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Mount Mitchell: The Deadly History Behind NC’s Tallest Peak

Updated: Mar 19

Y’all, have you ever wondered how the mountains are named?

Most folks with a basic understanding of geography in the eastern United States are familiar with the name Mt. Mitchell. Towering at 6,684 feet tall, Mt. Mitchell is the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River. It sits in the Black Mountain subrange of the Appalachian Mountains, and is known in Cherokee as Attakulla. 

Mount Mitchell’s lofty height was famously measured in the early 1800s by its namesake — Elisha Mitchell — who used barometric observations to calculate the elevation of summits in Western North Carolina. It was Mitchell who first hypothesized that this grand mountain was the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. (In the present day, the highest point in the US east of the Rockies is known to be Black Elk Peak in South Dakota at 7,242 feet. South Dakota was part of the Missouri Territory at the time.) However, proving that Mount Mitchell really was the tallest peak would prove to be a challenging task with deadly consequences. 

Nothing ever is that easy, huh y’all?

Strap in, because this Appalachian story is a doozy. Let’s discover the tragic story behind how Mount Mitchell earned its name.

Who was Elisha Mitchell?

Portrait of Elisha Mitchell
Elisha Mitchell

First, we need to get to know the man behind the name — Mr. Elisha Mitchell himself. Who was this guy, anyway? Well, Mitchell had quite a full life with many notable accomplishments. Hailing originally from Connecticut, Elisha Mitchell was a scholar, geologist, Presbyterian minister, and explorer. After graduating from Yale, he made his way down to North Carolina to become a professor at UNC Chapel Hill in 1818 where he taught chemistry, geology, and mineralogy. 

Measuring the Mountains

While in North Carolina, Mitchell measured the height of several mountains in the western part of the state using barometric observations — finding the barometric pressure at different points along the mountain and calculating the difference to find the height.  

During a geological survey of North Carolina in 1828, Mitchell made an interesting observation. Specifically, he made a rather lofty observation about the Black Mountain range. They sure are tall, aren’t they? In fact, Mitchell was certain that according to his calculations, he had just identified the tallest point in the eastern United States. Up until that point, it was believed that Mount Washington in New Hampshires White Mountains was the tallest peak in the eastern US at 6,288 feet. But, if the math was correct, this peak was taller. By Mitchell’s measurements, this mountain was 6,696 feet tall.

Over the coming decades, Mitchell returned to the Black Mountains to collect data to support his theory. He journeyed to the high peaks in 1835, 1838, and again in 1844. You might think with all of this supporting evidence that no one would Mitchell’s claim into question. However, one man was convinced that he had identified an even taller mountain. That man was Thomas Clingman.

The Clingman Controversy

In 1855, state senator Thomas Clingman, a former student of Mitchell, claimed to have identified a peak taller than Mitchell’s that was further west and a stone’s throw away from the Tennessee border, known today as Clingman's Dome. Clingman insisted that this was a peak that Mitchell had not yet been to, and that his taller mountain was 6,941 feet tall. I suppose one thing has always been true of the dear male species — they always insist that theirs is bigger.

View from Clingman's Dome of the Great Smoky Mountains
Clingman's Dome

The view from Clingman's Dome, which is beautiful, and not as tall as Mount Mitchell.

Well y’all, Mitchell was having none of that. He knew that his measurements were correct, and he would set out to prove it. After arguing with Clingman through local newspapers over the next two years, Mitchell journeyed once more to the Black Mountain range in 1857. 

He never returned.

A week later, a search party was sent out to find Mitchell. After several days of searching, his body was discovered by “Big Tom” Wilson, who was known as a keen tracker and guide in the area. Mitchell was found in a pool of water at the base of a waterfall. Searchers also found his broken timepiece, which was stuck at 8:19:56 p.m., Mitchell’s presumed time of death. 

The waterfall that claimed Mitchell’s life is named, rather ominously, Mitchell Falls. These days, it sits on private property and is not easily accessible to the public.

Historic photo of Mitchell Falls circa 1857
Historic Photo of Mitchell Falls

By the way, it’s worth mentioning that Elisha Mitchell’s calculations were correct. A U.S. Geological Survey in 1882 measured Mount Mitchell at 6,684 feet, just 12 feet taller than Mitchell’s calculations. If you’re wondering, Clingman’s Dome is 6,643 feet tall — nearly 300 feet shorter than Thomas Clingman’s calculations. But, are we really all that surprised that a politician over exaggerated their abilities to the public?

Visiting Mount Mitchell

Mount Mitchell became North Carolina’s first state park in 1915, and you can get there via the Blue Ridge Parkway on mile 355. There’s an observation tower, balsam trees, several incredible hikes, and views as far as the eye can see. Just be sure to watch your step out there y’all!


North Carolina Waterfalls by Kevin Adams

For more photos and explorations, be sure to follow The Wandering Appalachian on Instagram and Pinterest! Be sure when you're discovering new places to practice Leave No Trace principles. Take only pictures, and leave only footprints. Happy wandering, y'all



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