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Wednesday, 06 February 2008 00:00

Dr. Elisha Mitchell

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While scanning the shelves of a rare bookstore in Asheville several months ago, I happened upon a regional volume by Elisha Mitchell I’d been seeking for many years. Titled Diary of a Geological Tour by Dr. Elisha Mitchell in 1827 and 1828,

it was published by the University of North Carolina as a “James Sprunt Historical Monograph, No. 6” in 1905. The so-called “diary” actually consists of letters written by Mitchell to his wife, Maria. It was compiled and edited by Dr. Kemp P. Battle of the University of North Carolina, who received the materials from Mitchell’s granddaughter.

Elisha Mitchell (1793-1857), geologist, mineralogist, teacher, and explorer of North Carolina’s mountains, graduated from Yale University in 1813. In 1817, he received an appointment as a professor the University of North Carolina, where he served in various capacities for the rest of his life.

Mitchell is most widely remembered for his measurement of the Black Mountain, near Asheville, and for his subsequent controversy initiated in 1830s and 1840s with Thomas Clingman over which man had actually found the highest peak in the region. Mitchell returned to Western North Carolina in 1857 to settle the controversy. Leaving the rest of his party, he set out to visit the man who had served as his guide in 1835; on a steep descent Mitchell slipped and fell down a waterfall to his death.

He was buried in Asheville, but the following year, with his family’s permission, his remains were re-interred on top of Mount Mitchell. In 1881-1882 the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed Mitchell’s measurement of this peak, which, at 6,684 feet, is the highest east of the Rocky Mountains, and officially named the peak Mount Mitchell.

During the 1820s, Mitchell had continued the geological survey of North Carolina begun in 1824. When the state appropriation for this project ceased in 1828, Mitchell, intrigued by the insistence of John Caldwell Calhoun that the Appalachian Mountains contained peaks higher than any others east of the Mississippi River, focused his attention for the first time on the western portion of the state. His diary, recreated from letters written regarding the people, landscapes, and geological assets of the region contains interesting observations from that long-ago era. Here is his depiction of Grandfather Mountain:

Elkspur Gap, Wilkes Co., July 20th, 1828.

My Dear and Good Wife:

Amongst the unpleasant circumstances with which my present occupation is attended is the inability under which I am laid of spending the Sabbath in a manner which my conscience approves. As I am laid up here for a day with no good books at hand and as your situation is desolate — and lonely, (but still how different from that of a widowed mother), I believe I may regard it as a duty as well as feel it a pleasure to resume my narrative at the point where it was broken off upon the summit of the Grandfather and fill a sheet and a half (you cannot in conscience complain as I have nearly exhausted all the paper which you gave me) with ulterior particulars. It is one of the pleasures of the relation in which we stand to each other that those trifles which to a third person would be intolerably wearisome have with us a deep as well as unfailing interest. You must excuse repetition if I should happen to fall into any.

The vegetation of the summit of the Grandfather is peculiar. Carexes (inhabitants of a moist soil) constitute the principal grasses, the trees are the Balsam Fir — and one or two others which I did not know. Does not Michaux assign to this mountain a peculiar species of Pine not found elsewhere upon the Mountain? [Mitchell is thinking of Fraser fir.] I could see nothing of any such and Henry Holtsclaw denied that there was any. Saw a new (to me) species of sambucus with red berries which were already ripe and at the point where we enjoyed the first prospect a small shrub grew and interwove its branches so thick that we reposed upon the summit of its libs as upon a carpet. The climate of the summit must be considerably colder than that of Chapel Hill as the Blackberry, which I found fully ripe in many places as I came along before I reached the foot of the Mountain and were decaying through excessive ripeness, was still green throughout Ashe at this time and near the summit of the Grandfather was either flowering or passing into the state of berry. Capt. Smith, who had worn his thin coat up, complained bitterly of the coldness of the wind and I felt it myself though less than he did. To enjoy the prospect in all its glory we climbed each a several Balsam tree and the tree being stunted in its growth had a large trunk (comparatively) thickly beset with limbs so that we could easily place our heads higher than its top. The prospect was all but infinite. The day was fine — a few flying clouds and a thin haze or smoke only. The Pilot and several towns were distinctly visible, also endless ridges of Tennessee, the Black Mountain of Buncombe, the Yellow and Roan Mountains. It was a question with us whether the Black and Roan Mountains were not higher than the Grandfather and we were all inclined to give them the palm and I very well recollect that when I was in Morganton last year a mountain lying towards the westward appeared higher than it and the same impression was made by the Yellow and Roan mountains when I was upon the White Top. There can be no doubt that the country around the base of the Grandfather is higher than any other tract along these elevations but I suspect the Black and Roan to be higher peaks. The Grandfather appears to me to be Grau Wacke and to belong to the transition of Tennessee.

[An online edition of Mitchell’s “Diary” is available at: http://www.newrivernotes.com/ nc/mitchdia.htm]


George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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