Mount Mitchell, rising to an elevation of 6,684 feet, is the highest point in the Appalachian Mountains and the highest point east of the Mississippi River. The UNC professor for whom the mountain was named fell to his death while exploring a nearby waterfall. It took us two hours to hike to the top from the park headquarters. The Old Mitchell Trail passes through relics of the ice age -- balsam fir, red spruce, and Fraser fir forests that are more typical of southern Canada. At this latitude, red spruce and Fraser fir only grow on the cool north slopes of mountains above 5,500 feet.
To what extent are the Appalachian Mountains related to the British highlands? Did plate tectonics force a once-single mountain system apart? Think of it: the 17th- and 18th-century emigrants from the highlands of Great Britain to the highlands of North Carolina would have found themselves in somewhat familiar geologic territory.
The Blue Ridge Parkway, a 500-mile-long ribbon of road that connects Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park, is the most visited unit of the National Park system. I was inspired by the scenery, culture, and history I learned when driving the North Carolina stretch. (I wish Carolinians would not diminish their mountains when the conversation turns to Colorado.) Here's something interesting to verify: A Carolinian told me that President Franklin Roosevelt had the Blue Ridge Parkway designed so that the scenic overlooks could double as artillery emplacements to defend the valleys below.
By the way, I did not realize that the Great Smokey Mountains National Park was one of the few UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage sites in the U.S. Of the 911 properties, only 21 are in the U.S.
When conjuring images of the Southeast, North Carolina's landscape is iconic. From east to west, one encounters impressive diversity: (1) the long chain of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks with the three associated capes -- Hatteras, Lookout, and Fear; (2) behind these barrier islands are the two largest sounds in the U.S. -- Albemarle and Pamlico; (3) the tidewater coastal plain makes up 45 percent of the state and includes the infamous Dismal Swamp; (4) the tidewater coastal plain stretches inland to the granite Fall Line; (5) beyond the hilly Fall Line is the Piedmont, which makes up 35 percent of the state, and (6) foothills and the highest stretch of Appalachian mountains in North America, the Blue Ridge mountains, with its long valleys beyond. Additionally, half of the state is covered by majestic longleaf pine forests, attractive to Europeans who had never seen such open, parklike pine forests before; the longleaf pine kingdom once stretched across 140,000 square miles of the Southeast U.S. In contrast to the longleaf forests of the coastal plain, rugged mountain vistas and ribbony waterfalls can be seen to the west; this dramatic landscape is on display in the movie, Last of the Mohicans (which James Fenimore Cooper sets in upstate New York).
Raleigh lies where the Fall Line intersects the Neuse River, just as Washington, DC, lies on the Fall Line of the Potomac River and Richmond lies on the Fall Line of the James River. The USGS notes:
The Fall Line is a low east-facing cliff paralleling the Atlantic coastline from New Jersey to the Carolinas. It separates hard Paleozoic metamorphic rocks of the Appalachian Piedmont to the west from the softer, gently dipping Mesozoic and Tertiary sedimentary rocks of the Coastal Plain. This erosional scarp, the site of many waterfalls, hosted flume- and water-wheel-powered industries in colonial times and thus helped determine the location of such major cities as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond.Thus the Fall Line is important to the natural and cultural history of the region. Generally, to the east of the Fall Line is the soft coastal plain whose sandy soils are ideal for the longleaf pines, while to the west of the Fall Line is the hard piedmont whose red clay soils support mixed agriculture. To the east of the Fall Line, rivers are navigable, while to the west they are harder to navigate because of the rocks. The existence of this east-facing cliff played a role in the American Revolution, when Patriots located state governments just above the Fall Line so that American capitals would not be so vulnerable to the British navy.
Those longleaf pines may also account for why North Carolina is called the Tar Heel State. One of the state's major products during the colonial era was tar, made by slowly burning longleaf pine wood. An essential product in the shipbuilding industry, pine tar was ideal for caulking and sealing hulls.
IMHO: The lost colony of Roanoke, Britain's first attempt to colonize North America, was probably destroyed by the tidal surge of a hurricane or by a spring tornado. (Four people were killed by a tornado that ravaged part of Raleigh about one month prior to our visit.)
The wilderness known as the Carolinas was named, ironically, in honor of King Charles I, whose court was one of the most decadent in English history. Beheaded, he nevertheless changed English heads. An antimodel of a Christian monarch, Charles's negative example helped inspire the burst of political ideas in England in the 17th century. This decadent king inspired both John Locke's liberal ideas and the Commonwealthmen's republican ideas. The confluence of these two streams of thought would have a considerable impact on the founding philosophy of American revolutionaries.
The English philosopher John Locke wrote North Carolina's first constitution. It does not seem characteristically Lockean, for it is an essentially feudal document. Locke's influence came more through the Second Treatise and the idea that Americans formed a social contract in a state of nature.
North Carolina's largest city, Charlotte, is named after the wife of the infamous George III. Studying her portraits, many historians have wondered about her conspicuously African features. It turns out she was directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a black branch of the Portuguese Royal House. Charlottesville, Virginia, is also named for her.
The earliest popular uprising against British colonial rule in North America occurred in North Carolina. The Regulators engaged in fierce opposition to unfair taxes and corrupt agents of the British Crown and Parliament from 1764-1771 -- resorting to armed resistance earlier even than the Massachusetts Patriots did. These frontier libertarians in the western counties wished to be left alone to "regulate" their own lives. Evangelical Protestantism fed their anti-authoritarian, individualistic outlook. They were defeated by the Crown-appointed Gov. William Tryon, who led militiamen at the Battle of Alamance in 1771.
North Carolina claims she was the first state formally to support independence from Britain. Regarding the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May 20, 1775: Was it the first declaration of Independence in British North America after Lexington and Concord, anticipating the ideas and verbiage of the Declaration of Independence written more than one year later?
Best quotation from Guilford Courthouse: "I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons" (Lord Cornwallis). The largest, most hotly-contested battle of the Revolutionary War's Southern Campaign was fought on the Ides of March. Cornwallis could not afford to lose many men because he was unable to recruit many Loyalists. He technically won the battle, but it was a pyrrhic victory that wiped out 25 percent of his force and set the stage for his defeat at Yorktown seven months later.
On Thomas Jefferson's advice, the state of North Carolina commissioned Antonio Canova to sculpt "Giorgio Washington" -- a remarkable piece of republican propaganda since it presents the first president as an ancient Roman in a toga who has put down his sword, a modern Cincinnatus of the republic.
"Tuckahoe" and "cohee" are the slang words once used to characterize two different British ethnic groups that settled in the Virginias and Carolinas in the 18th and 19th centuries. "Tuckahoe" refers to tidewater, slave-owning plantation owners -- New World gentry who brought the folkways of central and northern England to the colonies. "Cohee" refers to those immigrants from the Celtic fringe -- Scots and Scot-Irish especially -- who tended to be hard-scrabble farmers without slaves in the foothills and mountains of the Appalachians -- Crackers. The Tuckahoe tended to be Loyalists during the American War for Independence because they were more invested in British royal and commericial interests. The Cohee tended to be Patriots who supported revolution and separation from the Crown because historically they had always been on the margins of British economic and political power.
Moravians established a major missionary settlement in Salem (= shalom) in the 1750s and 1760s, about the time Americans were starting to grow restive under Parliament's assertions. I remember learning in grad school that they have fascinating origins in Czech and German lands, and in some ways were the original Protestants since they followed Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake by the Council of Constance in 1415 because he wanted to return the church in his homeland to the Greek Orthodox beliefs of Cyril and Methodius. During the American Revolution, the Moravians faced pressure from both Loyalists and Patriots to arm up, but they remained pacifists in the war.
The boundary between North Carolina and South Carolina, supposedly drawn on a map by King George II in 1735, still has not been definitively established. A boundary commission is currently working on the problem. The legislatures of both states will have to ratify the boundary commission's findings.
North Carolina boasts that it has given the United States three presidents, all Democrats: Andrew Jackson, James Polk, and Andrew Johnson. The statue on the east side of the Capitol mistakenly claims that Jackson "revitalized American democracy." This is backwards: American electoral politics took a democratic turn as a result of Jackson's presidency.
Andrew Johnson's birthplace north of downtown Raleigh is as humble as Abraham Lincoln's. Andrew Johnson was the first U.S. president who had never been either a lawyer or a war hero before coming to the White House. Known in his time as the "courageous commoner," this former tailor's apprentice and self-taught man held nearly every political office available -- without having attended a single day of school.
When George Washington Vanderbilt wanted to get away from it all (his home was New York City), he chose the mountainous terrain south of Asheville to build the largest private residence in the U.S. The house at the Biltmore Estate boasts some 250 rooms. I did not realize how bookish George Vanderbilt was. The 10,000-volume library on the south side of the main floor was my favorite room. Frederick Law Olmsted designed the grounds and established scientifically managed forest conservation in an area of the Blue Ridge that's the size of Connecticut. Olmsted hired the only trained American forester, Gifford Pinchot, and implemented the first forest management program in the United States. He also brought in a German scientific forester, Dr. Carl Alwin Schenck (the name means "gift" auf Deutsch), to nurture "the cradle of American forestry." Wished I'd known that when I was taking a forestry class at Colorado State University.
In the expansive forests of North Carolina, I learned this cool fact: There are two groups of oaks. These two groups are known as the white oaks and the red oaks. Try to remember cowboys and Indians. Historically, most cowboys were called white men; they shot bullets, which have rounded tips. The American Indians were called red men; they shot arrows, which have pointed tips. So the white oak group has rounded tips on its leaves, and the red oak group has pointed tips on its leaves.
So High Point is what supplanted Grand Rapids, Michigan, as America's furniture city.
Looking at the AAA map of the Carolinas, I was reminded of how close Charlotte is to the boundary between North and South Carolina. Downtown is within 10 miles of the border by car. It explains why the football team uses the inclusive name Carolina Panthers.
FLASHBACK: Speaking of Charlotte, I remember flying there in March of 2000 and driving with Bob Preston, the president of Belmont Abbey College, to the town of Belmont ten miles west of Charlotte. I was there to host a conference on the great Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson. President Preston told me that Belmont Abbey College was the only Catholic college between Washington, DC (Catholic University of America, Georgetown, Marymount), and Atlanta (Holy Spirit College). It's a remarkable Catholic island in a staunch Southern Baptist sea: The college is attached to an historic Benedictine monastary, its chapel is a minor basilica, and the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes has been designated an official Catholic pilgrimage site. In 2000 there was an attempt to found a Catholic college north of Atlanta in Dawsonville -- it was called Southern Catholic College -- but it closed in 2010, no doubt due to being too closely associated with the scandalized Legionaries of Christ/Regnum Christi.
Salisbury: The next time you order the steak, make sure you pronounce it SAWLS-bury. Raleigh's first vowel is also pronounced RAW-lee.