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Muir, Michaux, and Gray on the Roan

by Bob Fulcher

Reprinted by permission from The Tennessee Conservationist, September-October, 1998.


"I don't want to die," wrote John Muir in June, 1898, "without once more saluting the grand, godly, round-headed trees of the east side of America that I first learned to love and beneath which I used to weep for joy when nobody knew me." John Muir, then, traveled to Roan Mountain.

He took in fog-drenched breaths from the sharp, savory atmosphere, and wandered among the ghosts of great adventurers who had sought out the place much earlier in American history. The remote, wind-stripped Roan Highlands, the steeply-pitched boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina, had long been, and still are, a requisite destination point for scientists, travellers, and collectors fascinated with the rare, the mysterious, or the extremes of the natural world. It was a group of plant hunters who brought Muir to Roan Mountain and it was their plant-hunting predecessors who first gave it fame.

The search for unknown botanical treasures in the Highlands of the Roan began over 200 years ago. The King of France, Louis XVI, sent Andre Michaux to America in 1785 so that he might ship back the raw materials to replenish and reinvigorate the war-wasted French countryside. There was a bit of national pride and even royal extravagance in the mission, too, for the king maintained the Jardin du Roi in Paris as a leading center of international research in botanical and agricultural sciences, but also as a showplace in need of ornaments and proof of the reach of French explorations. The fervor that drove his emissary, Michaux, through a thick, dangerous wilderness came, however, from an immense love of discovery, and a full appreciation for this opportunity in the still "New" World.

As His Majesty's Botanist, Michaux associated with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. As a fearless and passionate explorer he threw himself into the wilds of Florida, northern Canada, and the Appalachian Mountains and consorted with Indians, rum-loving backwoodsmen, hunters, and voyageurs. A widower, he raised his son, Francois Andre Michaux, on forsaken trails with a vasculum on his back and tomahawk in hand. Whether riding horseback or straggling on foot with a push cart, the Michauxs carried a burden of plants, roots, and seeds of importance for king or country.

Michaux's first journey to the Roan Highlands has been ignored or misinterpreted by most historians, who have usually misplaced him at Mt. Mitchell (then known as Black Mountain). Stopping at the homes of Waightstill Avery, a militia colonel from the freshly-concluded Revolutionary War, and two other Burke County veterans from Turkey Cove, North Carolina, Michaux first climbed Black Mountain on June 17, 1789. Five days later he ascended "Yellow Mountain." Yellow Mountain is currently the name of one of the lower knobs in the Roan Highlands group, but authorities in several 19th-Century manuscripts use the name synonymously with Roan Mountain. Yellow Mountain Road, Michaux's avenue into the highlands, had served as the route of the "overmountain men" nine years earlier, who had mustered at Sycamore Shoals [in what is now Elizabethton, Tennessee] and hustled across the Blue Ridge to Kings Mountain [in South Carolina] to demolish their British and Tory adversaries.

On the 24th of June, and probably in the company of Col. Avery, Michaux wrote:

"Arrived at Yellow Mountain which is thirty miles from Turkey Cove. This mountain is considered in Carolina and in Virginia as the highest mountain in all of North America." "It was a 5 mile walk to get to the top of this mountain. Before getting there we walked several miles along a chain of the highest mountains called the Blue Ridges."

Historians have been uncertain as to where and when Michaux found the shrub he named Rhododendron catawbiense [Catawba rhododendron] in his 1803 publication Flora Boreali-Americana, because he described its habitat both as the high mountains of Carolina and Catawba River. His first Roan trip must have offered him this piece of nature's brilliant feast, the late-June flowering of the rose and purplish Catawba rhododendron colonies densely assembled across that mountain back. The labelled specimen in his Paris herbarium gives further evidence that he probably found it on this 1789 trip, as he noted the flowering specimen was from "the summit of the high mountains of North Carolina."

Apparently exploring the mountain tops for three days, on June 28th he headed toward the Sycamore Shoals with some difficulty. "The road was rough and steep in several places, where we needed to proceed often on foot; and several times we needed to cut branches of the Kalmias [mountain laurels] with a tomahawk, which we always needed to carry with us when we travelled in the forests called Wilderness." Michaux, his son, Francois, and Col. Avery spent that night at the home of Landon Carter, "Major Carter, situated 20 miles from the summit of Yellow Mountain." The house, known as the Carter Mansion, is now a Tennessee State Parks' historic site.

Michaux would return to Roan Mountain August 21, 1794, and May 6, 1795, noting in his journal the unusual sand myrtle [Leiophyllum buxifolium var. prostratum], and the fir trees. He missed the significance of the indigenous fir, however, thinking they were simply balsam fir, and they were subsequently discovered by and named Fraser fir, for his rival, John Fraser.

Surprisingly, Michaux never mentioned the unusual grassy balds in his journal, though his son, Francois Andre Michaux, did so in his first book, Travels to the West of the Allegheny Mountains. In reporting the native opinion regarding the respective heights of the mountain peaks, he says:

"That of the first rank is called Grandfather Mountain, the next Iron Mountain, and thus in succession Yellow Mountain, Black Mountain, and Table Mountain,... On the top of Yellow Mountain, the only one that is not stocked with trees, all the above mentioned may be seen."

He added, too, a comment regarding plant distribution that became the subject of many future ecological studies, "I have since seen in my father's notes that he had observed trees and shrubs upon the Yellow and Grandfather Mountains that he did not meet with again till he reached Low Canada."

Andre Michaux was perhaps America's greatest plant hunter, but there were many others. John Fraser, a Scot, also took his son into the wild woods, mostly working as an entrepreneural nurseyman, sending American plants back to his London business, but, for one tour, in 1800, as commissioned botanist for the Czar of Russia. Fraser was determined to shadow Michaux through the backwoods, to outdo or at least equal the Frenchman, but Michaux, who considered Fraser to be under-educated and over-talkative, soon shook him off.

Fraser stole Michaux's thunder more than once, though. It was most likely in 1808 that he and his son first climbed Roan Mountain. As the great botanist W.J. Hooker told it in 1836:

"...On a spot which commands a view of five states, namely, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina, the eye ranging to a distance of seventy or eighty miles when the air is clear...it was Mr. Fraser's good fortune to discover and collect living specimens of the new and splendid Rhododendron Catawbiense, from which so many beautiful hybrid varieties have since been obtained by skillful (sic) cultivators."

Catawba Rhododendron, with its excellent frost hardiness and color, became parent stock for dozens of hybrids in England and Europe, and thus became associated with Fraser. Fraser fir, which Michaux had overlooked, was growing in English gardens by 1811. And Colonel Avery, Michaux's first mountain guide, was soon thereafter arranging wagonloads of plants to be shipped from Charleston to Fraser's English nursery. In a letter dated January 15, 1812, he stated:

"Since Mr. Fraser took his last passage to England, Myself and my Son have promised for him at the Time approved of 4000 plants of the Rhododendron chiefly of the Scarlet flowering Species and blue and red, and white & red speckled flowering Species...1000 Magnolias & other plants..."

Fraser's name is commemorated by three plants growing atop the Roan or on its slopes: Fraser fir, Fraser's sedge, and Fraser's magnolia.

Another celebrity of early American botany and of English birth, Thomas Nuttall, must have gotten word of Michaux's and Fraser's work among the fine plants on Roan, as he mentions an 1816 ascent of the mountain in his famous North American Sylva. Moses A. Curtis, an Episcopal minister from Massachusetts who later published the first North Carolina guide to flora, visited the "high ranges" of Burke and Yancey countys in 1835-36, becoming very familiar with Roan Mountain and discovering a few of its rarest species.

It was Curtis who advised Harvard botanist Asa Gray, as Gray contemplated his first excursion to the Blue Ridge, but warned him, in May, 1840: "you will be obliged to travel on foot or horse back along intricate cattle paths, and put up with accommodations on the way, such as you have never dreamed of."

Asa Gray was revered in his time, and considered the giant of American science, with full international credibility and acclaim. He got the urge to explore the southern mountains after discovering an overlooked, unnamed plant among Michaux's specimens at the Paris Jardin in 1839. Gray boldly claimed the honor of naming the plant Shortia glaucifolia, after frontier botanist Charles W. Short, but felt a responsibility to rediscover it in the wild, and was also compelled by the hope of discovering other unknown species.

With a pair of botanist-companions and a rickety wagon, he toured the rough edges of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee in mid-summer 1840. Gray was aware of Elisha Mitchell's published report that the Roan was "the easiest of access and the most beautiful of all the high mountains of that region. Mitchell had described it in 1835 as "a vast meadow... without a tree to obstruct the prospect; where a person may gallop his horse for a mile or two, with Carolina at his feet on one side, and Tennessee on the other, with a great ocean of mountain raised into tremendous billows immediately about him. It is the pasture ground for the young horses of the whole country about it during the summer.

Gray and his companions were delighted with both the flora and the climate: "The night was so fine that our slight shelter of Balsam boughs proved amply sufficient; the thermometer at this elevation of about six thousand feet above the level of the sea, being 64 deg. Fahr. at midnight and 60 deg. at sunrise."

They found "Geum radiatum [spreading avens] in the greatest profusion," remarking "it was here that Michaux obtained this species," and noted the intensely colored variety of bluets, that would later be called the Roan Mountain bluet (Hedyotis purpurea var. montana), and the southernmost population of green alder, which they hoped might be a new species, and the spectacular red and black-spotted lily that would, in 1879, be described as a new species and named Gray's lily, Lilium grayi. Too, Gray collected the sand myrtle that Michaux had seen earlier, and described it as a new variety of the species.

But for all their searching, the party did not find Shortia. Gray had another unsuccessful hunt three years later, then had to wait another 33 years, fitting this nagging quest into a family vacation.

About his next journey, in 1876, Gray wrote:

"My wife's desiderata are simply these: To see both Rhododendron's in flower, and to get some rough wagonrides.

"The nieces... are enticed by our accounts of Rhododendrons and the nice rough times, and the chance of sleeping in their spectacles, and Roan Mountain, where they would like to stay a week!"

With the promise of seeing Fraser fir, Gray tempted aging Dr. George Englemann and his wife to travel from Missouri and camp with them, adding another preeminent name in American botany to list of Roan Mountain explorers. William Canby and John Redfield, both nationally prominent herbarium directors, also came to collect.

Gray again failed to find Shortia, but three years later, after it was rediscovered by a 17-year-old herb collector, he hurried back to see it, and, again, to visit the Roan.

The 1879 trip did not involve a bed of moss and fir needles, as Roan had sprouted a rustic spruce-log hotel, "comfortable and well kept" in the words of one of the party, and under the management of former Civil War general John T. Wilder. This party included Charles Sprague Sargent, another Harvard botanist who would eventually produce the 14-volume unsurpassed work on American trees, and, again, Canby and Redfield.

Gray, this time, was too late to see Shortia, but his wife got her wish, as Gray reported they had seen "on the grassy plateau Rhododendron Catawbiense, perhaps more of it than in all the rest of the world, just coming into blossom."

Redfield, more so, gave a detailed account of the excursion, including an observation regarding one of Roan Mountain's most famous ecological controversies:"There is some reason to believe that this forest has been encroaching upon the bald portion of the summit, but as it is now being largely cut for fire wood and fencing, any such encroachment is likely to be checked, perhaps, too effectually."

Gray made a final trip to the Roan in 1884, leading a party of friends, family, and botanists, among them John Ball, an Englishman famed for his floral discoveries worldwide, from Morocco to the Peruvian Andes. Close to the end of his life, he called the Roan his "favorite," "the finest" of the Eastern Mountains.

In 1885 the Cloudland Hotel was completed on the summit of Roan, a three-story, sky-high Victorian way station that made the mountain accessible and attractive to upper-class summer guests and allowed the investigation of mountain ecology to proceed with little discomfort. Already described in 1880 as "an almost continuous scientific convention," the traffic in prominent scientists simply increased: George Vasey and F. Lamson-Scribner of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and professors J. W. Chickering, John Harshberger, and J. K. Small were among the well-published botanists to visit.

Arthur Heller, a 23-year-old student in 1890, tramped from Blowing Rock, North Carolina to the Cloudland Hotel during a summer vacation, collecting four previously unknown, rare species along his route. Although he described his visit to Roan Mountain as "a failure botanically," his professor recognized one of his specimens as a new goldenrod, naming it Solidago roanesis. In all, three plant species (including a sedge, Carex roanensis, and a composite, Prenanthese roanenesis) commemorate the name of Roan Mountain, a tribute no other eastern peak can claim.

It seems most fitting that John Muir, the greatest proponent of wildness since Thoreau, laid down on Roan's soft, grassy cushion at least once in his life. In 1897, Muir had invited Sargent and Canby to Alaska, and had thrilled them with incomparable scenes. Sargent, in turn, offered Muir an eastern tour, and he immediately took to the idea. Canby was in charge of the itinerary, and intended to first take them to his favorite botanizing haunts, Salt Pond Mountain, in Virginia, and Roan Mountain.

Canby wrote Muir, addressing him as "Dear ol streak o' lightening on ice". Muir referred to Canby as "the young burly bear & chipmunk botanist," and got charged up for the "Alleghany tree festival." He wrote to Sargent "I want to avoid cities & dinners as much as possible & travel light & free. If tree lovers could only grow bark & bread on their bodies how fine it would be, making even hand bags useless."

Too many miles aboard jolting trains and wagons and poor food made him very sick, though, and he complained of dizziness and the grippe. The entourage went directly to a place that would do him good. His letter was penned to his wife and daughters from the Cloudland Hotel, astraddle the Tennessee and North Carolina state line, on September 25, 1898, and is all that survives of his encounter with the great Roan Mountain.

Dear Louie

We drove here from Cranberry yesterday, a distance of about 18 miles through the most beautiful deciduous forest I ever saw. All the landscapes in every direction are made up of mountains, a billowing sea of them without bounds as far as one can look, and every mountain hill & ridge & hollow is densely forested with so many kinds of trees their mere names would fill this sheet. & now they are beginning to put on their purple & gold. Liriodendron. Nyssa. Sassafras. Oxydendron Mountain ash. Tilia birch beech hickory ash Magnolia 3 species. Chestnut ect. & maples. I wish I could hand you a bouquet of these leaves their beauty is perfectly enchanting.

After lunch yesterday we walked 5 miles along the mountain top to where the storms of winter prevent trees from growing here.

The open broad ridge top for miles is covered with rhododendron about 5 ft high which in flower must make a glorious show. Around the base of the rhododendron clumps there is a rich bossy growth of Leiophyllum buxifolia a charming heathwort. The temp. is distinctly alpine & for the first time since leaving home feel like my old self. I have been quite miserable but this air has healed me...

Wanda Helen love to all ---

From your loving husband

John Muir

[Letter courtesy of John Muir Papers, Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library © Muir-Hanna Trust, 1984; Used by permission.]

In this letter, and in a letter to his sister, Margaret, he apparently enclosed a few tiny, pinkish blossoms from the sand myrtle or "heathwort," a flower somewhat similar to the heather of his native Scotland, and noted on the Roan by Michaux, named by Gray, and nailed to the heart of Muir.

Not so long after the arrival of the 20th Century, the big mountain would see the Cloudland Hotel come down, but tourists and scientists would not stop coming. East Tennessee State University, from D. M. Brown, for whom the ETSU biology building is named, to John Warden, has especially contributed students and professors committed to solving the mysteries and problems of Roan's strange fields and forests. The Catawba rhododendron of Michaux and Fraser is now celebrated by one of Tennessee's most august and popular community events, the Rhododendron Festival, held annually in June at Roan Mountain State Park. Each year the little "heathwort" blooms, noticed only by naturalists and wayward highlanders.

This good place, it seems, will always draw good people, and enthrall great scientists, and heal the homesick lovers of wild beauty.


(Bob Fulcher is a regional interpretive specialist for Tennessee State Parks. He wishes to thank Greg Rogers and family for translation of the Michaux journal, and Herb Roberts, Marcus Simpson, David Rembert, John Warden, Jamey Donaldson, Anita Karg, and Jennifer Laughlin for their assistance or previous work on this topic.)


Reprinted by permission from The Tennessee Conservationist, September-October, 1998.



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