Tuesday History: Tracing the doomed tracks of Elisha Mitchell

THE FINAL ASCENT: On June 27, 1857 Elisha Mitchell fell to his death, as he traversed the Black Mountains in an effort to remeasure and confirm his 1935 assessment concerning the height of present-day Mount Mitchell.
THE FINAL ASCENT: On June 27, 1857 Elisha Mitchell fell to his death, as he traversed the Black Mountains in an effort to remeasure and confirm his 1935 assessment concerning the height of present-day Mount Mitchell. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

As noted in last week’s post, Mount Mitchell was named in honor of University of North Carolina professor, Elisha Mitchell. In 1835, he measured the peak, determining it the highest point east of the Mississippi. In the mid-1850s Congressman Thomas Clingman disputed Mitchell’s assessment. By 1857, the controversy led Mitchell back to the Black Mountains, where he set to verify his measurements. Tragically, Mitchell would fall to his death in the process.

On July 22, 1857, The North Carolina Standard ran a letter written by one of Mitchell’s former students. The paper does not name the writer. It simply notes: “A friend at Burnsville, Yancey county, has furnished us with some interesting particulars connected with the fate of the late Dr. Mitchell, which, though not intended by the writer for publication, we take the liberty of laying before our readers, well knowing the interest felt to learn the minutiae of the sad affair.”

The North Carolina Standard includes bracketed information within the letter. Additional clarifications by Xpress are bracketed and italicized. Parenthetical comments are by the unnamed author.

The 1857 missive reads:

MOUNTAIN MAN: Thomas D. “Big Tom” Wilson organized a group of local woodsmen to help search for Elisha Mitchell. Wilson would discover the professor’s body under a pine log. In the photograph, Wilson stands before a heap of stones, the first monument in honor of Mitchell, built sometime after 1857. It would be replaced in 1883. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

Papers and letters will have informed you of the discovery of Dr. Mitchell’s body, &c. [et cetera], but a detailed account may still be acceptable. He left the Patton house at 2 o’clock on Saturday, 27th of June, to cross the Black mountain to big Tom Wilson’s, eight or ten miles distant. He was alone, declining the company of his son. He had been engaged in measuring the disputed peak — had taken the grade from the railroad survey and proceeded some distance. I do not know his precise object in crossing over to Caney river, but think it was to obtain evidence respecting the controversy betwixt himself and Mr. Clingman.

A week elapsed before much uneasiness was felt by his friends, of before it was generally known that he was missing. On Sunday, the 5th of July, a company started in search; and were you acquainted with the Black [Mountains] you would say a search almost hopeless. The woods of the Southern forks of Caney, which lay more directly in the route from Patton’s to big Tom’s, were explored to no purpose. Men mistook bear ‘signs’ (tracks) for Dr. M’s. Prints on the elastic moss are scarcely discernible, and it is difficult to distinguish the kind of track. Two of the searchers stood up all night at one of these bear ‘signs’ — stood up, because there was no room to lie down.

The search had been continued Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, when the woodsmen, worn out and famished, collected on the Peak. Dr. M’s son offered the Caney river men $50 to buy provisions. The mountaineers refused the money, but continued the search. The transaction was credible to both parties. Vance [we presume Z. B Vance, Esq. — EDS.] ordered a beef in the range to be shot down, for which he would be responsible. It was done, and hunger was allayed. Big Tom and others, including two men from Swannanoa, leaving the Peak, set out in a more Northward direction. They discovered ‘signs’ on the moss and followed until the impression of a man’s foot on the black loam was plainly discernible. Reaching a ridge — little Pine mountain — to the left side of which Dr. M should have turned, they discovered his steps, sidewise, as if he had paused to examine. Big Tom thinks he made the exact mistake I did. Coming to this point I glanced back and asked “Whose farm is that?” Tom then showed me how the ‘old man,’ as all called him [Mitchell], lost his life by the mistake. It was a ‘fire-scald,’ not a farm. Dr. M paused, turned to the right, found the laurel impenetrable, and like a hunter, took down the water drain, now and then dry.

The searchers rushed along, leaping down cliffs, over rocks, just as Dr. M. had done, till they reached the Middle Fork, (left prong, I think,) of Caney, a mere rill, spring branch size. The ‘signs’ on the right hand side of the stream — having previously frequently crossed it, the bed of the stream being the path or road — now approached a cascade, or rather descent of the rushing waters. Big Tom discovered a hat on a log below, left by the subsiding waters. The 27th of June was dark and cloudy. The five searchers gathered around the dark pool. In it lay the body. They left it undisturbed.

As soon as the news reached our village we mustered in strong force and started to the place where the body lay. Having spent the night in the neighborhood, where I listened till bed-time to stories of the woods, adventures among the mountains, the tracking, the discovery of Dr. M’s body, &c., we set out after breakfast for the fatal spot. Being joined by others, there was now quite a crowd of us. We traveled in the bed of the creek, (a fork of Caney,) up rocks, climbing, springing, with a thick growth on each side of us, until we came to a tributary. Here our guides were at fault; but big Tom’s voice was heard, “Come through the woods.” We struck the affluent exactly. “The man lies up this fork,” said Tom, and we followed him, some four miles, as judged by the hunters, from the cabin where we breakfasted. After climbing Alpine heights, or trails, walking on fallen timber, we turned down to the torrent, ascended, and came to the deep, dark pool.

We will continue with the second half of the letter in next week’s Tuesday History.

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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: Tracing the doomed tracks of Elisha Mitchell

  1. Yalier Farinas

    Great historical articles. I believe Elisha Mitchell’s first measurement occurred in 1835 and not 1935.

    • Able Allen

      You’d be right about that. We’ve corrected that typo now. Thanks!

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