One of the first geologic explorers of North Carolina’s Black Mountains, Elisha Mitchell, gave his name to the region’s highest peak, the one that claimed his own life on June 27, 1857. The Connecticut native was born in 1793 and attended Yale University as a theology student. Mitchell studied the work of Andre Michaux, a French botanist who collected and cataloged over 2,500 specimens in a 1789 trip to ‘la Montagnes Noire.’
Mitchell came to the region in 1825 as part of the North Carolina Geologic Survey. He later taught Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology at the University of North Carolina while simultaneously serving as a Presbyterian minister.
In 1827, he first saw the Blacks and commented even then that they seemed higher than Grandfather Mountain, which Michaux had proclaimed as the highest peak in the region. The next year Mitchell 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 highest peaks between the Gulf of Mexico and New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Ever the rigorous scientist, Mitchell returned to the region in 1835 to climb the peaks of Roan Mountain, Grandfather, Table Rock, Celo Knob, and Yeates Knob, then finally the steep slopes of the high peak itself. Using barometric pressure gauges and temperature readings, he calculated the crest of the Black Mountains to be 6,476 ft, the highest point in the United States measured at that time.
Mitchell climbed the slopes for his final time in 1857 in an effort to defend his title as discoverer of the high peak. In September 1855, United States Congressman Thomas L. Clingman ascended several peaks of the Black Mountains and took his own set of measurements. He immediately claimed to be discoverer of the high peak, “Clingman’s 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 Mitchell’s 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.
For the 1857 trip, Mitchell went to the peak with a small party that included his daughter, son, and two others. On June 27th he set out alone for the upper Cane River Valley, perhaps to talk to a former guide who lived there. Mitchell hiked to the top of the ridge where he had been in 1835, on the high peak itself, and became lost on his return from the top.
A sudden storm descended and in the darkness Mitchell tried to follow a creek, walking the treacherous rocky terrain. There were no trails, and the terrain is rugged and dangerous, with frequent drop-offs of 20-60 ft. He slipped on the dark ridge above a waterfall and fell forty feet. He hit his head as he fell and drowned in the deep cold pool below.
It was many days before his remains were found by Big Tim Wilson, a noted tracker and hunter familiar with the area. Wilson traced Mitchell’s final journey back down the mountain from where he had left the ridge to where Mitchell’s body lay in the water, his watch stopped at 8:19 PM.
The 1881-1882 U.S. Geological Survey upheld his measurement of Black Mountain as the highest peak and officially named it Mount Mitchell.
sources: Diary of a Geological Tour by Elisha Mitchell, Kemp Plummer Battle, Univ of NC, 1905