Monday, March 06, 2023

"The Other Mount Mitchell Controversies: A Real Property History of North Carolina's Highest Mountain Range" by Gary V. Perko in The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. XCV, No. 1 (January 2018)

 "The Other Mount Mitchell Controversies: A Real Property History of North Carolina's Highest Mountain Range" by Gary V. Perko in The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. XCV, No. 1 (January 2018).

"As the highest point east of the Mississippi River, Mount Mitchell is one of North Carolina's greatest natural treasurers. The so-called "Mitchell-Clingman" controversy over the original measurement of the high peak is well documented, but it was not the only dispute involving Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountain range upon which it sits. For almost two centuries, North Carolina's courts and legislature were called upon to resolve disputes over who owned -- or should own -- the slopes of the Black Mountains and even Mitchell's high peak itself. The real property history of these lands involves an eclectic cast of land speculation, enterprising mountain folk, wealthy sportsmen and socialites, carpetbagging lumbermen, and, of course, lawyers and politicians. Their collective story is one of litigation, exploitation, legislation, and, ultimately, conservation.

Photograph: Mt. Mitchell in the distance. Courtesy Romantic Asheville.

. . . .*

"The records are clear, though, that in 1891 the Lusks, Moores, and Martins sold their interest in the Black Mountain lands formerly held by Stepp and Bailey to John Kerr Connally, a Civil War hero and graduate of Bailey's law school who had become a luminary of Asheville society after gaining a fortune in Texas and Virginia. [See Asheville Citizen-Times, February 2, 1904.] The deed transferring the Lusks' interest in the property to Connally perpetuated the confusion over the small parcel containing Mitchell's grave by specifically excepting the 'lot on Mitchell's Peak' they had purportedly 'conveyed to Miss Mitchell' three years earlier.'

"Not long after the sale of the Murchison Boundary, John Kerr Connally's widow, Alice T. Connally, followed suit, selling to Highland Spruce Company (for $18,410) almost all of the five hundred acres of Jesse Stepp's former lands that she held in the Black Mountains. In the deed conveying the property, Mrs. Connally reserved four small parcels, including a five-acre tract described as:

"Beginning on top of Mt. Mitchell at a stone lettered X standing North 35° 15' East of Mitchell's Monument and 8/10 of one pole from the same and runs with the top of Mountain South 62° West 14 poles to an upright stone and pointers; thence South 61° East 39 1/4 poles to a stake in the Eastern boundary line of Grant No. 659, thence with said line North 12° East 22.5 poles to a stake; thence North 60° 15' West 33.5 poles to a stake on top of the Black Mountain; thence up said top South 7° 30' East 13 poles to the Beginning. . . .

"Along with Jesse's Stepp's original reservation of 'Five acres on the Top of Mitchell's Peak and including the grave of Dr. Mitchell in his 1858 deed to Judge Bailey, Alice Connally's reservation would generate confusion when the State of North Carolina ultimately sought to preserve the summit of Mount Mitchell as a state park.

. . . .

"Over the course of 1915, the Mitchell Peak Park Commission managed to reach agreement with most, but not all, of those who owned portions of the 520 or so acres that the commission targeted for the new state park. . . . As to the 'five-acre Connally tract at the top of the mountain,' the commission rejected the price proposed by Alice Connally's lawyer, J. W. Pless of Marion, and decided to condemn the small tract.

"Based on other press reports at that time, it appears that Pless's job became even more difficult when two competing claims to the summit emerged in November 1915. First, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported the discovery of a 'long lost' deed conveying 'the top of the peak, including the grave and monument, to Margaret E. Mitchell, daughter of Dr. Mitchell.' As noted above, the deed to Margaret Mitchell was executed in 1888, but it apparently had been forgotten until Superior Court judge B. F. Long of Statesville remembered that, as a newly admitted member of the bar, he had been asked to draft a deed for the top of Mount Mitchell by Elisha Mitchell's other daughter, Mrs. E. N. Grant, also of Statesville. The resulting search of the Buncombe County Register of Deeds revealed the 1888 deed in favor of Margaret Mitchell.

"According to the Citizen-Times report, because Alice Connally was asking ten thousand dollars for her remaining parcels, the 'discovery' was 'highly important' and, in the words of Governor Craig, would save the state 'much expense, trouble and injustice.' In a letter to the editor published two days later, Richmond Pearson, a supporter of Connally (and a former U.S. ambassador under President Theodore Roosevelt), complained that the report had done 'injustice to Mrs. Connally' because she 'had never claimed' that her five-acre tract included the '40 feet by forty feet' parcel encompassed by the 'lost' deed or that ten thousand dollars was the price she required for it. Pearson also rightly pointed out:

"It seems almost incredible that the discovery of this deed which has caused so much rejoicing and which is alleged to have saved the state so much 'trouble, expense and injustice,' should have necessitated such long and arduous researches. The supplemental index in the office of the register of deeds of Buncombe County shows in plain words: 'V. S. Lusk to Margaret E. Mitchell, book 6a: page, 541.' This record--the cause of so much labor and exultation--could have been found by an ordinary layman in five minutes and has been known to Mrs. Connally and respected by her for twenty-five years.

"Nevertheless, the Citizen-Times correctly predicted that there would be 'considerable controversy as to the ownership of the land at the peak of the mountain.'

"At the same time the Citizen-Times was reporting about the 'long lost' Mitchell deed, other newspapers reported a different claim asserted by a granddaughter of Jesse Stepp, Mrs. Elizabeth 'Elsie' Stepp Cordell Burnette [Burnett].

. . . .

"Within weeks of the [condemnation] judgment [in favor of the State of North Carolina], Alice Connally agreed to sell her remaining Black Mountain holdings to the State of North Carolina for one thousand dollars. . . .

"Thus ended any dispute over the ownership of the top of Mitchells High Peak."


* Note: Many interesting pages were skipped as the purpose here is to show the involvement of John Kerr Connally and his widow in ownership of part of Mount Mitchell.

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