Please welcome guest authors Jonathan Howard Bennett and David Biddix. Bennett, a national park ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway, graduated from Wake Forest University, where he studied history and archaeology. Biddix is an instructional technologist with Western Piedmont Community College. Both are natives of the Toe River valley and are instrumental in historic preservation projects in the area. Images for their newly released book ‘Images of America: Mount Mitchell’ have been acquired from local families and historical archives.
Newspaperman Bill Sharpe once referred to Mount Mitchell as “the old mountain of mystery and death.” Over the course of its history, the lofty peak has certainly earned this appellation. Mysteries shroud the mountain like the fog that clings to its summit, and death often stalks those who dared assail its forested slopes. The mountain claimed the life of Elisha Mitchell, the man who pushed some of this mystery aside by proclaiming it to be the king of the East’s tallest peaks to the world beyond. Its summit holds the bones of its namesake in his earthly grave to this day, making the mountain itself his tombstone.
No one knows the exact date that mankind first laid eyes on the mountain, but archaeological evidence indicates that this occurred during the last Ice Age, roughly 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, when Native American hunting parties passed through the area in search of animals now long extinct. History is also silent about which of these Native Americans first braved the mountain’s thick tangle of vegetation to reach its summit. It is also unknown whether this early explorer made it back down the slopes in one piece. Historians and archaeologists cannot say with 100- percent confidence what these Native Americans called the mountain either. But they can tell us something about their lives.
The mountain provided game for the hunters and wild food crops for the gatherers. Finding the river valleys surrounding the peak to be pleasant places to live with abundant food and resources, they eventually established permanent villages. Mount Mitchell and the entire Black Mountain Range fell firmly within the territory claimed by the Cherokee. Spending their lives in the great mountain’s shadow, it entered their imagination and became firmly entrenched in their mythology. Elders recounted stories of the mountain around the campfires to their children and grandchildren.
A few of those stories survived into the modern era; one of them bears a striking resemblance to Aesop’s fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare. In the Cherokee version of the tale, the deer loved to brag about his speed to anyone and everyone. He was so proud and believed that he could best any of the other animals in the forest in a footrace. Rising to meet his challenge, much to the deer’s amusement, was an unlikely contender, the terrapin. They agreed to race and selected a course that ran over Mount Mitchell along the crest of the Black Mountains.
Despite accepting the challenge, the terrapin knew that he could not defeat the deer with speed alone. So, he held a council of the terrapin tribe and decided to enlist his fellow terrapins to help him cheat. He stationed the other terrapins on each peak in the Black Mountain Range with strict instructions of what to do. When it came time for the race, the terrapin and the deer met at the starting line on the first peak in the range. The signal was given, and the deer took off like an arrow loosed from a bow—leaving the terrapin far behind.
The deer charged down the ridgeline and started toward the next peak in the range. To the deer’s amazement, he saw the terrapin give a shout and cross over the peak well in front of him. The deer’s determination grew, and he churned his legs even harder. Crossing the top of the peak, he heard another shout and saw the terrapin cresting the next peak in line. Fearing that he was far behind, the deer ran as hard as he possibly could to catch up, but when he crested the following peak, once again he heard a shout and saw the terrapin cross the subsequent peak.
This process repeated across each peak of the mountains until the deer, humiliated and convinced the race was hopeless, simply quit and walked back to the starting line, finding the original terrapin had never left. Demanding an explanation, the terrapin explained his scheme of using his fellow tribesmen and informed the deer that the mind could accomplish what was often beyond the reach of the swiftest legs.
Other than a few Cherokee legends and what excavations of Cherokee villages at Cane River Middle School and Warren Wilson College have told us, the lives of the first people to live at the foot of Mount Mitchell largely remain a mystery.
Other mysteries surround the mountain; research conducted by Dr. David Moore, Dr. Christopher Rodning, and Dr. Robin Beck on the Catawba Indian village of Joara have proven that Spanish conquistadors reached the area in 1540, narrowing down the list of potential candidates for the first European to see Mount Mitchell. None of the surviving Spanish records mention Mount Mitchell, but their route from Joara west would have taken them through the river valleys surrounding the mountain within sight of the peak. The identity of the expedition member to see the mountain first will never be known, but it may have been Hernando de Soto himself.
The first European to reach the summit of Mount Mitchell is also unknown. By the mid-1760s, long hunters from the colonies of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina were frequenting the area. It is possible one of these men made it to the summit. One of them, “Hunting” John McDowell, built a homestead within sight of the mountain at Pleasant Gardens in McDowell County—perhaps he climbed the peak. British and American armies both came within sight of the mountain during the Revolutionary War, but there is no record of either of them sending any soldiers to its summit. Regardless, by the time French royal botanist André Michaux collected plants from its slopes in the 1790s, his local guides were familiar enough with the peak that they had no trouble leading him there.
Elisha Mitchell is the subject of several mysteries connected with the mountain. While it is undisputed that Mitchell was the first man to scientifically establish that the tallest peak in eastern North America lay in the Black Mountains, there is some doubt both today and at the time as to whether he ever actually set foot on the peak of Mount Mitchell itself. The poor professor lost his life trying to clear that mystery up.
Other mysteries associated with the mountain include airplane crashes, the mountain’s role in World War II, the whereabouts of a Hollywood movie filmed on the mountain, the massive death of its trees, and even one of the few unsolved cases of a UFO sighting that was reported to Project Blue Book. This book only scratches the surface of Mount Mitchell’s many mysteries and fascinating history, but it is hoped that the reader will find something of the “old mountain of mystery and death” that inspires further investigation—just beware of Mitchell’s fate.