NCNatural's Toecane Ranger District
Pisgah National Forest - Appalachian/Toecane Ranger District
Elisha Mitchell and the Black Mountains of North Carolina

Quotation - John Peal Bishop

Since the time of the first people of this continent, the area known now as the Black Mountains has been a serene and spiritual place. The mountains sweep up dramatically from the Cane and Toe river valleys often losing themselves in the clouds 3,500-4,000 feet above. In the bright light of noon, the high peaks and ridges are a dark dark green, nearly black. The Balsam forests of these high ridges are reminders of a colder time long ago, echoes of the last ice age. Before the pollution and haze of our times limited our view, the high mountain offered breathtaking clear panoramas of a distant wild landscape. On a clear day the peaks of Grandfather, Roan, Tablerock, Hawksbill, are visible easily. The Craggy Mountains are nearby, and the Smokies 75 miles distant form the sunset horizon.

The deep coniferous forest is more like those of eastern Canada than the nearby slopes of the Blue Ridge, several thousand feet below. The forest is a remnant of the ancient woods of North America which covered the continent some 200 million years ago. In that time the mountains were thousands of feet higher and the forest even blacker. That deep forest remained undisturbed for millenia, until the first white settlers began carving out homesteads and releasing livestock into the foothills and valleys in the early 19th century.

It is thought that the region was inhabited by early Eastern Woodland Indian cultures as early as 15,000 years ago. An archaeological site on the campus of nearby Warren Wilson College contains evidence of cultures dating as far back as 5,000 BC. When the first white explorers came to the region in the seventeenth century the Cherokee homeland was well established. In fact, the current route of I-40 follows closely an important Indian trail that crossed the Blue Ridge at Swannanoa Gap, the Suw'li-nunnu' (-hi) or Suwali Trail.

Early Exploration
Before the mountains were settled, men like John Bartram and Mark Catesby were exploring the region and finding a wonderous wild world, full of danger and opportunity. The regions rich flora and fauna were the primary motivator of the early explorers, but trading with the Indians soon brought more settlers to the region. As more and more whites moved into the region, the relationship with the Cherokee deteriorated, and by the 1760s it was quite poor. Efforts by the British to establish the Black Mountains as a boundary were futile, and settlers continued to move into the area. A treaty signed in 1777 officially delineated the boundary of settlement along a line that followed the Black Mountains from Yeates Knob to Potato Knob. This opened up the valleys of the Toe and Cane rivers to settlement by the whites. Throughout the early 1800s the pioneer families of the region staked out their homesteads and settled into a rugged life in one of the nations most wild places. Bear and deer were abundent, as were trout nd turkey. The great mountain man "Big Tom" Wilson killed 114 bear in his lifetime. No easy task with a musket.

Andre' Michaux names the Blacks
It was during the late 1700s that leading scientists and explorers began to study the regions flora and fauna and take an interest in its commercial value. Mose Ashley Curtis was among the second generation of Black Mountain explorers. A botanist and plant collector he travelled the mountains collecting plants and cataloging species. Of even greater reknown was the French botanist Andre' Michaux He is credited as being the first white man known to have set foot in the Black Mountains. He travelled in the Carolinas in 1787 with his son Francois Andre' who was to become a leading botanist himself. Michaux made several trips to the Carolinas, and in 1789 he made his historic first trip to the Black Mountains. It was Michaux who first called the mountains by their current name, arriving at "parties basses de la Montagnes Noire" (the lower portions of the Black Mountains) on November 25th , 1789. Over the next several days Michaux collected over 2,500 specimens of trees, shrubs, and other plants. It is uknown whether Michaux ever ascended to the crest of the Black Mountains.

Elisha Mitchell and The Black Mountains
It was scientific exploration which was responsible for making the mountains known outside the region. And while botany was the primary motivation for the first scientists, it was physical geography and geology that brought the regions most famous scientist to the Black Mountains. Elisha Mitchell came to the Blacks as a part of the North Carolina Geologic Survey in 1825. While working with the survey in 1827 and 1828 Mitchell made his first trips west of the Blue Ridge. Mitchell was well known for his extensive knowledge in a number of fields, and he was one of North Carolinas great scholars. In 1827, he first saw the Blacks and commented even then that they seemed higher than Grandfather Mountain, which was then regarded as the highest peak in the region.The next year he climbed Grandfather to better compare the two elevations. He was certain enough that the Black Mountains were higher that he noted in an 1829 geologic report that he felt the Blacks were the hishest peaks between the Gulf of Mexico and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Elisha Mitchell - Image copyright North Carolina Press

In 1835 Mitchell returned to the Blacks to measure their peaks and ascertain whether they were truly the highest. The trip was the first of many, and later a great controversy would develop over whether Mitchell had ever been to the highest peak in the Blacks. With no maps and only local guides, finding the high peak and then climbing and measuring its height was quite a challenge. It is a testament to the strength of Mitchell that he was able to cover so much of the Blacks during his explorations. To determine which was the highest peak, Mitchell would climb nearby peaks and ridges and spot over to the main ridge of the Blacks. Then he would descend into the Cane River valley and the next day he would go up the steep ridge with a local guide, trying to end up at the same summit he had seen from a distance the day before. Even today with maps and trails, it would be an impressive achievment. Such a hike entails covering close to 40 miles in two or three days, and involves climbing from 2,500 ft. up to a ridge line at 5,800. Then back down into the valley and up to 6,600 ft the next day. Considering that much of the higher elevations were covered with incredibly dense laurel thickets, and inhabited by snakes and bears, it is a wonder he ever made it up the first time. His account of the first trip to the ridge crest includes a description of the agony of crawling several miles along bear trails in the dense laurel, unable to stand up at all.

His 1835 trip included the peaks of Roan Mountain, Grandfather, Table Rock, Celo Knob, and Yeates Knob, then finally up the steep slopes of Mitchell itself. His determination and conditioning are certainly to be admired. The trip up and down Mitchell covered an estimated 18 miles and an elevation change of 3,800 ft. It is no wonder that the professor admitted being "thoroughly fatigued" at day's end. While on the high peak, Mitchell measured the temperature and barometric pressure, readings which later enabled him to determine the height of the high peak as 6,476 ft. Thus Elisha Mitchell had made his greatest accomplishment, demonstrating scientifically that the crest of the Black Mountains was the highest point in the United States measured at that time.

Historical note - I use the current names of the mountains to avoid confusion - but in the 1840s and 1850s, current Mt. Gibbs was known as Mt. Mitchell, and Clingmans Peak was the current Mt. Mitchell. Later, Clingmans Peak became what is today known as Mt. Gibbs, Mt. Mitchell became the true high peak, and Clingmans name was given to a mountain in the Smokies. It is all very confusing and even I sometimes have trouble understanding which mountain is which while reading through the histories. If you travel to Mt. Mitchell today, you will note that Mt. Gibbs - Potatoe Top is where the radio tower is located, south of the observation tower.

Mitchell's Explorations Continue
On subsequent trips to the Black Mountains in 1838 and 1844, Mitchell climbed to the high ridge from the direction of Dillingham's Cove, in the vicinity of present day Barnardsville . Climbing the ridge from this direction Mitchell and his guides ended up on what is now known as Mt. Gibbs - Potatoe Top. He took readings which were used to determine the elevation and calculated the height to be over 6,600 ft. This error would eventually cost Mitchell his life, as he now claimed that the peak he climbed in 1835 was not the highest (though we are most certain today that it was). By changing his mind about the location of the highest peak, Mitchell opened the door for another explorer to come in and take claim to discovery of the highest peak.

Throughout the late 1840s travel up the mountains to the ridge crest increased and several trails were established by the early 1850s. But the traffic only went so far as Mt. Gibbs in the southern end of the mountains. This was the area mistakenly identified by Mitchell as the location of the high peak in 1844. As travel up the mountain continued to increase, a tourist industry sprang up and several inns were established along the route. William Patton, a wealthy merchant from Charleston, South Carolina purchased nearly 5,000 acres of the mountains in the late 1840s and established several homes and lodges. At that same time David L. Swain also purchased considerable acreage (nearly 13,000 acres) in the Cane River valley. In 1851 Patton extended a horse trail up the slopes of the mountains to the high peaks in the south. The now easy access to the peaks of the Blacks which brought in a new wave of scientists and explorers. Among them were the famous geologist Arnould Guyot and United States Congressman Thomas L. Clingman.

Thomas Clingman - page 50 A History of Mt. Mitchell and the Black Mountains by S. Kent Sccchwarzkopf A Controversy over the High Peak
In the mid 1850s the high peak of the region was considered to be the current Mt. Gibbs, several miles south of Mt. Mitchell. On September 8th, 1855, Clingman ascended the Black Mountains and measured the height of Mt. Gibbs. He then continued on to Mt. Mitchell and measured the height there. He was surprised to discover that Mt. Mitchell was the higher of the two. He immediately claimed to be discoverer of the high peak and published his claim. Upon reading Clingman's claim, Mitchell was determined to defend his own discovery, and the ensuing controversy ultimately cost Mitchell his life. By this time Mitchell was 62 years old, and his memories of the 1838 and 1844 trips to the region were less than clear. As a result, Clingman was able to use Mitchells own accounts to discredit him and it seemed for a time that he would win the honor of being the "discoverer" of the high peak. To defend his claims, Mitchell made several trips to the Blacks in hopes of retracing his route up to the summit and re-establishing his claim.

The Final Journey of Elisha Mitchell
During an 1856 trip to the region, Mitchell was unable to clear up any of the uncertainty of his early claims to discovery of the high peak, so he returned to the Cane River valley in 1857 for what would be his final effort. There are several versions of Elisha Mitchell's last walk in the Black Mountains, but all versions must agree on the ending. On June 27, 1857 at approximately 8:19 PM Elisha Mitchell slipped on a rocky ledge above a 20 ft waterfall (Mitchell Falls) and fell to his death. He hit his head as he fell and drowned in the deep cold pool below. Mitchell had hiked to the top of the ridge where he had been in 1835, on the high peak itself, and had become lost on his return from the top. He went down a dangerous steep ridge and when darkness began to overtake him he went down off the ridge and started traveling the creek bed. There were no trails, and the terrain is rugged and dangerous, with frequent drop-offs of 20-60 ft. While trying to cross the creek he slipped and fell to his death. It was many days before his body was found by Big Tim WIlson, a noted tracker and hunter who was familiar with the area and had tracked Mitchell's final journey back down the mountain from where he had left the ridge.

Quote from A Saga of the Carolinas C. Hodge Mathes

The Story is Told
Perhaps the best account is given in a story by C. Hodge Mathes called "A Saga of the Carolina Hills." The story is a recounting of the original events as told to him by Dolph Wilson, son of Big Tom Wilson. The story was recently published in a beautiful book called "In the Spirit of Adventure - A 1915 Mount Mitchell Hiking Journal", written by D.R. Beeson . C. Hodge Mathis was Mr. Beeson's hiking partner during those trips and it was then that they had the opportunity to meet and hike with Big Tom's son Dolph, by then a famous mountain man himself. I highly recommend the book. It is an incredible trip back in time, with wonderful black and white photography of the wild mountains in 1915. This was during the peak of the destructive clear-cutting of Mt. Mitchell and Beeson and Mathis are keen to note the stark contrasts between the wildness of the Cane River Valley, and the unsightly heavily logged eastern slopes of the Blacks.

The controversy did not end with Mitchell's death, and it took several years before the high mountain was officially named Mt. Mitchell, and the original Mt. Mitchell became known as Clingman's Peak, though today it is more commonly called Mt. Gibbs - Potatoe Top. The 1881-1882 U.S. Geological Survey upheld his measurement of Black Mountain as the highest peak and officially named it Mount Mitchell. In the 1850s the mountain was just beginning to experience the destructive power of humans, as it soon became a tourist mecca of sorts. But tourist were not the worst to come. In the early 1900s the lumber barons of the northeast, fresh from the clearing of most of their virgin forests descended upon Mt. Mitchell with an awesome destructive fury and nearly cleared the forests off the mountains in less than 20 years. A wilderness that had taken nature thousands of years to shape was nearly wiped out in less than one generation. The story of the logging and eventual saving of Mt. Mitchell is a tale worthy of Part Two of this "brief" web version of Mt. Mitchell's history. It is a tale of villains and heros, and the saga continues even to this day as Mt. Mitchell State park preserves the natural history of the mountain, the National Forest Service manages the northern and eastern portions, and concerned private landowners manage the still vast wilderness of the Cane River Valley, where Elisha began so many of his historic journeys.

There are several accessible hikes for the adventurous who wishes to see the region up close. The Big Butt Trail ,USFS#161, leaves from the Balsam Gap parking area at milepost 359.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway between Craggy Gardens and Mt. Mitchell State Park. Big Butt is the current day name for Yeates Knob, where Elisha sighted across the Cane River Valley to the highest peak of the Blacks. Standing on Big Butt, one can realize the magnitude of Mitchell's efforts if one considers hiking 3,000 down into the Cane River Valley below, then hiking back up 3,500 ft. to the top of the ridge across the valley. Another great hike is up to the top of Celo Knob, the first peak Mitchell climbed in the Blacks. See NCNatural's National Forest Service pages for complete coverage of all the Appalachian/Toecane Ranger District which encompassses all of the Blacks.

For further study of Elisha Mitchell and the Black Mountains, I recommend:

Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains
An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America

Timothy Silver

© 2003 University of North Carolina Press. This book is available on-line at
Mitchell's Peak, a Novel of Discovery
Robert Dellinger
A fictional telling of the story of Elisha Mitchell and his triumphs and tragedies on the Appalachians' highest mountain. Visit
 A History of Mt. Mitchell and the Black Mountains
Exploration, Development, and Preservation

S. Kent Schwarzkopf
© 1985 North Carolina Division of Archives and History
This book is available from, or at the Forest Service office in Asheville and at the Toecane Ranger District Station in Burnsville. ISBN 0-86526-218-7
 In the Spirit of Adventure
A 1915 Mount Mitchell Hiking Journal

Available from This book also includes the wonderfull story "A Saga of the Carolina Hills" by C. Hodge Mathes
© 1995 Panther Press
PO Box 636
Seymour , Tennessee 37865
ISBN 1-887205-00-4 Paperback and 1-887205-01-2 Hardback
 Mt. Mitchell
Its Railroad & Toll Road

Jeff Lovelace
Available from
© 1994 The Overmountain Press
Johnson City , Tennessee
ISBN 0-932807-84-4

© 1995-2002 NCNatural, Last updated