(b. Washington, Connecticut, 19 August 1793; d. on Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, 27 June 1857)
Elisha Mitchell was the eldest son of Abner Mitchell, a farmer with substantial property, and Phoebe Eliot, a direct descendant of John Eilot, the “apostle to the Indians,” who translated the Bible into Algonkian. A precocious child, he learned to read at an early age and possessed a nearly photographic memory. He attended school in Litchfield County, Connecticut, where he showed an interest in scholarship of all kinds, especially in natural science. Mitchell graduated from Yale in 1813 and in 1819 married Maria Sybil North, the educated daughter of a physician, by whom he had three sons (two of whom died in infancy) and four daughters. All his children received an excellent education, much of it imparted at home by their parents.
In 1816 Mitchell became a tutor at Yale, and in 1817 he was appointed professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. In the same year he received a license to preach and was ordained a minister of the Presbyterian church in 1821. In 1825 he transferred to the chair of chemistry, geology, and mineralogy at the university, a post that he held until his death. He received the honorary degree of doctor of divinity from the University of Alabama in 1838.
Mitchell accepted the scriptural account of the creation, and yet his Elements of Geology, a work published when he had been a minister for over twenty years, contained a sentence that showed him to be ahead of most of his contemporaries in accepting the principle of uniformitarianism:“A knowledge of the present will assist in explaining the past” (p. 64).
Mitchell was endowed not only with culture and learning but with humor, and he employed all these gifts in doing work in various fields. He earned respect as an authority on botany, geography, and geology, particularly of North Carolina. In his many cross-country trips on horseback and on foot, he not only took abundant scientific notes but made numerous friends. In 1842 he published the first geologic map of North Carolina and was the first to explain the origin of its gold deposits. He also wrote on meteorology and was a pioneer in applied soil science and in conservation.
Mitchell’s lectures were all the more effective for being enlivened with humor. He was state geologist in 1826 and, during two brief periods, was acting president of the University of North Carolina. In addition he served as justice of the peace and town commissioner for Chapel Hill, preached on Sundays in the university chapel and the village church, prepared student manuals on natural history, botany, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and certain religious topics, and contributed several scientific papers to the American Journal of Science.
Mitchell’s richly varied career came to a tragic end in his sixty-fourth year. In 1839 he determined the altitude of the North Carolina peak now called Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain in the eastern United States. On a return to the summit in 1857 to verify his measurements and to attempt to settle a priorily dispute, he lost his life in a fall from a cliff into a pool, in which he drowned. He is buried at the top of the mountain.
I. Original Works. Mitchell’s writings include Agricultural Speculations, North Carolina Board of Agriculture (Raleigh, N.C., 1825), 49–58; Report on the Geology of North Carolina, pt. 3 (Raleigh, 1827), 1–27;“On the Character and Origin of the Low Country of North Carolina,” in American Journal of Science, 13 (1828), 336 -347; “On the Geology of the Gold Region of North Carolina,” ibid., 16 (1829), 1–19, 17 (1829) 400;“On the Effect of Quantity of Matter in Modifying the Force of Chemical Attraction,” ibid., 16 (1829), 234–242;“On a Substitute for Wclther’s Tube of Safety, with Notices on other Subject,” ibid., 17 (1830), 345 350;“On the Proximate Causes of Certain Winds and Storms,” ibid19 (1831), 248–292; “Analysis of the Protogaea of Leibnitz,” ibid20 (1831), 56–64 “On Storms and Meteorological Observations,” ibid., 20 (1831), 361–369;“Notice of the Height of Mountains in North Carolina,” ibid35 (1839), 377–380; Elements of Geology With an Outline of the Geology of Sorth Carolina (n.p., 1842), with map; and Diary of a Geological Tour, James Sprunt Historical Monograph, no. 6 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1905), with introduction and notes by K. P. Battle.
II. Secondary Literature. See K. P. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I (Raleigh, N.C., 1907), II (1912); H. S. Chamberlain,“Life Story of Elisha Mitchell, D.D., 1793–1857, Professor in the University of North Carolina From 1818 Until His Death in 1857,” unpublished MS, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill (1951); F. B. Dexter, Biographic Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, VI (New York, 1912), 586–589; G. P. Merrill, Contributions to the History of American Geology, U.S. National Museum Annual Report for 1904 (Washington, 1906), 285–286, 706; and The First One Hundred Years of American Geology (New York, 1964), 114–116; and Charles Phillips,“A Sketch of Elisha Mitchell,” in Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, 1 (1883–1884), 9–18, with portrait on frontispiece.
Ellen J. Moore