Tuesday History: A dispute about the mountains, 1869

LAND OF THE SKY: According to the North Carolina Room, the image above was printed in Germany for H.C. Leighton, of Portland Maine, circa 1901.  Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina
LAND OF THE SKY: According to the North Carolina Room, the image above was printed in Germany for H.C. Leighton, of Portland Maine, circa 1901. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

This week we will conclude Dr. J.P. Purcell’s 1869 article, “Wayside queries and Information.” Last week, we looked at Purcell’s report on the area’s churches and schools. In this final section, he weighs in on two ongoing disputes about the mountains — which peak is the highest and whether it should be named after Elisha Mitchell — by handing out plaudits to both sides and then introducing elevations that science would later discard.

Background: In 1835, Mitchell had used barometric observations to measure the height of the peaks of the Black Mountains, determining the highest one (the future Mount Mitchell) to be 6,672 feet. Sen. Thomas Clingman, a former student of Mitchell’s, insisted another peak was the highest. The ensuing debates were often heated and driven by the personalities and politics of the time.

While Purcell’s writing was featured in the Asheville News on May 20, 1869, it was originally printed by the Wilmington Journal.

Purcell reports:

I would say a few words relative to the mountains in which Buncombe is embosomed. No one can approach Asheville without being struck with the awful sublimity of those dark ranges that tower from two thousand to six thousand feet into mid heavens. Guyot’s measurement of these mountains will be my chief guide. He, it is stated, had experience enough in ascertaining the elevations of the most remarkable mounts in this country. After visiting scientifically the White and the Green mountains of New England, the Adirondacks in the State of New York, he turned his attention to “the beautiful

IN MEMORY OF: Elisha Mitchell  was an American educator, geologist and Presbyterian minister. He fell to his death in 1857, while verifying his measurements which were challenged by Thomas Clingman.  Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina
IN MEMORY OF: Elisha Mitchell was an American educator, geologist and Presbyterian minister. He fell to his death in 1857, while verifying his measurements which were challenged by Thomas Clingman. The monument was erected in 1883 and replaced in 1927. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

mountain region of North Carolina, which was said to possess the most elevated peaks of the whole Appalachian Range.” He began his investigations in the Black mountains, July, 1856. Nothing had up to that time been published so far as he knew, but Dr. E. Mitchell’s account, and the partial measurement of Hon. T. L. Clingman. The latter gave the first accurate and graphic description of the Black mountain. He measured the Roan, the Grandfather mountains, the Balsam ranges, and the Great Smoky Mountains. Dr. Mitchell always considered the mount south of the Northern Peak the highest [the future Mount Mitchell]. The end of true science is to establish the facts. This is a true fact. The honor of discovering the highest peak belongs, therefore, to Hon. T.L. Clingman. Dr. Mitchell was the pioneer in this matter of scientific investigation, and that, considered with his sad end [Mitchell fell to his death in 1857, having returned to the mountain to verify his measurements], would be sufficient to immortalize him in the scientific world. On this ground his name has been given to the highest peak. Guyot says that, to the highest point in the group of the Great Smoky Mountains, he heard in the valley of the Tuckasege and Oconaluftee but one name applied — Mt. Clingman. I have heard considerable talk about this matter among gentlemen in Wilmington. All granted the honor to Dr. Mitchell. All right. Let the truth be granted to science.

In the valley of the Swannanoa the greatest altitude is called the “Upper Mountain House” — 5246 feet. In the Blue Ridge Range the “High Pinnacle of the Blue Ridge,” is 5701 feet. The “Grey Beard” is 5448 feet. In the Craggy chain the “Big Craggy” is 6090 feet. — In the Black Mountain main chain “Mount Mitchell” is 6582 feet: “Mount Gibbs” 6591 feet; “BLACK DOME” 6707 feet. This is the peak about which the controversy is — Mt. Clingman, or Mt. Mitchell. It is now known as Mt. Mitchell. In the Northwestern chain “Blackstocks Knob” is 6380 feet. The people around here are more interested in the Black Mountain, and the Great Smoky Range, as no doubt they are on the sea board.

In relation to Mount Mitchell, Guyot states “that if the honored name of Dr. Mitchell is taken from Mt. Mitchell and transferred to the highest peak, it should not be on the ground that he first made known its true elevation.” He never confessed that he did. The reader will observe that “Mount Mitchell” proper is 125 feet lower than the disputed mount or the “Black Dome.”

I would not have gone into this statement, but thought it might be of interest to many who have not the time to make such an investigation for themselves.

 

A U.S. Geological Survey in 1882 upheld Mitchell’s measurement of the highest peak and officially named it after him. Mitchell’s 1835 assessment was only 12 feet feet lower than modern calculations, which lists the mountain’s height as 6,684 feet.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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2 thoughts on “Tuesday History: A dispute about the mountains, 1869

  1. Mike

    “Background: In 1935, Mitchell had used barometric observations to measure the height of the peaks of the Black Mountains”

    Thomas,
    I believe you mean 1835.
    Mike

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