Dr. Mitchell had come to the Black Mountain to identify the peak which he had ascended some years before and to assert his claim to its discovery and measurement. He and his son had ascended the mountain from the south or Swannanoa side to the Patton House, and the son not being able to proceed further, the doctor made his way to the summit alone, and left word with his son that he would descend the mountain on the north side by a trail he was directed to take to Big Tom Wilson’s who knew all the peaks and who had had a conversation with the doctor’s former guide and could certainly identify the spot to which the guide had taken him when he measured the height. This was the last ever seen of Dr. Mitchell alive; it was on Saturday the 27th of June, 1857.
The Friday following, persons in search of the doctor had been at Big Tom’s and not finding him, it was agreed to make search for him in the mountain. So on Saturday, in company with some half dozen others, they ascended the mountain on the north side some three miles, where they met a party from Buncombe, who had searched the trail the doctor was directed to take and had found no trace of him, and is was now growing late, they returned with sad hearts to Big Tom’s to rest for the night and agree upon a plan of operation for the morning.
Sunday, July 5th, the two parties ascended the mountain again, one going to the ast fork and one to the west fork of Caney River, Big Tom taking the east fork leading directly towards the peak, then through the Beech Nursery Gap, and on the south side of the mountain to the top of the Black Mountain, then over to the Buncombe road which leads to the Patton House, where they arrived hungry, weary and without rations, at 3:00 in the afternoon. No trace of the doctor was yet found.
Governor Vance, who was one of another party hunting on the southern side, soon came into the Patton House, and taking in the situation, at once directed the men to drive up a fat heifer that was grazing on the mountain and gave command to slay and eat. The skill of Ephraim Glass soon sent a bullet through the heifer’s brain and she lay a sacrifice to the heroic men who had been toiling in fruitless search all day. So great was the hunger of the men that many did not wait to cook the meat, which they ate without bread and salt. In the meantime the Governor had started another party down the Swannanoa side for flour, salt and a little “extract of corn” as Big Tom called it. This party returned during the night, winding their way up by the dim light of torches, and the whole crowd partook of the provisions and were refreshed.
On Monday, it having been reported that Eldridge and Frederick Burnett, old mountain bear hunters, had seen the sign of broken balsam twigs near a shelving rock on the west prong of the Caney River, the party resolved to search in this region again. Big Tom protested, as he wished to go to the peak and search for signs from that point, but he was overruled. The west prong, which led rather to the south side of the mountain instead of the north side where the doctor started to go, was searched all day but without success, and the searchers returned again to the Patton House almost hopeless and concluded to give up the search for the present and renew it again in three or four days, when the assembling of birds of prey over the dead body might indicate its locality.
Dr. Mitchell’s son, who was present, became much affected with emotion and expressed great horror of leaving his father’s body to become the prey of birds or food for the beasts of the forest, and entreated that more effort should be made. Big Tom at once assented and expressed his opinion again that the doctor was on the east prong of Caney, which led down to his house where the doctor started, and those who agreed to assist him next day prepared scanty rations from what was left of the flour and beef and ascended to the peak to spend the night at the Stepp cabin. This party was composed of Big Tom, Adoniram D. Allen, James Allen, Burton Austin and Bryson McMahan. All mountaineers and well acquainted with every path and road around Black Mountain.
On Tuesday, the 7th of July, 1857, this little band of persevering heroes rough and rugged in appearance, but whose generous, noble hearts glowed with enthusiasm and swelled with emotions of compassion for the living and pity for the dead, began their laborious and tiresome search amidst the gloom of this rugged solitude. They first examined the area of ground on Mitchell’s peak where the doctor went, and then going to the trail he was directed to take, and finding no sign, then commenced the descent toward the south side by the easy prong. They had not gone more than a quarter of a mile until Adoniram D. Allen found an impression in the moss, which covers the whole surface of the ground like a green velvet carpet at this great altitude.
Soon the scattering party gathered around the “sign” to give their opinion as to its origin. As it was a mere depression scarcely describable, three of the party expressed their belief that it was a bear “sign” but Big Tom said no, and argued that the instinct of a bear always led him to follow rocky ledges, where he could not be trailed or followed, and that a man would naturally walk where it was the easiest to his foot. The cause was argued for some time, with all the sagacious logic of the crafty mountaineers, looking earnestly into each other’s faces; and, finding that they were not agreed, they began to search again in silence and moved on. Twenty steps from this impression they found a broken balsam tree about the size of one’s arm, which had fallen down the mountain and lodged on a log below, raising the trunk about four feet high. The trunk was rotten and freshly broken as if a weight had been put on it which it could not support. Another council convened, and Big Tom said that this little tree was broken by a man, for he said, “only men and bears ever get up here, and if a bear had passed he would have gone under the trunk, whereas it being rotten, a man would naturally break it down in front of him and go on.” Then looking down at the broken ends where thy rested on the moss he discovered depressions on each side. “Now,” he said, “look at this; a bear’s foot is too short to go across the trunk, but a man’s would show the toe of his shoe on one side and the heel on the other.”
Adoniram D. and James Allen seemed convinced and the others become hopeful, and they quickened their pace, now taking the direction from the impression to the broken balsam. Impressions like the first were discovered and soon led them to an open spot two hundred years distant, from which could be seen a farm belonging to Big Tom about six miles off. Here were impressions of a footstep, as if the person was walking from side to side to catch a glimpse of the distant farm, which, no doubt, was the first awakening of hope in the doctor’s bewildered brain. Examining the sign more closely, Big Tom at last raised up with a smile of triumph on his face, and pointing to a small root of a balsam tree said, “See the print of the shoe tacks which his heel scraped off that root. There is no doubt that this is his track. Did you ever see a bear’s heel with tacks in it?”
All were now agreed and became intensely interested in the further progress of the search. Old man Allen slapped Big Tom on the shoulder and said, “We’ll stick together as long as there is a button on our coat,” and met the response from Big Tom, “Bully for you.”
After consultation it was now agreed that they would go back first and report what they found that the doctor had taken a horse trail by mistake, for the trail which led to Big Tom’s. McMahan and Austin now left for home and Wilson and the Allens soon met with Robert Patton, Calvin Patton, Thomas Wistall and a Mr. Burgin, who were on the other side toward the Patton House. These seven men now returned and renewed the search. They soon came to a pine log which was rotten, and on it could plainly be seen the doctor’s track. This track was exactly in the trail which the doctor had traveled with Allen and Wilson some years before the ascent to the peak. The position of the foot indicated that the doctor was now turning directly toward the clearing which was visible in the distance and which no doubt he hoped to reach by following a straight line to it. The tracks were now easily traced for half a mile toward the clearing. Here the party stopped to take their scanty rations for dinner and sent two of their number for more help.
After dinner they continued the search, and in a short distance found impressions again where the doctor would move from side to side as if taking observation across a small creek in front of him, which was making it way down a gorge in the mountain.
The footsteps now left the bear trail and turned immediately down the rocky bluff to the creek below. No doubt his purpose now was to take the water course and follow it to the settlement below. His track was now invisible, yet Big Tom passed on, calling out, “Here he went! Here he went!” Mr. Robert Patton now demanded how he could trace the way. “By the broken laurels,” said Big Tom. “Don’t you see the white side of the laurel leaf turned toward you there in front? That is where he broke a twig as he passed through the thicket and you can follow it by this sign all along.”
Big Tom and the Allens passed on, the others following and soon cried out, “Here night overtook the doctor.” “And how do you know that?” said the followers. “In this way,” replied Tom. “Don’t you see that back there among the laurels the doctor picked the best ways and crept through the open places, but here he ran up against a bush and there he fell over a rock. Don’t you see where he slid down and this show he could not see his way longer.”
The signs now led them down to the creek about two hundred yards above the falls, where there were evidences of the doctor’s having slipped and fallen several times as far as four or five feet until finally he got into the creek, at the mouth of the branch where the water was waist deep. No sign could now be seen, and it was evident that the doctor had waded down the creek. So the party divided, one taking one side and one the other, to find where he came out. A short distance below Wilson discovered broken sticks a drift, which indicated that the doctor had climbed over the drift and displaced some rubbish. Here Big Tom heard the falls and said, “I hear a fall roaring that must be fifty feet high, and I fear the poor man has met his death there.”
No human being, so far as these mountaineers knew, had ever been along this dreadful chasm before. Big Tom says he now literally climbed along from rock to rock and tree to tree by the overhanging sides of the creek fellow until he came to the head of the falls. Here he secured himself and looked over. A large spruce pine had washed over the falls from above and was standing erect with one end resting in the pool below. S it obstructed his vision he clambered about twenty feet further on and descended the rocky bluff, and here he saw where the doctor had slipped on the shelving rock. He had evidently tried to work his way around the falls in the darkness and had gotten this far and was trying to get into the creek again. Big Tom says after the creek poured over the falls it ran to the right under this shelving rock and deadened the sound so that the doctor was deceived as to the distance it was from him, and ventured too soon to turn towards the channel, which he was seeking. From this point where the doctor slipped Big Tom gazed down into the pool under the falls and discovered the doctor’s soft fur hat washed up on a log. No one was present and he could not hear his call made for the noise of the many waters.
After a while the other members of the party came up and he pointed out the hat. Big Tom now worked his way down to the pool and looking into the crystal waters said, “Poor old man, here he is.”
The sun was shining directly down in the water and the body was distinctly visible. The pool was fifteen feet deep and the body had risen up about halfway and was prevented from coming to the surface by a log on which the rigid arm had lodged below. Its position indicated that the doctor had fallen to the bottom of the pool and had died there on his all fours face downwards, and when the gases formed in the body it rose until it came in contact with the log, where it rested about seven feet from the surface.
The doctor’s watch had stopped at sixteen minutes before nine o’clock which was no doubt the hour he fell and came to his death, and Big Tom’s guess as to where night overtook him was correct. The body looked natural and was not disfigured. Further examination showed that the doctor had slipped down forty five feet and then fallen over the precipice fifteen feet into the pool below. The body was left as found until a coroner was procured and an inquest held.
These men of the mountains carried the body of Dr. Mitchell to the top of the mountain which now bears his name, where an excited debate ensued. The men of Buncombe County wanted the body buried in Asheville. Big Tom Wilson and the men of Yancey County wanted the body buried on the mountain whose height Dr. Mitchell had measured. A dispute had arisen between Dr. Mitchell and the then Congressman from this district, General Thomas Clingman, as to the respective heights of this particular mountain and that of Mt. Clingman, and it was in the attempt to re-measure the height of this mountain that Dr. Mitchell lost his life.
The Buncombe men outnumbered the Yancey men and accordingly the body was taken to Asheville for internment, but in the next year at the request of the members of Dr. Mitchell’s family, the body was disinterred and carried by gentle hands to the highest spot in Eastern America, the top of Mount Mitchell, 6,711 feet above the roaring sea. A beautiful tower was erected in honor of this great man on this peak and donated to the State of North Carolina.