Elisha Mitchell - The Man Who Measured Mountains

Elisha Mitchell's life was a series of ups and downs, and that's exactly the way he wanted it. Mitchell was one of the early geologic explorers of the high mountains known as the Black Mountains, and eventually his name was given to the very slopes that claimed his life.


Mitchell was born in 1793 in Connecticut, and showed a strong interest in nature even as a child. He studied at Yale University, and later taught at the University of North Carolina. He became a professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology in 1925.

Mitchell studied the work of Andre Michaux, a botanist who was one of the first Europeans to explore the Black Mountains, even naming them in French la Montagnes Noire. Michaux collected and cataloged over 2,500 specimens in 1789. In 1825, Mitchell came to the region as part of the North Carolina Geologic Survey.

Mitchell climbed Grandfather Mountain in 1828, then observed that the mountain now known as Mt. Mitchell was the highest of the region's peaks. Michaux had proclaimed Grandfather as the highest. Mitchell returned to the region in 1835 and measured Grandfather and Roan Mountains, using barometric pressure gauges and temperature readings.

Mitchell often hiked 40 miles or more in several days, climbing up and down the treacherous slopes which were thick with laurel and pine. Mitchell ascended what he presumed was the highest peak which now bears his name. He measured the mountain at 6,476 feet. That mark came up 208 feet short of the actual measurement, based on inaccurate data of Morganton's elevation.

Mitchell then explored into Buncombe County, visiting Potato Knob, Clingman's Peak, and Mt. Gibbs. He wrongly concluded that Clingman's Peak was the highest mountain east of the Mississippi, and thus began a strange controversy which eventually led to his death. He measured Mt. Gibbs at 6,672 feet in 1844, and what followed was a confusing exercise in mountain-naming.

Fellow explorer Thomas Clingman then proposed that Mt. Mitchell was indeed the highest, and scientific publications began calling the mountain "Mt. Clingman." Clingman also questioned whether Mitchell had ever actually climbed the mountain. Mitchell, obviously upset at this questioning of his scientific integrity, returned to the region the next year. Mitchell's guide from the 1844 trip maintained that Mitchell hadn't climbed the mountain at that time.

Mitchell climbed the slopes again in 1857 at the advanced age of sixty-four years old. 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. A sudden storm descended and in the darkness Mitchell tried to follow a creek, walking the treacherous rocky terrain. He slipped on the dark ridge above a waterfall and fell forty feet to his death. When his body was found in the water, his watch had stopped at 8:19 PM.

Zebulon Vance, who was one of the members of a search team and later Governor of North Carolina, wrote: "...they came upon a rushing cataract some forty feet high, saw his footprints trying to climb around the edge of the yawning precipice, saw the moss torn up by the outstretched hand, and then- the solid impressionless granite refused to tell more of his fate."

The party clambered to the pool at the bottom of the falls, and "At the bottom of this basin, quietly reposing, with outstretched arms, lay the mortal remains of the Rev. Elisha Mitchell, D.D., the good, the great, the wise, the simple-minded, the pure of heart, the instructor of youth, the disciple of knowledge and the preacher of Christianity!

"Oh, what friend to science and virtue, what youth among all the thousands who have listened to his teachings, what fiend that has ever taken him by the hand, can think of this wild and awful scene without unmoved by the humanity of tears! can think of those gigantic pyramidal firs, whose interlocking branches shut out the light of heaven, the many-hued rhododendrons that freight the air with their perfume and lean weepingly over the waters, that crystal stream leaping down the great granites and hastening from the majestic presence of the mighty peak above, whilst in the deep pool below, where the weary waters rest but a single moment, lies the body of his dear friend and preceptor, apparently listening to the mighty requiem of the cataract!"

Perhaps in part due to such grand eulogies, Mitchell eventually had the mountain named after him, and Clingman's name went to the adjoining peak, which ironically bore Mitchell's name at the time of the scientist's death. An 1881 geologic survey confirmed Mitchell's belief that "his" mountain was tallest. After being heavily logged, as so many mountains were early in this century, it became part of the state park system near the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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