Archived Mountain Voices

All in a day’s work

One of the more interesting and entertaining early descriptive accounts of the southern mountains is contained in a diary kept by surveyor John Strother. In 1799, he was appointed one of the surveyors for determining a portion of the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina.

According to the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 5 (UNC Press, 1994), Strother was born in Culpepper County, Va. After becoming a surveyor, he traveled in the mid-1780s to Georgia, where he became involved in a plan to secure a large tract of land at Muscle Shoals in the Bend of the Tennessee River. When that didn’t work out, he moved to southeastern North Carolina. By 1795, he was surveying and mapping lands there totaling more than 850,000 acres owned by John Gray Blount. He subsequently surveyed and mapped other holding throughout the Piedmont region of the state and the eastern fringe of the Blue Ridge. He was apparently living in Asheville at the time of his death in 1815.

Of particular interest in these excerpts from Strother’s diary are his descriptions of an encounter with a large rattlesnake (which he describes as a “rattlebug”), the extensive grassy balds at Roan Mountain, and the “pictures” he claims to have seen at “Painted Rock” (i.e., Paint Rock) in 1790 that were no longer visible in 1799. The name of the settlement on the French Broad River then known as Warm Springs was changed to Hot Springs in 1886. The text is reproduced here as it appears in Strother’s diary.

May 12th, 1799 - Set out from Asheville, Buncombe County, in order to meet ye commissioners appointed by the State of North Carolina to run the line between the state & ye state of Tennessee. At Capt. Robt. Nalls on New River where I arrived the 17th instant, met with Major Mussendine Matthews, one of the Commissioners, his son & Mr. Robt. Logan, chain bearers & markers waiting the arrival of Genl. Joseph McDowell & Col. David Vance, the other two commissioners & the rest of the company ...

Saturday, June 1. After being much refreshed from our last night’s rest we eat a hearty breakfast. Started and continued ye state line along the extreme height of ye Stone Mn in the course of one mile. Seen a very large rattlebug; attempted to kill it, but it was too souple in the heels for us. Continued about 2 m further, took several observations of ye Yellow Mn. Ground very rough. Came to Wattaga River at a very rocky place, crossed on rocks and proceeded near one mile where we encamped on a handsome eminence near a good spring. One of our party turned out and killed a two-year-old she bear. Very poor. Upon which and some bacon stewed together with some good Tea and johnny cake we made a Sabbath breakfast fit for a European Lord ...

Thursday, June 6th — A plesant clear morning. Slep sound & comfortable last night. Had no gnats to trouble us. Breakfast on short allowance and set out on the line at 7 o.c. Went about 2 m to the top of the Yellow Mn 1/2 m from ye Yellow spot on a course N.W. by W. at Bright’s path, then went to ye Yellow spot in order to take observations, but was disappointed by a hard thunderstorm ...

Saturday, 8th — A pleasant fair morning. We packed up and proceeded on with the line, 4 to 5 m. crossed a high spur of the Roan Mn to a low gap therein where we encamped at a pleasant Beech flat & good spring. Spent the Sabbath day on taking observations from the high spur we crossed, in gathering the fir oil of ye Balsam of Pine which is found on this mountain, in collecting a root said to be an excellent preventation against the bite of a Rattlesnake, and in viewing the wonderful scenes this conspicuous situation affords ...

Wednesday 12th — Spent last night agreeable. Was entertained with some good songs, then slipped ourselves up in our blankets sleep sound till this morning. Arose, eat our breakfast, packed up & started the line. Colo. Vance & Neely went to the Limestone settlement for a Pilot. Returned to us at the line at 2 o.c. with a Mr. Collier Pilot & two gallons whiskey. We stopped, drank our own health & proceeded on the line. Ascended a steep spur of the Unaker Mn. Got into a Laurel thicket, cut our way some distance. Night came on. We turned back and camped at a very bad place, it being a steep Laurelly hollow, but the whiskey had such miraculous powers that it made the place tolerably comfortable ...

Thursday 27th. — This morning cloudy and hasey. The commissioners being anctous to get on to the Painted Rock started us early. Went on with the line a wrong ridge and fell in another fork of Paint Cr. Returned & encamped on the right ridge where we spent our time uncomfortable this evening.

Friday, 28th. — Set out very early and proceeded on the line about 4 m to the painted rock on FB River, about 5 m below the Warm Springs. Measured the height of the rock & found it to be 107 feet 3 inches high from top to the base. It rather projects over the face of the rock; bears but few traces of its having formerly been painted, owing to its having been smoked by pine knots and other wood from a place at its base where travelers have frequently camped. In the year 1790 it was not much smoked; the pictures of some humans, wild beasts, fish & fowls were to be seen plainly made with red paint, some of them 20 & 30 feet from its base ...

Saturday, 29th. — The company set our for home to which place I wish them a safe arrival and happy reception. As for myself, I stay at the Springs to get clear of the fatigue of the Tour.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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