Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Lead in the mountains

‘Passed Stonecyplus an old bachelor who they say knows where there is lead in the mountain near but will give no account of it. Left my wagon at Dyck Jones, and went on a couple of miles further to John Lipps and then up the creek a mile and a half further to see some black lead. Found a little in the granite rocks but none of any value.’ This is from a short diary kept by Elisha Mitchell, an American professor and geologist. He died 160 years ago today, while trying to establish the height of Black Dome which was later renamed in his honour as Mount Mitchell.

Mitchell was born in Washington, Connecticut, in 1793, the eldest son of a farmer. He studied at Yale, and, after teaching for a while on Long Island, returned to Yale as a tutor. In 1817, he took over the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at the University of North Carolina (UNC). In 1819, he married Maria Sybil North, and they had five children that survived into adulthood. In 1821, he was ordained as a presbyterian minister. In 1825, when still only in his early 30s, he became professor of chemistry, mineralogy and geology at UNC. In parallel, he worked as the state surveyor, making many geological and botanical excursions. He was the first to establish that the mountains of North Carolina were the highest east of the Rockies. While on an expedition to Black Dome (now Mount Mitchell), trying to establish its exact height as the largest peak in the range, he was overwhelmed by a storm and died - on 27 June 1857. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, North Carolina Digital History, or Documenting the American South.

UNC holds a collection of Mitchell papers including: ‘Mitchell’s diary, 1813-1816, begun at Yale and kept irregularly while he was teaching at various places in the North, containing mainly religious reflections and slight personal comment; his private notebook, 1818-1847, containing miscellaneous comments on mathematics, musicology, electricity, the natural sciences, and history, and personal accounts and notes on reading and letters received; [and] Mitchell’s journal, letter book, and account book, 1818-1842.’ Mitchell also kept a short diary in July 1828 - the only one, in fact, to have been published, i.e. by UNC in 1905 as part of the James Sprunt Historical Monograph Series. The short book - Diary of a Geological Tour by Dr. Elisha Mitchell in 1827 and 1828 - which includes an introduction and notes by Kemp P. Battle can be read freely online at Internet Archive or New River Notes.

Although Mitchell’s record is called a ‘diary’ it is written, in fact, as a series of letters describing his experiences over the previous few days. And, though 1887 is included in the title, there is only one entry from December that year, and all other entries are dated July 1827. Battle notes in his introduction: ‘The letters, while containing allusions of a personal and family nature, were evidently intended to be material for a report or an article for a scientific journal.’ Here is part of one extract.

20 July 1828
‘Tuesday morning. Rode up to see Gen. Stokes and Col. Wellborn. Their father-in-law Hugh Montgomery owned one of the finest plantations on the river. They married sisters, and this plantations was divided among them. Stokes is considerably the oldest. They have not formerly agreed very well but are said to be on good terms now. Wellborn is nearest to town - only two miles off. Called on him. He offered me breakfast - whiskey and then feeding of my horse, but I declined them all. Showed me some minerals and I went on to Gen. Stokes’ two miles farther. What Wellborn’s real character is I cannot make out. He has been a member of the Baptist church and will now allow no swearing about him. He left the church under the idea that he was unfit to remain in it. He seems to have a religious paroxysm. He is a candidate, a furious Jacksonite and a prompt bold man. At Gen. Stokes’ I was treated with great kindness. I used to wonder why he was so much put forward in the state but it now appears. He is a very pleasant man of good sense. His wife appears much younger than himself. He was born 20 or 30 miles above Petersburg in Virginia and was a sailor in his youth. In his family he has been exceedingly unfortunate - perhaps this is not the proper word. He has been a great card player and is at present a great swearer himself so that we may conjecture what their education has been. In addition to this I suspect some defect in the moral and physical constitution of the young men themselves. One, Hugh M. Was educated at Chapel Hill and is now a lawyer in Morgantown. He is said to possess respectable talents but is intemperate. I was told of his reformation as I passed through Morganton last year. As we were conversing freely about his children I told him I had understood that Hugh had reformed. He said he had hoped so - had sent him on his circuit with Judge Donnell with high expectations but on his return he staid at Morganton instead of coming home and he knew but feared to ask for what. Another son is a midshipman, a third is at West Point and I gathered from his father not succeeding very well, a fourth is at home. I told him I intended to give my children the best education in my power and then if they did not succeed, not to permit it to trouble me - he said I could not help it - and I suppose he was right. He gave me some information respecting the running the line first by Strother and Co.65 to painted rock and then by himself, Dr. Caldwell, and others along the great Smoky mountains. After dinner rode out to see Michals Forge and Ore Bank; the Forge (not yet completed) is the only one in the county. The ore bank is 2 or 3 miles off; the ores appear to be tolerably good though not of the first quality and has been manufactured into iron pretty extensively at Beard’s Forge in Burke. There seems to be a series of beds of iron, one lying on this side of the Brushey Mountains, on one of the spurs of which Michals ore Bank is extending like everything else in this country from N. E. To S. West; returned to town - and took tea at Major Finley’s where I saw Col. Patterson and his wife - granddaughter of Gen. Lenoir.

Wednesday Morning. The repairs of my wagon not being yet completed I did not start till about eleven. In the meantime walked out to see the Wilkesboro mineral spring. ‘Tis only some water that oozes through some earth and leaves that has been brought down the road, and that it contains perhaps a little iron has little to recommend it besides its dirty nauseous taste. Started at eleven with Dr. McKenzie and passed up the river, found the rocks mostly Gneiss the whole day and indeed throughout this whole excursion; found iron on the road 6 miles from town in white flint rock. Near Millers when we crossed the river McKenzie told me there was a bank of Porcelain clay; I did not visit it. Passed Stonecyplus an old bachelor who they say knows where there is lead in the mountain near but will give no account of it. Left my wagon at Dyck Jones, and went on a couple of miles further to John Lipps and then up the creek a mile and a half further to see some black lead. Found a little in the granite rocks but none of any value. Was told by Lipps of the garnet on the lands of ___ Church, his father-in-law, who lives just under the Blue Ridge. Returned to Jones’s and got an excellent cup of coffee. Anderson Mitchell and another Lipps came in with specimens chiefly from flat Knob amongst which I found rich characterized Sappare or Kyanite.

Thursday Morning. Crossed over through a barren country to the river which we had left and then up the river to Gen. Jones where we arrived about noon or a little after. It is not difficult to account for the deterioration of the “Range” of which people are continually complaining in this part of the country. Two causes operate in the production of this effect. 1. Since the country has been cleared and plantations laid out it will not answer to burn the woods as formerly for fear of destroying the fences and the consequence is that the small undergrowth is not destroyed as it used to be - the woods become thicker and not like an orchard as they are in the indian country - and thus herbage of all kinds being shaded does not grow and flourish. 2. Of the different kinds of herbage those suited to the sustenance of cattle as the pea-vine and natural grasses are fast devoured and both become less vigorous in their growth and are prevented from going to seed whilst the contrary effect is produced upon the bitter unpalatable weeds. Thus our woods become thick also and shady and the little herbage they produce is not fitted to the sustenance of cattle. Passed Gen. Lenoir’s (Old Fort Defiance) and stopped at the house of his son-in-law Gen. Jones to dinner. The Gen. out electioneering. A man of wealth - has two sons one at Hillsboro with Mr. Bingham and the younger with Mr. Gay. His daughters all married, two of them at table - one recently wedded to Lawyer Henry of Greenville, district S. Co. originally a Yankee? and a well enough man, the other - the youngest stole a march upon her parents and married her cousin Larkin Jones described to me by McKenzie as the smartest young man that has been raised in Wilkes. After his marriage was raised into favour and went on last winter to attend the medical lectures at Philadelphia and the agitation produced by the sudden and unexpected return of her husband at night caused a miscarriage from which she is still feeble. After a thunderstorm, occurring whilst we were at dinner, was over, obtained a horse and rode accompanied by a son of Catlett, the General’s brother, to Gidding’s old place to see some ore said to be there - the distance 10 miles. For two or three miles the country was tolerably open but the hills afterwards closed in upon us and we wound our way beneath them beside the river bank and were finally obliged to cross one or two pretty considerable ridges in order to reach our place of destination. A ride of this kind to one accustomed to the monotonous sameness of the Low Country is pleasant and agreeable and would have been highly so to me but for a shower that fell. Giddings old place, now occupied by three men by the name of Harrison - a father and his three sons, is a fine sample of what is called in the mountains as a Cove. The Yadkin is here a brawling mountain stream and the mountain instead of coming up close to it recedes so as to leave a handsome plantation of level land along its banks. Here is a fine peach and apple orchard and as pleasant a spot but for its situation as is to be found in the country. But the only access to it is by a trail or foot-path leading over a mountain ridge. Tis a very valley of Wyoming - the place for a person to retire to, who has been illtreated by the world and is disgusted with it - the place for him to retire to and not be happy. I recommend it as a retreat to Lawyer Henry - telling him how finely he could shoot bears for his wife to eat and get fine skins to warm her - the orchard would also furnish fine whiskey for her as well as the field the best of wheat and he could present the whole to her as the product of his own labor and a testimonial of his love. But he did not seem to approve the plan. We did not leave the place before sun-down and had then to wind our way over the hills and down the river ten miles but it was a fine moon-light night. We reached home after the family had all retired to rest but found a good supper ready for us.’

The Diary Junction

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