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Riddle Newsletter, Vol 4, Issue 2

Guide for Dr. Elisha Mitchell

Richard Riddle

William Riddle was born about 1793 in Stokes County, North Carolina and traveled with his father John W. Riddle, Sr. to the Caney (Cane) River Valley in 1805.

At this time there were no wagon roads and the only method of travel was by horseback or walking. William married Priscilla Renfroe and together they established a home on Laurel Branch near what is now Pensacola in Yancey County.

Their home was erected in forestland that was cleared by hand with the aid of his brothers and a few neighbors, one of who was Adoniram D. Allen, II, born in 1782.

Adoniram had married William’s older sister Lucinda "Lucy" Riddle and lived on Cattail Creek about one quarter of a mile from William’s home on Laurel Branch. William was a hunter and mountain man who knew the Black Mountains well.

As we approach the year 2,000. It is difficult to imagine how these early settlers of the upper Cane River Valley survived in these primitive conditions.

Adoniram Allen and William Wilson had accompanied Professor Elisha Mitchell on his search for the highest peak east of the Mississippi River on July 28, 1835.

William Wilson lived near Adoniram Allen on Cattail Creek. It should be noted that William Wilson is not related to "Big Tom" Wilson, the well known tracker and bear hunter who appears later in this article.

In 1835, Thomas David Wilson who would later be know as "Big Tom" was 10 years old and lived with his parents, Edward "Big Ned" Wilson and Rachel Silver in the South Toe River Valley. William Wilson and another Cattail Creek neighbor Samuel Austin had accompanied Professor Mitchell to the top of Yeates Knob a few days prior to their July 28 journey. Wilson and Austin felt that Yeates Knob was the highest peak in the Black Mountain Range.

When the party arrived at the pinnacle of Yeates Knob Mitchell realized, either by sight or calculation that he was not on the highest peak.

They returned to the Cane River valley where Mitchell obtained the services of a well-known guide and mountain man Adoniram Allen. On July 28, the next morning, Adoniram Allen and William Wilson again guided Professor Mitchell to the summit of what is now known as Mount Mitchell where they spent two hours.

Mt. Mitchell is 6,684 feet above sea level, the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. Based on barometric pressure (23.807 inches) and temperature (58 degrees F), Professor Mitchell would later determine the elevation of the peak as 6,476 feet above sea level.

Professor Mitchell was sure that the Black Mountains were higher than Mount Washington (6,288 feet ASL) in the New Hampshire White Mountain range but was not certain that he had correctly identified the highest point in the eastern United.

In 1838, Professor Mitchell returned to the Black Mountains and this time made two ascents of the Black Mountains, one from the south side through Dillingham’s Cove near present day Barnardsville and the other from the valley of the North Fork of the Swannanoa River.

Professor Mitchell received an honorary doctor of divinity degree in 1840 and thereafter was referred to as Doctor Mitchell. He made his third trip to the Black Mountains in 1844.

He was still not convinced that he had climbed the highest peak in the mountain range. This time he obtained the services of William Riddle and William’s son James. During his more than 30 years living in and roaming the Black Mountains William Riddle had achieved a well known reputation for being an outstanding hunter and mountain man.

No doubt Dr. Mitchell had heard of William Riddle and perhaps met him during his 1835 expedition with Adoniram Allen and William Wilson.

On July 5, 1844, Dr. Mitchell departed Asheville for the Cane River Valley by the way of Burnsville. He had established his barometric base in Asheville where Dr. John Dickson monitored the barometer. He arrived on Saturday and the next day preached a sermon in Burnsville.

In a letter written to his wife this same day he wrote, "Tomorrow I am expecting to ascend the Black Mountains I hope for the last time. I shall probably now reach the highest summit." On July 8, Dr. Mitchell and the Riddles began what Mitchell would describe in another letter to his wife on July 14, as the "hardest day’s work I have ever performed." The following is based on Dr. Mitchell’s directions to William Riddle.

They went from Riddle’s house on Caney River, by the way of the Green Ponds (now Eskota) and from there up Spruce Pine Mountain ridge (now called Big Pine Mountain) to a place named Beech Nursery. From there they turned right and continued in a southerly direction on as a direct course as possible to what is now known as Mt. Gibbes.

Mitchell did not remain long on the peak of Mt. Gibbes. He took a reading with his new mountain barometer and later calculated the elevation to be 6,672 feet ASL (125 feet higher than actual).

They then began their descent to the Riddle residence but due to darkness and rain they had to stop at a point near the Beech Nursery. They spent a wet night trying to remain dry by the flame of a sputtering fire. The next morning they followed Beech Nursery Creek to the Caney River and on to William Riddle’s home.

This ended the twenty-mile round trip over some of the most difficult terrain in the eastern United States. Dr. Mitchell was convinced that he had identified, climbed and measured the highest peak in the Black Mountains.

However the peak that Dr. Mitchell had climbed and measured on July 8, 1844 was three miles south of the highest peak in the east. This 1844 excursion would later be used in the 1856 Clingman-Mitchell controversy about who was the first person to identify, climb, and measure the highest peak in the Black Mountain.

During the 12 years between the 1844 excursion and the 1856 controversy several changes would take place in the upper Cain River Valley and Black Mountains.

Amos Ray would buy 13 thousand acres of mountain land in and around what is now Mount Mitchell including the upper Cane River Valley and Green Ponds (now Eskota). Virginia Wilson Boone, in her article on Eskota to be published as part of the Pensacola history book, tells us that Green Ponds got the name from two large ponds with bottoms covered in green moss.

These ponds were located in the upper valley near Cane River about four miles upriver from Pensacola. Other changes included an influx of settlers, hunters, fishermen and early tourists attempting to escape the oppressive summer heat in the lower counties of North Carolina.

Some of the high peaks would acquire new names. A peak between Potato Top and Mt. Gibbes would be named Mt. Mitchell in honor of Dr. Mitchell. In 1855 US Congressman Thomas Clingman journeyed to and measured the present Mt. Mitchell.

As a result of his claim that it was the highest peak in the Black Mountains, the locals named it Clingman’s Peak or Mt. Clingman. This would lead to the 1856 Clingman-Mitchell controversy that would end with the tragic death of Dr. Elisha Mitchell on June 27, 1857. Big Tom Wilson and his descendants became famous after finding Dr. Mitchell’s body.

In 1852, Thomas David "Big Tom" Wilson married Niagara Ray, daughter of Amos Ray. About 1853 they moved to Ray’s land at the Green Ponds. According to Tim Silver in his article, "Big Tom Wilson" in the November 1997 issue of Wildlife in North Carolina, Thomas David Wilson may have earned his nickname "Big Tom" from his size.

He was 6 feet 2 inches tall and spindly. Some family members believe that he may have been nicknamed "Big Tom" to distinguish him from younger family members who shared the first name. He supported his growing family by farming, fishing, hunting and robbing bee gums.

By 1857 an eight-mile foot trail had been cut from the headwaters of the Cain River near Green Ponds to the top of Mt. Mitchell. It is believed that this was the trail that Dr. Mitchell was seeking when he became lost and met his death at Mitchell Falls. Here I must continue with caution. Many of my Riddle readers are proud to trace their line back to Big Tom by the way of his daughter Beuna Vista (Vistie) who married Marcus "Mark" Riddle.

This is also true of my Ray and Wilson cousins. It is not my intent to diminish the reputation or character of Big Tom but to try and put in perspective a few facts that are often ignored when the Mitchell-Big Tom story is told.

By 1857, Big Tom Wilson had become a well-known hunting guide. Contrary to the many stories that have been told and published, he was never a guide for Dr. Mitchell. He and Adoniram Allen, son of Adoniram D. Allen, II, as well as others did find Dr. Mitchell’s body after searching for three days. Some researchers say that the first time Big Tom ever saw Dr. Mitchell was at the bottom of Mitchell Falls., 5 Nov 2007