, the local “people lacked industry.” They neglected their livestock and lived in “unsightly log hovels…”

Such comments likely sprang from the professor’s Calvinistic theology. Two hundred years earlier, when Puritan colonists stepped ashore in New England, they had often decried the uncultivated state of the land. They called it a wilderness and cowered in fear of the wild animals and wild men who lurked in its dark forests.

Two generations [too late], Elisha Mitchell never saw the wild New England that had threatened his ancestors, and the professor’s religion was in many ways different from that of his Puritan forebears. But the basic notion that Christians should not live too close to nature echoed incessantly through his early descriptions of western North Carolina. For him the mountain wilderness, like that of early New England, was a dangerously decadent place.

Learning of one western resident who kept two wives and had fathered children with several other women, Mitchell complained that the mountains were “a terrible place for such irregularities.” Corrupted by the forests around them, white people lived like savages. Men spent most of their time hunting and roaming the woods, while women became “schquaws, very pretty ones [the professor admitted] but squaws notwithstanding.”

Mitchell even seems to have worried that he might be led astray in the wilderness. Though he spent much time outdoors, he rarely slept overnight in the forest. Instead he sought lodging wherever he could find it and usually stayed with local people (many of whom he did not know) along the route. When invited, he preached in nearby churches, no doubt urging his listeners to stay on the disciplined path that led to salvation.

That sort of zeal might seem odd for a scientist, but it was in keeping with the temper of the times. By the late 1820s many of the lawyers, merchants, and professional men who served in the North Carolina legislature shared the professor’s belief that wilderness stood in the way of civility and progress, especially in a state where the largest towns and even the university could be reached only after days of travel through heavily forested terrain.

The politicians, however, worried more about money than morality. In 1790 North Carolina had been the third most populous state in the Union. But a steady stream of emigration, largely owing to a stagnant economy, dropped it to fifth by 1820. Land values declined, and the state’s tax base diminished dramatically. Reform-minded legislators saw the geological survey as a first step toward finding better routes for roads, canals, and river traffic — improvements that might bolster commerce, stimulate economic development, and keep ambitious citizens (and their tax dollars) at home.

Since Mitchell was head of the geological survey, his role in the transformation was crucial. If the mountain landscape could be charted, it could be civilized, and once civilized, its people might be delivered out of the wilderness into prosperity. In 1828, funded by the legislature and driven by divine directive, the Presbyterian professor began the work that made him famous. He started measuring mountains.

Having read of Michaux’s triumphant excursion to Grandfather Mountain, Mitchell was eager to see what passed for the highest peak. When he finally reached Grandfather’s summit in mid-July 1828, “the day was fine” and “the prospect . . . all but infinite.” From his vantage point he could make out “the endless ridges of Tennessee,” Yellow Mountain, Roan Mountain, and—on the far southwestern horizon, still slightly obscured by “a few flying clouds”—the massive, sprawling “Black Mountain of Buncombe.”

In keeping with his assignment he immediately tried to bring order to the scene. “It was a question with us,” he later recalled, “whether the Black and Roan Mountains were not higher than the Grandfather.” He carefully noted that he had gotten the same impression a year earlier while observing the range from Morganton, and he concluded that if he ever spent “another summer in these parts,” he might head for “Toe River and investigate the district lying between and around these high mountains.”

Not long after the professor settled back into his duties at the university, the search for the state’s highest mountain took on new urgency. Following Michaux’s discoveries, several amateur naturalists (including John C. Calhoun of South Carolina) had suggested that one of the southern peaks might be taller than New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, long touted by New Englanders as the highest of the Appalachians. By the early 1830s many prominent North Carolinians thought it time to test those theories.

South of the Blacks, towns such as Asheville and Flat Rock had already begun to attract tourists, most of whom were wealthy socialites from South Carolina and Georgia who sought respite from the lowcountry’s sweltering summers. Across the state, politicians and entrepreneurs dreamed of turnpikes, hotels, mineral springs, spas, and other amenities that might draw sightseers and bolster the stagnant economy. What better way to lure well-heeled visitors than to promise them a visit to the highest ground in eastern America?

Among the most active boosters of western North Carolina was David Lowry Swain of Asheville, who after serving as the state’s governor became president of its university in 1835. That same year, perhaps at Swain’s behest, Elisha Mitchell left Chapel Hill to take the first scientific measurements of Roan, Grandfather, and the Black Mountains…

Like many of those who studied mountains in the early 19th century, Mitchell calculated elevation by measuring differences in barometric pressure. Like other Black Mountain explorers before him, he first went to Morganton, that age-old jumping-off place for western expeditions. Once he had established Morganton’s elevation, an assistant stayed behind to watch a barometer there while Mitchell carried a second barometer into the mountains and made his own observations. Using a complicated mathematical formula, he planned to compare the readings and derive elevations for various sites.

The technique was hardly foolproof. Variations of only 0.1 inch in barometric pressure might cause calculations to be off by more than 100 feet, which was no small consideration in a region subject to sudden summer storms and fast-moving low-pressure systems.

Mitchell said little about conditions on Grandfather and Roan in 1835, but apparently those peaks proved relatively easy to measure. As the professor made his way into the Blacks, a large high-pressure system (probably a typical summertime Bermuda high) seems to have anchored off the Atlantic coast, bringing days of scattered clouds but little rain to western North Carolina.

Though blessed with good weather, Mitchell soon encountered other problems. The so-called Black Mountain, which he had seen only from a distance, was actually 15 miles long and had so many remote cones, domes, peaks, and pinnacles that the professor had trouble deciding where to place his barometer. After securing lodging in a local household, he first took a reading on Celo Knob at the north end of the range. Looking south from there, however, he quickly concluded that some other spot might be even higher.

Hoping for a better vista, he headed for the Cane River Valley, where he asked two local farmers, Samuel Austin and William Wilson, to show him the highest mountain. They took him to Yeates Knob, a prominent peak near the point of the fishhook, today known as Big Butt.

Gazing across the Cane River Valley at the north-south shank of the range, Mitchell saw several mountains that appeared more elevated than the peak on which he stood, but even his trained eye could not discern the tall est. To stand near Yeates Knob on a summer day is to know the professor’s quandary. Although an observation tower now marks the true summit, several peaks on either side might easily be mistaken for its equal. In fact, the seven tallest mountains in the Blacks, all of which can be seen from Yeates Knob, vary in elevation by only 140 feet, differences easily discernible by Mitchell’s barometers but not by casual observation.

After much deliberation Mitchell fixed on a particular peak that lay between the “North and Middle forks of Caney River.” The next morning, July 28, he set out to climb it. Accompanied by William Wilson and a new guide, Adoniram Allen, the professor made his way up a laurel- and rhododendron-choked “bear trail” that ended on a prominent summit.

Maybe he intended to take extensive notes as he surveyed his surroundings, to somehow assure himself that he stood at the pinnacle of the range. He never got the chance. By the time the party had struggled up the slope, light afternoon clouds (spawned by the Bermuda high) hung on the high peak, enveloping it in a wet filmy haze and making it impossible for the men to get their bearings. Shivering in the dampness, Mitchell spent just two hours taking barometric readings before heading back to the Cane River settlements.

There, he happily noted, the weather was clear “and the thermometer at 80.” The trip to the mountaintop was brief, but at the time it seemed sufficient. Figures from the professor’s barometer and the one at Morganton established the summit’s elevation at 6,476 feet, more than enough to eclipse Mount Washington, then listed at 6,234. A week or so later he returned to Chapel Hill to spread the good news.

In November Mitchell recounted his work in the Raleigh Register, one of North Carolina’s premier newspapers. Explaining that “some gentlemen in the West” (his name for the region’s publicists) had been “promised an account of the results,” he provided new heights for various North Carolina mountains. “For the sake of comparison” he listed the measurements with elevations from several New England peaks, including Mount Washington. With careful understatement Mitchell wondered if the “highest peak of Black” might someday “attract an occasional visitor” from other parts of the state.

The boosters, however, were less restrained. A state long ridiculed as a regressive backwater now had a landmark of national significance, and as the Register’s editor exulted a week later, North Carolinians could justifiably “LOOK DOWN” on anyone who might “insolently venture to taunt us with inferiority.”

From Mt. Mitchell & The Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern North America, by Timothy Silver. Forthcoming from University of North Carolina Press in March 2003. Used by permission of the publisher. www. uncpress.unc.edu.

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