Mt. Mitchell History
In 1787, when French botanist Andre Michaux came to gather cuttings of the range’s more than 2,500 specimens of trees, shrubs, and other plants, he predicted that the highest peak in eastern North America would be found in the Black Mountain range. Elijah Mitchell, a science professor at the University of North Carolina and head of the North Carolina Geologic Survey, set out to prove just that in 1835, using bear trails, a mountain guide named Big Tom, a barometer, and mathematical formulas.
After several expeditions, Mitchell calculated the elevation of the range’s highest peak at 6,672 feet, only 12 feet below its true height. When his former student and then-U.S. Senator Thomas Clingman disputed his claim in the 1850s, the elderly Mitchell returned to verify his measurements.
Dr. Elisa Mitchell, became involved in a controversy with Senator Thomas Clingman over who first recognized this peak as the highest in the Appalachians. In 1857, at age 64, Mitchell returned to the area and set out to verify his contention that his earlier estimates were correct. He was hiking across the mountain when he apparently attempted to cross a small stream, lost his footing, and was swept over the 40-foot-high waterfall. Mitchell was knocked unconscious and drowned in the plunge basin below the falls. His body was recovered by a search group that included Zebulon Vance (whose home is a few miles south of Mount Mitchell), the legendary Civil War officer, governor of North Carolina, and United States senator.
He is buried at the very zenith of Mt. Mitchell in what is labeled as the highest grave east of the Mississippi.