More than a billion years ago, the Black Mountains were formed. This mighty range of peaks once stood lofty and rugged. But over millions of years, wind, water and other forces wore down the pinnacles to their rounded, more subdued profile of today. Only the erosion-resistant igneous and metamorphic rocks allowed Mount Mitchell to retain its dramatic height of 6,684 feet.
Because of the even elevation of its ridgeline, the Black Mountain range was referred to as a single mountain until the late 1850s. Of the separate peaks that have since been designated, six are among the ten highest in the eastern United States. Although the Black Mountain range is higher, its length and breadth do not equal that of the nearby Blue Ridge or Great Smoky mountains. From the air, the range bears the shape of the letter J, and the distance between its end points—Yeates Knob and Celo Knob—is merely 15 miles.
The climate of the Black Mountains is more like that of Canada than North Carolina. Extremely cold temperatures during the Pleistocene Era allowed the plants and animals of more northern latitudes to extend their ranges to the south, but as warmer climates returned, these cold-adapted species became restricted to the highest peaks. Therefore, many of the plants and animals of Mount Mitchell are much like those native to more northern alpine environments.
Long before explorers left Europe in search of the New World, various Native American tribes inhabited the area surrounding the Black Mountains. In the mid-1700s, the tribes were joined by settlers primarily of Scotch-Irish and English origin.
In 1787, French botanist Andre Michaux journeyed to the Black Mountains to seek the region's most valuable plants so the French government could cultivate them on their royal plantations. On his botanical excursions to the area, Michaux collected more than 2,500 specimens of trees, shrubs and other plants. About the same time that his French counterpart explored the area, Englishman John Fraser collected plants from the region to introduce to his native land. It was for this botanical explorer that the most abundant tree along the crest of the Black Mountains—the Fraser fir—was named.
Though botany was the first discipline to be explored in the Black Mountains, it was physical geography, particularly the measuring of mountains, that had the greatest impact on the history of Mount Mitchell. In 1835, Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a science professor at the University of North Carolina, made an excursion to the area to measure the mountain elevations. At the time, Grandfather Mountain was assumed to be the highest point in the region, but previous trips to the area had persuaded Mitchell that the Black Mountains were higher. Through the use of barometric pressure readings and mathematical formulas, Mitchell figured the highest elevation of the range to be 6,476 feet, higher than that of Grandfather Mountain. Subsequent visits to the Black Mountains in 1838 and 1844 led Dr. Mitchell to calculate the height of the peak at 6,672 feet—amazingly, only a mere 12 feet in error of modern calculations.
In the 1850s, controversy arose about which peak in the range was the highest. Thomas Clingman, a former student of Dr. Mitchell's, and a United States senator, set the elevation of the highest peak at 6,941 feet and insisted that Mitchell had measured another peak. In 1857, Dr. Mitchell returned to the Black Mountains to verify his measurements and to support his claim. While hiking across the mountain, he fell from a cliff above a 40-foot waterfall. Knocked unconscious by the fall, Dr. Mitchell drowned in the water below. In honor of his work, the highest peak in the Black Mountain range was given his name in 1858. Though originally buried in Asheville, Mitchell's body was reburied atop Mount Mitchell a year later.
Until the late 1800s, the Black Mountains remained largely in a wilderness state. The only apparent influence of man upon the environment was a reduced animal population caused by increased settlement and hunting. This lack of exploitation of natural resources was not to last, however. By the early 1900s, extensive logging operations had denuded much of the Black Mountain range. Logging activity had expanded rapidly by 1913 and citizens began to voice their alarm about the destruction of the forest. Foremost among them was Locke Craig, governor of North Carolina from 1913 to 1917.
In 1915, a bill was introduced in the state legislature establishing Mount Mitchell as the first state park. The legislation passed both houses quickly and on March 3, 1915, the North Carolina State Parks System came into being. In appreciation of Governor Craig's efforts, the second highest peak east of the Mississippi, with an elevation of 6,647 feet and also in North Carolina, was named Mount Craig.