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A Saga Of The Carolina Hills 

Being A True Story Of The Naming 
Of Mount Mitchell 



Nearly every schoolboy Knows 
today that the highest part of the 
United States east of the Missis- 
sippi river is Mount Mitchell, 
in North Carolina. A much 
smaller number, with a head for 
remembering figures, might 
sibly recall the altitude of 
mountain — 6,711 feet above 
sea, though surprisingly 
school geographies seem to record 
either of these two facts. 

Far smaller still, I dare say, is 
the number of either children or 
grown-ups who have ever heard 
the story of how this crowning 
peak of North America came to 
bear the name of Mitchell. 

The chief actors in that story 
are two men: one a noted scholar 
;nd scientist, the other a gigantic 
hillsman, a mighty hunter of the 
bear and deer that for ages have 
roamed the fastnesses of the 
great Appalachian hinterland. It 

was from the lips of a son of this 
stalwart old hunter that .1 have 
heard, not once but often, many 
of the details of this true story 
that have never found their way 
into print. It has also been my 
good fortune to know at first 
hand and intimately the inde- 
scribably wild arid remote region 
that furnishes the setting for the 

That region, to be sure, has 
now been discovered by the 
tourist, arid a few of its outstand- 
ing points of interest may today 
be reached by motor. On my 
earliest visits, nearly a score of 
years ago, the only way to see 
Mount Mitchell or any of the vast 
wonderland of the Black Moun- 
tains was to go afoot, pic kin ir 
one's way through the eternal 
twilight of virgin forest along 
ancient trails that buffaloes, 
bears, and Indians had made 


long before a white man had ever 
glimpsed the Blue Ridge. 

To begin the story properly we 
must go b.ick nearly a decade be- 
fore the Civil War. To most 
Americans at that time the great 
mountain masses of Tennessee 
and the Carolinas were a veri- 
table terra incognita, sparcely 
populated by straggling descend- 
ants of the pioneers of the first 
transmontane migration, and in- 
accessible save by a few steep 
and dangerous oxcart roads that 
sooner or later petered out among 
the highest hills into steeper and 
more dangerous bridle paths or 
game trails. 

No official surveys of the 
Southern Appalachian had been 
undertaken by the government, 
and the altitude of the remote 
peaks of the Blue Ridge, the 
IJnakas. and Great Smoky was 
unknown. Conflicting estimates, 
partly guesswork, partly based 
upon inaccurate private surveys 
and colored by local pride, were 
to be found in the fragmentary 
accounts that occasionally ap- 
peared in print. 

A certain peak in Great Smoky, 
now known as Clingman's Dome 
(altitude H,b'19 feet), was gener- 
ally believed to be the highest 
point in the Appalachian system, 
and its height was often declared 
to be upward of 8,000 feet. Most 
Now, on the other 
band, stoutly maintained that. 
Mount Washington in the White 

a© Mountains was the loftiest peak 

JHn the En stern States. 

About 1856 a committee in 
Congress was considering a re- 
quest presented by certain citi- 
zens of North Carolina that the 
"Dome" of the Black Mountains, 
having been definitely ascertain- 
ed to be the highest peak in the 
State, should be officially named 
Clingman's Peak, in honor of 
Hon. Thomas L. Clingman, of 
Buncombe County, who had 
served in the House of Commons 
and the Senate of the State and 
had been elected to Congress for 
a number of terms. 

Before action had been taken 
upon this request, the friends of 
Rev. Elisha Mitchell, professor of 
chemistry and geology in the 
State University at Chapel Hill, 
began to press the prior claim of 
this eminent and widely beloved 
scientist to receive the honor that 
was about to be bestowed upon 
the favorite political son. 

Professor Mitchell was now 
about sixty-four years of age and 
had spent nearly forty years as 
an instructor in the University of 
his adopted State. A modest, re- 
tiring New England clergyman 
and a geologist and mineralogist 
of note, he had endeared himself 
to all classes in the State. For 
years he had served as State 
surveyor and had spent many 
summers in the mountain sections 
on scientific explorations of va- 
rious sorts. 

The pupils, colleagues and 
neighbors of Professor Mitchell 
now urged him, rather againsr 
Ins personal inclinations, to take 


steps to prove his claims as the 
real "discoverer" of the Black 
Dome, and a petition was pre- 
pared asking that the peak be 
given the name of Mitchell. 

Toward the end of June, 1857, 
Frofessor Mitchell set out with, a 
small party of friends to revisit 
the mountain which, twenty 
years before, he had first ex- 
plored and declared to be the 
highest peak in the system. It 
was his plan to look up some of 
the native guides and helpers who 
had accompanied him on that 
survey and secure their sworn 
statements to be filed with other 
documentary proofs "with the 
Congressional committee. 

It was a long and toilsome 
journey from Asheville to the 
balsam-crowned summit of the 
Dome, where he had years ago set 
a rough stone marker to indicate 
what he had calculated to be the 
highest point of land east of the 
Rockies. Having reached the top 
however, Mitchell determined to 
dismiss his companions and to 
continue his journe} 7 , afoot and 
alone, to the deep valley on the 
Yancey County side of the great 
range, where he wished to secure 
an affidavit from an old trapper 
and guide by the name of Green. 
He knew he could count on the 
help and the hospitality of the 
loyal mountaineers who had come 
to know and love the "Perfessor" 
in years gone by. 

That parting with his friends 
at the top of the Black Dome was 
the last time Elisha Mitchell was 

ever seen alive. When he had not 
returned on the third day his 
family became alarmed. Next 
day a small searching party set 
out to find him. It Avas soon 
learned that he had never 
reached the home of his old 
guide, and none of the mountain 
folk had seen or heard of him. 

A general alarm was now given, 
and a large party, headed by the 
popular statesman, Zebulon Baird 
Vance, began a day-and-night 
manhunt, combing one after an- 
other of the interminable ridges 
and ravines with dogs and lan- 
terns and keeping in touch with 
each other by prearranged gun- 
shot signals. Several days passed, 
however without a single trace 
of the lost man. The whole State 
was aroused, from the cities of 
the Coastal Plain to the scattered 
settlements of the western moun- 

On the tenth or eleventh dty 
J he distressing news had pene- 
trated to a sequestered cove on 
the farther side of the Blacks. 
Here a small party was organized 
by one of the most romantic 
characters that ever lived in the 
Carolina hills, "Big Tom" Wil- 
son, gigantic of frame, a stranger 
to fear, and familiar with everv 
mile of the dark wilderness of 
the Black Mountains. Bio- Tom 
possessed in a remarkable detrree 
that almost uncanny power that 
few save the Indians have ever 
acquired, of reading the " signs'* 
of man or beast in the woods. 

This veteran- hunter lead his 


Dolf Wilson, his daughter, and hide of his 100th bear. 

party of seasoned mountain men 
to the top of the Dome and, se- 
caiing from the watchers there 
the meager details of Mitchell's 
last conversation with his Ashe- 
ville friends, took up the search 
by a plan a 1 1 his own. 

Learning that the Professor 
had declared his intention of fol- 
lowing the old "Beech Nursery" 
trail to the foot of the mountain. 
Big Tom and his party set out in 
single file, the sinewy giant in the 
lead. He had gone scarcely half 
a mile when his practiced eye 
caught something significant that 
all the other parties had missed. 

"Look, hovs! 1 ' he exel aimed. 
" R i gh t h ere 's wh a r th e ol ' m a n 
missed the trail ! Tnstid of 

bearin' on to the left, like he 
ought, he turned off down 
t 'wards the Piny Ridge. An' 
right that minute he was lost, an' 
bad lost!" 

Sure enough, as they pressed on 
down the right hand trail, which 
was probably only a bear path, 
here and there appeared the faint 
but still recognizable tracks of 3 
man, headed toward the desolate 
waste under the frowning tops of 
the twin peaks known as the 
"Black Brothers." 

"He couldn't have been makin' 
no time in here, boys," Big Tom 
declared half an hour later as the 
going grew worse and more dan- 
gerous. "See how he's had to 
tromp down the bresh an' scrouge 


through the laurel ! An ' here 's a 
piece tore out of his coat!" 

Two miles or more they pushed 
on — slow, wearisome miles even 
for sturdy mountaineers. For the 
aged scientist, long unpracticed 
in such tramping, it must have 
been a grilling experience. 

"Here's whar dark overtuck 
him," the guide announced after 
another mile had been covered. 
"Look whar he twisted him a 
pine knot out o' this ol' log an' 
made him a torch! Here's a coal 
that drapped when he crossed 
tli is rock !" 

Two more, miles, through 
tangled briars, over jagged 
ledges, and down the bowlder- 
strewn bed of a little creek. 

" 'Course by this time he 
knowed he was lost," the leader 
commented, "but he^figgered that 
this here creek would take him 
to the Cane River, which nate^ly 
it would, only it's a turrible 
way to git thar!" 

Suddenly the men's ears caught 
the soft roar of falling water 
from far below. "Lissen! They's 
a falls ahead of us! Keep yer 
eyes peeled, fellers!" 

A few hundred yards more and 
the roar grew louder. They were 
on the very top. of the ledge. 

"Look, boys!" Big Tom sang 
out. "He was tryin' to git 
around on the right of this place 
in the night-time! See, he 
grabbed holt of this little sap- 
plin' an' his foot slipped on this 
slick rock. The saplin' broke off 

in his hand! Boys, that pore ol' 
man fell right oyer them falls! 
We'll find him down thar as 
shore as the world!" 

Clambering down over the 
rocks and through the under 
growth, the party at last reached 
the foot of the cliff, over which 
tumbled a foaming cascade ap- 
proximately twenty feet high. At 
its foot was a dark, deep, jug- 
shaped pool of swirling- foam ten 
or twelve feet across. Even the 
strongest swimmer could not have 
kept afloat in that mad little 

At first they could see nothing 
in the churning w T ater, but finally 
Big Tom made out a dark object 
underneath the surface lying 
across a sunken birch or balsam 
log long ago fallen into the pool. 
From the gloom of that sunless 
gorge they lifted the body of 
Elisha Mitchell from its watery 

Sadly and with prodigious 
labor they bore their burden back 
up the long miles and delivered it 
to the friends waiting at the top. 
Big Tom and the other mountain- 
eers urged that it he laid to rest 
there on the spot that his travels 
and explorations had made mem- 
orable, but other counsel pre- 
vailed, and the body was carried 
back to Asheville, N. C, and bur- 
ied i'n the Presbyterian cemetery. 

Years afterwards, however, 
when government surveys had 
confirmed Mitchell's calculations 
and the Black Dome, officially 
and finally named in his honor 


had become one of the chief 
points of scenic and Historic in- 
terest in the State, the bones were 
exhumed and carried back to be 
deposited in the rocky grave at 
the very summit of the peak. 

A modest shaft of hollow 
bronze bearing a simple inscrip- 
tion was erected by relatives and 
friends at the grave, but the 
fierce storms that sweep the sum- 
mit finally wrecked it. Then a 
wooden observation tower, built 
by the State Park Commission, 
took its place. This was later re- 
placed by a steel tower, but it 
also fell before the fury of the 
winds. Very recently a beautiful 
and massive tower of stone, the 
gift of a public-spirited citizen of 
the State, has been reared on the 
site of the grave. Its top, rising 
above the low timber, affords one 
of the most impressive panoramas 
to be found on the American 

Of late Mount Mitchell lias 
come into its own as a goal for 
the throngs of those who go 
''seeing America first.'' It is one 
of the show places of the South. 
Two excellent motor roads have 
been built to the top, and 
thousands of tourists make the 
ascent each season. 

Frankly, though, this moun- 
taineering de luxe does not give 
much of a thrill to those of us 
who used to camp under the big 
"rock-house" just below the top, 
: or in the old log cabin that stood 
there. Dearer to us were those 
never-to-be-forgotten nights un- 

der the stars, when the cool wind 
in the balsams and the occasional 
scream of a wild cat or a moun- 
tain owl gave us a wierd sense of 
solitariness, knowing we were the 
only human beings in the vast 
loneliness of the Black Mountains. 

Big Tom Wilson lived more 
than fifty years after what he 
always called his greatest adven- 
ture, the finding of Mitchell's 
body. He was the greatest 
hunter and trapper in all the 
mountain settlements. One hun- 
dred and fourteen black bears 
fell to his rifle, a record as yet 
unsurpassed, as far as I have 
authentic information, in the 
Southern Appalachians. 

Honest to the core, kind of 
heart, keenly intelligent although 
unlettered, devoutly religious 
and thrifty as only a canny 
Scotch-Irish hillsman knows how 
to be, he left a goodly estate of 
mountain lands, a worthy family 
of sons and daughters, and a 
name that is yet honored in his 
native hills. In the sequestered 
world in which he lived his 
eighty-five years he reigned as 
one of nature's own princes. 
Quite fittingly the beautiful val- 
ley where his cabin home stood 
and still stands is marked on the 
topographic maps of the Geo- 
logical Survey as "Big Tom 
Wilson 's. " 

His sons and his sons' &ons 
have preserved the estate and 
cherished the traditions of their 
doughty progenitor. It was one 
of these sons, Dolph Wilson, him- 


Cabin of "Big Tom" Wilson 

self now nearing seventy, who 
gave me much of the story 1 
have recorded here. With him I 
have tramped the obscure trail 
over which his father piloted the 
searchers for Mitchell's body. 
Only with such a guide could 
one ever hope to find the deso- 

late "Mitchell's Falls, 

a spot 

that few visitors have ever seen. 

Do]ph is himself a veteran 
nimrod and has killed a total of a 
hundred and eleven bears. It is 
characteristic of the man that he 
has now quit the chase for good, 
not because of his age but in 
order that his father's famous 
record shall continue unbroken in 
the traditions of the bear country. 

yond the average of mountain 
folk and is reputed wealthy in the 
hills. He is a local magistrate 
and his "court'' is wholesomely 
feared by the petty lawbreaker. 

Fortunate is the party of 
tourists who can nowadays have 
Dolph Wilson as a guide. He is 
a busy man, for despite his sixty- 
eight years he patrols almost 
daily an extensive boundary that 
he has leased as a game preserve 
to a hunting and fishing club in 
Asheville, and he can walk the 
legs off a tenderfoot. 

Dolph Wilson represents the 
finest traditions of the sturdy 
pioneers. He loves to sit on his 
porch in the starlight and tell of 

Dolph has prospered far be- early days — the old rifles, the old 


trails, the old customs. . But he 
looks the modern world level in 
the face with an eye as cool as 

that which used to gaze down the 
sights of his trusty Winchester at 
a wounded and charging bear. 

By Rev. M. T. Ray, 

After the body of Dr. Elisha 
Mitchell was found in a pool of 
water fourteen feet deep near the 
head of Qane River in Yancey 
County, N. C, by Big Tom Wilson, 
Niram Allen, Bryson McMahan, 
Zike Austin, Jake Bowman, Atty., 
and others, this party decided to 
::rry, the body back to the top of 
the peak which now bears his 
name. It was in a scientific ex- 
plorrtion that Dr. Elisha Mitchell 
had lost his life. 

When a party of perhaps 40 or 
50 men had gathered there in the 
wild mountain gorge, the body raised from its watery grave 
in perfect condition showing no 
bruises or decomposition except a 
portion of one ear which had been 
eaten by the fish. The body was 
enclosed in Balsam bark and 
fastened by ropes to a pole to 
make it easier to carry. Two men 
then raised the load on their 
shoulders while a long rope was 
attached to pull by, and this 
strange funeral procession started 
with the sad burden up the rug- 
ged' and steep mountain through 
thick undergrowth of Rhododen- 
dron, Ivy. Balsam, etc. While 
some blazed out the way, others 
bore up the weight of the body, 
and still others simply pulled 


Altamont, N. C. 

them up the mountain side. Slow- 
ly and cautiously they moved on 
and on overcoming every obstacle 
until at last they reached thf 1 top. 
Love had found a way: love and 
patient endurance had triumphed. 

When they arrived at the top of 
the mountain another party was 
waiting there headed by Zebulin 
Vance, afterwards Governor of 
North Carolina. In this party was 
the son and daughter of Doctor 
Mitchell, and to them was left the 
decision as to where the father 
should be buried. After much 
discussion the Asheville crowd 
prevailed with them to decide to 
bury him at Asheville. Accord- 
ingly the body was laid to rest in 
the Presbyterian Church Yard at 
Asheville; however, it was not 
long to remain' there. Already 
there had been some controversy 
as to which was entitled to the 
honor of first discovering the 
highest land east of the Missis- 
sippi River. Doctor Mitchell or 
the Hon. Thomas Clingman who 
lu'd also been exploring this same 
region. An impartial public have 
now bestowed that honor upon 
Doctor Mitchell ; therefore, to 
show the love and gratitude to 
the people of the mountain s^ .■»- 
tion the relatives- decided that 


Doctor Mitchell's body should 
rest on the top of the Peak which 
bears his name. Accordingly 
about a year after being buried 
at Asheville, or during the sum- 
mer of 1858, another strange 
funeral procession was slowly go- 
ing up the mountain from the 
Swannanoa River side. This pro- 
cession is headed by a yoke of 
strong oxen pulling a rough sled 
upon which is a heavy metal 
casket containing the remains of 
Dr. Elisha Mitchell. 

In this party there Avas a 
young man then just 16 years old 
named Joseph L. Ray, whom we 
believe is the only person living 
of that company who took part in 
the burial service at the top of 
the mountain that day. This 
venerable man, who has had a 
notable career now lives at 1939 
North Robberson Avenue, Spring- 
fieM, Mo., and he told personally 
to the writer, who is his son, many 
of the things stated herein : as to 
helping carry the 600 pound bur- 
den up the last half mile of the 
trip where the sled could not be 
taken; also that the grave was 
dug down to the solid rock and 
was so shallow that the casket, 
when lowered into it, reached the 
surface or a little above, and then 
stones were layed in a wall 
around and dirt was thrown on 
to cover the casket from sight. 

Now a monument stands there 
with this inscription: "Here lies, 
in hope of a blessed Resurrection, 
the remains of Doctor Elisha 
Mitchell, a distinguished professor 
in the State University of North 

Carolina, who lost his life June 
15, 1857, while engaged in the 
scientific exploration of this 

We were told also that Joseph 
L. Ray's father, Amos L. Ray, of 
Yancey County, obtained through 
purchase the vast boundary of 
land at the head of Cane River 
including the spot where Doctor 
Mitchell's grave is located. This 
was about the year 1854 or 1855. 
About this time Big Tom Wilson 
came into the Ray family, marry- 
ing Nigara Ray, the oldest daugh- 
ter of Amos L. Ray, and then 
moved with the family onto this 
boundary ; and thereby came his 
opportunity to win fame in find- 
ing the body of Dr. Mitchell about 
two years later. The Ray's moved 
onto this new home about 1855 
when Joseph L. Ray was a boy of 
13 years. He and a younger 
brother, John Ray, were left sf 
the camp overnight while the 
father and other brothers re- 
turned with the wagons to brhur 
another load the next day. This 
camp was near where Jtidsre 
Adam's Lodge now stands. Then 
it was an unbroken forest with 
plentv of "•fime and fish. fier** 
the Ray familv cleared land, 
built a comfortable house, and 
later built a water saw mill and 
general custom «rist mill. 

A Story Not Often ToM. 

When the land was paid for and 
the title was made, (Movmf 
Mitchell having come into prom- 
inence bv this time}, through i 
ouirk of hones f v (?) nopnlipr •"» 
some men. the top of the peak 


was not conveyed in the deed as 
signed by David L. Swain as it 
was contained in the original plot. 
However, this portion retained 
through fraud still lies right 
where it did before the Rays 
bo I ght and payed for it and lost 
it. Perhaps it is serving the 
public just as well in the hands 
of the State to which it reverted. 

The Department of Conserva- 
tion and Development of North 
Carolina has erected a lookout 
tower there and is building up a 
nursery in connection with the 
State Park there. Other lands 
have been secured by purchase 
thereby enlarging its area. 

In the days just before the Civil 
War, Amos L. Ray became secur- 
ity for the Sheriff of Yancey 
Coi nty, who collected the tax, 

ook the money, and left the State. 
"~'h n when the cruel Civil War 
c:me, four of Ray's sons cast 
their ''ot with the Union Army, 
a: d this brought trouble at home. 
The father was arrested and put 
in the Asheville jail, the home 
kept only by women was plun- 
dered by Ku Klux. Near the 
clos^ of the war conditions were 

- hoH that Joseph L. Ray, then 
9^ ~no r o n "i(q, wns commissioned 
ruw P i n f the lllth North Caro . 

!"hia Regiment end was ordered to 

put down the Ku Klux Klan in 
Western North Carolina, which 
he did very effectively. By this 
time J. L. Ray had purchased 
from his father A. L. Ray, his es- 
tate including this boundary at 
the head of Cane River. About 
1875 suit was brought by Yancy 
County against the bondsmen of 
the runaway Sheriff of long ago 
for the recovery of the stolen 
money. Yancey County Court 
dropped the suit against the other 
bondsman whose politics suited 
them better, and then gave judg- 
ment against J. L. Ray who was 
an innocent purchaser of this 
portion of bis father's estate. 
Hence there was collected out of 
us $6,000.00 to satisfy this judg- 
ment. The vast area was sold at 
a force sale bringing, $2450.00. 
However, this has changed hands 
lately until it now belongs to 
three of Big Tom Wilson's sons, 
who are Ray heirs anyway, and 
we wish them better luck than 
our immediate family had with it. 

M. T. Ray, 

Altamont, N. C. 

For additional copies of this 
booklet address the Publisher, 
Geo. O. Ray, 318 E. Commercial 
St., Springfield, Mo., enclosing 50e. . 







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