Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/January 1891/Sketch of Elisha Mitchell

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PSM V38 D302 Elisha Mitchell.jpg


A MONUMENT of modest size and style, standing, in Yancey County, North Carolina, on the highest point of land in the eastern United States, marks the grave of the man who first determined, by measurement, the culminating point of the Appalachian range — a man, too, whose local fame as a student of natural history, a hardy explorer, and a teacher, was pre-eminent. Not the little obelisk of bronze — that only shows the exact spot where his body lies — but the mountain on which it stands, whose supremacy over all the peaks east of the Rocky Mountains he established, and in the exploration of which he lost his life, is the true monument of Prof. Elisha Mitchell.

Elisha Mitchell was born in Washington, Conn., August 19, 1703. His father, Abner Mitchell, was a farmer; and his mother, Phebe Eliot, was a descendant, in the fifth generation, from John Eliot, the Apostle to the Indians. His great-grandfather, the Rev. Jared Eliot, M. D. and D. D., for many years minister at Killingworth, Conn., was distinguished for his knowledge of history, natural philosophy, botany, and mineralogy, no less than as a sturdily orthodox theologian; was a correspondent of Dr. Franklin and Bishop Berkeley, and was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Society for a discovery in the manufacture of iron. Young Mitchell inherited many of the qualities of the Eliots, and particularly of this ancestor. At four years of age he acquitted himself with credit in a school exhibition. At a little later age he was fond of collecting his playmates in a group and telling them what he had read in his books, or explaining the pictures to them. He was prepared for college at the classical school, in Bethlem, of the Rev. Azel Backus, D. D., afterward President of Hamilton College. He was graduated from Yale College in 1813, in the same class with Denison Olmsted, afterward his associate in the University" of North Carolina, and with other persons who subsequently became conspicuously known. He was then engaged as a teacher in Dr. Eigenbrodt's boys' school at Jamaica, L. I.; in the spring of 1815 he took charge of a school for girls at New London, Conn., where he became acquainted with the lady who was afterward his wife; and in 1816 he was appointed a tutor in Yale College. While thus engaged, he and Prof. Olmsted were recommended by the Rev. Sereno E. Dwight, son of President Dwight, Chaplain of the United States Senate, to Judge Gaston, member of the House of Representatives from North Carolina, who appears to have been looking around for candidates as suitable persons for professorships in the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill. Mr. Mitchell was chosen Professor of Mathematics, and Mr. Olmsted Professor of Chemistry, to which a chair was then for the first time assigned. Having studied for a short time at Andover Theological Seminary and received a license to preach, Mr. Mitchell removed to North Carolina, and reaching Chapel Hill on the last day of January, 1818, immediately began his work as a professor. Here he remained, continuing at his post without intermission of considerable length, for thirty-nine years, or till the end of his life.

In the fall of the next year Prof. Mitchell returned to Connecticut to be married to Miss Maria S. North, daughter of Elisha North, M. D., of New London. The bride's letters describing her journey to North Carolina give some side-lights on the life and methods of travel of the time. The marriage took place on Friday, the choice of the day having been partly made as a demonstration against a popular superstition, and partly determined by circumstances. The journey of eight hundred and fifteen miles to Chapel Hill occupied ten days. On the removal of Prof. Olmsted in 1825 to accept a professorship in Yale College, Prof. Mitchell was transferred to the chair he had filled, and became, and continued till the end of his life, Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology.

Dr. Albert R. Ledoux, in a historical sketch of the University of North Carolina, published in the University Magazine for October, 1890, speaking of the intellectual giants in its faculty who have given reputation to the institution, and whose contributions to letters and science made them prominent among the learned men of their day, observes that Prof. Mitchell was the most noted of them all. During his occupation of the chair of Mathematics, the doctrine of fluxions, or the calculus, was introduced into the course, and the standard of attainment was raised in other branches of the department. His transfer to the chair of Natural Science was welcome to him. Even while a Professor of Mathematics, according to Prof. Charles Phillips, he had made frequent botanical excursions in the country round Chapel Hill; and after settling himself in his new chair he extended and multiplied these excursions; "so that when he died he was known in almost every part of North Carolina, and he left no one behind him better acquainted with its mountains, valleys, and plains; its birds, beasts, bugs, fishes, and shells; its trees, flowers, vines, and mosses; its rocks, stones, sands, clays, and marls. Although in Silliman's Journal, and in other periodicals less prominent, but circulating more widely nearer home, he published many of his discoveries concerning North Carolina, yet it is to be regretted that he did not print more and in a more permanent form. It would doubtless have thus appeared that he knew, and perhaps justly estimated the worth of, many facts which much later investigators have proclaimed as their own remarkable discoveries. But the information that he gathered was for his own enjoyment and for the instruction of his pupils. On these he lavished, to their utmost capacity for reception, the knowledge that he had gathered by his widely extended observations, and had stored up mainly in the recesses of his own singularly retentive memory." The notes of his excursions, which are recorded in a series of blank books kept for the purpose, give revelations of the habits of the author's mind; they chronicle his walks over farms which he names, and observations of individual plants and other objects in specified localities. "By such a rock," writes Mrs. C. P. Spencer, in an article of reminiscences, "in such a field, is a plant that he must identify. By Scott's Hole, near the willow is a Carex that he must watch. March 29, 182], he finds yellow jessamine in bloom in Mrs. Hooper's garden, and 'in great abundance on the creek below Merritt's mill.'... May 30, 1821, occurs this note, that he had that day found the last of the twelve varieties of oak that are within two miles of the university; then follows a list of the oaks and notes of their situation. . . . In the third week of April, 1824, he begins a new Diary of Mosses, and hunts the Liskea hypnum through a dozen authorities, to be sure of it. He had the true scholar's disdain of taking anything at second hand. Such pages are diversified with 'Hints for the good instruction of the class'; or, 'Points to be meditated respecting the nature of light.'" In the preface to one of these note-books—written in French—a plan of study was laid down for each week. So many hours were to be given to mathematics, so many to Latin and Greek, so many to history, so many to the Spanish language and to botany; and the resolution appears that, till such an hour, "I will not touch one book of belles-lettres." He thus visited the plants and rocks of the State in their own homes, and became one of the best authorities in the country respecting them. The expeditions which he conducted into all parts of North Carolina, examining the flora and rocks and strata, made him the best physical geographer the State had ever had. The information he gathered in this way was used profusely in the instruction of his classes, and they always reaped greater benefits from his acquisitions, than any other part of the community. While he wrote occasionally for the scientific papers, "he read more than he observed, and observed more than he wrote." Among the articles contributed by him to Silliman's Journal are named, in a memoir published in the local paper at the time of his death, those on the low country of North Carolina, 1828; on the Geology of the Gold Regions of North Carolina, 1829; on Welther's tube of safety, with notices of other subjects, 1830; on the causes of winds and storms, 1831; Analysis of the Protogæa of Leibnitz, 1831; and notices of the high mountains in North Carolina, 1839. Such articles were contributed at intervals till the time of his death. He also prepared for use in his classes, a Manual of Chemistry, the second edition of which was passing through the press when he died; a Manual of Geology, illustrated by a geological map of North Carolina; and Facts and Dates respecting the History, Geography, etc., of Palestine.

Prof. Mitchell was an industrious reader, particularly on all subjects that were directly or indirectly connected with his professorship, and had a knowledge of geography that was regarded as wonderful. At a time when students were more isolated from one another than they are now, and facilities for exchange of news were not so abundant, he was at great pains to keep up with the advance on every side. With all this he was of conservative tendency, and not disposed to accept the new too hastily. As a teacher, Prof. Phillips says, "he took great pains in inculcating the first principles of science. These he set forth distinctly in the very beginning of his instructions, and he never let his pupils lose sight of them. When brilliant and complicated phenomena were presented for their contemplation, he sought not to excite their wonder or magnify himself in their eyes as a man of surprising acquirements, or as a most dexterous manipulator, but to exhibit such instances as most clearly set forth fundamental laws, and demanded the exercise of a skillful analysis. Naturally of a cautious disposition, such had been his own experience, and so large was his aquaintance with the experience of others, that he was not easily excited when others announced unexpected discoveries among the laws and the phenomena which he had been studying for years as they appeared. While others were busy in prophesying revolutions in social or political economy, he was quietly awaiting the decisions of experience. He constantly taught his pupils that there were things wherein they must turn from the voice of the charmer, charm he ever so sweetly. His influence on the developments of science was eminently conservative, for he loved the old landmarks."

Prof. Mitchell's general fame rests chiefly on his work in the exploration of the Black Mountain of North Carolina, a spur which, standing between the main mountain ridges, had been regarded by persons best acquainted with the region, without knowing its exact height, as the culminating point of the Appalachian system. The two Michauxes had remarked, about the beginning of the century—the elder in 1799, and the younger in 1802—the presence of Alpine plants there that were not found again south of Canada, and inferred that the peak must therefore surpass all its fellows in height. John C. Calhoun had come to a similar conclusion, from the observation of the streams that had their source on the mountain. Meeting the Hon. David L. Swain, who was afterward President of the university, in 1825, Mr. Calhoun congratulated him on being of the same height with Washington and himself, and on their both residing in the neighborhood of the highest mountain on the continent east of the Rocky Mountains. When asked the meaning of his remark, Mr. Calhoun referred to the map as showing that in this group were to be found the highest sources of one of the great tributaries of the Mississippi, the Tennessee; of the Kanawha, flowing northward into the Ohio; and of the Santee and Pedee, which run directly to the Atlantic—all considerable rivers finding their way to the sea in opposite directions. The story was told by Governor Swain to Prof. Mitchell in 1830, during an excursion on the Cape Fear River. Although Mr. Calhoun's reasoning was defective, his observation, coupled with the opinion expressed on other grounds by the Michauxes, impressed Prof. Mitchell, and aroused a desire in him to know more of the Black Mountain, and to determine its height. The opportunity came in 1835. The memorandum-book in which the notes of his visit in that year are recorded contains such entries as "Objects of Attention—Geology; Botany; Height of the Mountains; Positions by Trigonometry; Woods, as the Fir, Spruce, Magnolia, Birch; Fish, especially Trout; Springs; Biography"; etc. He was accompanied by his daughter, and carried "two barometers, a quadrant, a vasculum for plants, and a hammer for rocks" The incidents of this expedition, the details of which became important in the case of a controversy that afterward arose, have been summarized and confirmed by the testimony of witnesses in an article which Prof. Charles Phillips contributed to the North Carolina University Magazine for March, 1858. Having made some observations of the geological formations of the Grandfather Mountain, and measured some heights near Morganton, Prof. Mitchell crossed the Blue Ridge and fixed his headquarters at Bakersville, in Yancey County, near the foot of Roan Mountain. Hence he made several excursions in a country which was then nearly in the condition of the primitive wilderness. Being told that Yeates's Mountain was the highest of the group, he climbed it, accompanied by two guides, on the 27th of July, 1835—a day so clear and serene "that all the main eminences of the Black were clearly visible." He found that this mountain was overtopped by several of the peaks around it, the most of which confronted him in an arc so curved that it was easy to decide which of them was the highest. He made the entry: "Top of Yeates's knob; N. E. knob of Black bore N. 463/4 E. Counting from Young's knob: one low one; one low one; two in one, the southernmost pointed; a round knob, same height; a double knob; then the highest; then a long, low place with a knob in it; then a round three-knobby knob, equal to the highest, after which the ridge descends." This verbal account tallies exactly with a profile of the range drawn by Prof. Guyot when standing on the same Yeates's Peak in 1856. On the next day, July 28th, Prof. Mitchell and his guides visited the peak which had been determined by the Yeates's Mountain observation to be the highest; according to the testimony of the guide, William Wilson, they "came to the top at a small glade, not more than a quarter of an acre in extent, and, turning to the right, not more than one hundred and fifty yards, we arrived on the top of the main highest peak, being the same one as we thought that we had selected from Yeates's knob the day before. Then Dr. Mitchell climbed into the highest balsam he could find, and took his observations. After consulting his barometer, he said that it was the highest point that he had found yet."

Some of the immediate results of the excursions from Bakersville, including geological and botanical observations, were published in the Raleigh Register of November 3, 1835. The height of the mountain was calculated as compared with that of Morganton, which was then supposed to be 968 feet above the sea. The mountain being found to be 5,508 feet above that point, its height was given as 6,476 feet, or 200 feet less than the real height. The discrepancy became afterward a source of confusion, and has been used to support the allegation that the peak Dr. Mitchell climbed that day was not the real highest peak. But it was explained and vanished when the railroad surveys showed that Morganton depot is really 1,169 feet high. This would make Prof. Mitchell's real measurement 6,677 feet, nearly what lie obtained (6,672 feet) in 1844. Prof. Guyot, in 1856, obtained a height of 6,701 feet.

Doubts afterward rose in Prof. Mitchell's mind whether the peak he climbed in 1835 was the true summit of the mountain. A new measurement of Mount Washington had been made, which seemed to add to its reported height and lift it above Mitchell's Peak. Dr. Mitchell revisited the mountain in 1838, and determined in 1844 to make a new survey and measurement. He obtained a Gay Lussac mountain barometer from Paris, took William Kiddle as his guide, and, making Asheville his base for comparison, found the height 6,672 feet. The identity of the peak visited this time was afterward called in question by other parties, but Prof. Mitchell himself never doubted that he had been on the right spot. He wrote in the summer of 1856, " I stood upon the highest peak some days since, and could then distinguish the ridges over which my guide, William Riddle, taking as nearly as he could a straight, or, as it happened, a diagonal direction across them from the neighborhood of the Green Ponds, led me directly to the peak we were in search of."

After the survey of 1844, the Hon. Thomas L. Clingman put forth a claim to having been the first to measure the real culminating point of the Black Mountain, and undertook to prove that Prof. Mitchell had been mistaken in the mountain which he measured. The question thus raised was the subject of an active controversy for several years. The highest mountain was called Clingman's Peak, and Prof. Mitchell's name was transferred to the peak which was described in his diary of 1835 as "a round three-knobby knob, equal to the highest," which he had never assumed to climb or to measure. It was as much to settle this dispute as for the sake of more accurate measurement that Prof. Mitchell made his fifth visit to the mountain in 1857, in which he lost his life. The question was investigated by his friends after his death, when all the accessible evidence was collected and compared, and his priority in measuring the peak, and the identity of the mountain he measured in 1835 with the real highest point, seem to have been satisfactorily established. In evidence to support his claim, Prof. Phillips brought forward the notes in his diary of 1835 and their exact correspondence with Prof. Guyot's profile; the testimony of William Wilson, one of the guides who went up with him, and who gave in his certificate a correct description of the topography of the summit, and of Nathaniel Allen, son of Adoniram Allen, the other guide, deceased, who said that his father had always spoken of that peak as the one which he ascended with Prof. Mitchell; the certificate of four citizens who accompanied William Wilson in September, 1857, while he retraced the steps of the ascent of 1835; the testimony of numerous citizens respecting the landmarks and the geographical features, particularly of the streams, by which the true highest peak is located and identified.; and the testimony of the same citizens that this peak was generally known through the country as Mount Mitchell or Mitchell's High Peak, while the other mountain (Party Knob) to which Prof. Mitchell's name has been attached was not so known till after the visit of 1844.

Prof. Mitchell's fifth visit to the Black Mountain, in 1857, was made in view of the controversy with Dr. Clingman for the sake of obtaining more careful and accurate measurements than he had been able to secure before, and for the purpose of investigating the value of the number which is used in calculating heights by barometrical observations. To this end he had provided himself with four of Green's Smithsonian barometers, and sent one of them to Savannah to be employed in contemporaneous observations by Dr. Posey at the level of the ocean and nearly on the same meridian as the Black Mountain. He further intended to connect the beach-mark on the North Carolina Western Railroad survey by a line determined by a spirit-level with the top of Mitchell's Peak. After marking off points differing in height by five hundred or a thousand feet, he designed to continue contemporaneous barometrical and thermometrical observations for several days at each of these points, and thus obtain reliable data for a full discussion of questions concerning measurements by barometer in the latitude of the region. He began the survey about the middle of June. On the 27th of that month, when his work was about half completed, he separated from his son, with the intention of going across the mountain to the Caney River settlement to visit the Wilsons and Mr. Riddle, his former guides, and securing their assistance in identifying points which they had visited together. He was never seen alive afterward. A storm arose that evening, in which he probably perished. When it was found that he had neither reached Mr. Wilson's nor returned to his lodgings, parties started in search of him. As the search continued, and the news spread that he was missing, the parties grew, and soon included a considerable part of the mountain population of Yancey and Buncombe Counties; for the people were all warmly attached to him. His trail was found and followed to a point where the guides declared, from its irregularities and the evidences that the wanderer had become no longer able to pick his course, that darkness had overtaken him; thence along a small creek to a place now called Mitchell's Falls; and there, on the 7th of July, the body was found in the pool below the falls. The marks on the bank showed that Prof. Mitchell had slipped forty-five feet down the slope and then fallen fifteen feet into the pool. The body was borne by the Yancey men, after the coroner's inquest, a distance of about three miles, to the top of the mountain. Then word came that it was to be taken to Asheville; and the men of Buncombe took it up and carried it there.

Not quite a year afterward, in June, 1858, the body was exhumed from the graveyard of the Presbyterian church in Asheville, and was carried again, this time with formal ceremonies, and a procession of citizens, large considering the character of the march, to the top of the mountain, where it was laid in the earth, within a few feet of the famous balsam tree. A funeral discourse was pronounced by Bishop James H. Otey, D. D., of Tennessee, one of Prof. Mitchell's first pupils, and an address in vindication of Prof. Mitchell's claims to have the mountain named after him was delivered by President Swain. It is worthy of remark that the first class taught by Prof. Mitchell in the university was represented at the ceremonies, in the persons of Bishop Otey and Dr. Thomas H. Wright, of Wilmington, and the last class by Mr. J. W. Graham and his own son. A monument, twelve feet high, in the material known as white bronze, was erected over the grave in 1888.

The question of the name of the mountain appears to have been decided by the United States Geological Survey in 18Sl-'82, which, adopting the final designations for the peaks of this range, gave Prof. Mitchell's name to this one.

Prof. Mitchell was a Presbyterian minister of the Presbytery of Orange, Synod of North Carolina, and was styled, in the memorial resolutions passed by the synod, probably the most learned man that had ever lived in the State; was a regular preacher in the college chapel and the village church; and was the college bursar, a justice of the peace, a farmer, a commissioner for the village of Chapel Hill, and at times its magistrate of police. He was known as a skillful and conscientious professor, and vigilant, long-suffering, firm, and mild as a disciplinarian. Believing that prevention of the ills of a college life was better than having to cure them, he was watchful to guard the students against falling into error. When offenses were committed, he would try to present the nature of his conduct to the culprit in its true light, and, when punishment had to be inflicted, to select such a method as would appeal to his better feelings and open the way to a return to sound views. He loved to help others, and he was a well-grounded believer in revelation. He was extensively known among the mountaineers, who all had a remarkably warm affection for him, and the interest that was aroused among them by the circumstances of his disappearance was still "warmly alive," and the event was still a topic of conversation among them, as late as the end of 1889.