Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Magnolias at "La Tete de Kiwi"

I was received with a great deal of courtesy by the mistress of the house whose husband was away. This woman was young, beautiful, but very devout, and continually reflecting on the different ways of thought among the Methodists, Anabaptists and Quakers. Conversations on these subjects went from seven until ten-thirty; I then became bored with it in spite of the kindness and charm of this woman, and I went to bed.
-Andre Michaux, December 1, 1788

The more I delve into Andre Michaux’s December 1788 expedition to the Southern mountains, the more contradictions I find. This trip has earned a place in the history of botanical explorations because Michaux collected specimens of Shortia galacifolia at the head of the Keowee River, and it took a century for subsequent researchers to locate the source of those plants. But the Oconee Bell was not the object of Michaux’s field trip. He was intent on finding Magnolia cordata, a rare tree mentioned by William Bartram on his 1775 trip through the mountains.

If diverse flora was one appeal of the region, Michaux also found a great diversity of people living on this frontier. By all descriptions, the Frenchman was a good conversationalist and well-mannered, but his diary reflects annoyances along the way. On December 1, he arrived near the head of the Savannah River (at the confluence of the Keowee and Tugaloo Rivers) where he stayed at the home of home of a Mr. Freeman (as described above).

Rather than proceeding straight up the Keowee, Michaux headed northwest along the Tugaloo. He traveled about twenty miles on December 2 and spent the night at the home of Larkin Cleveland. On December 3, he crossed the river to breakfast at the home of John Cleveland:

I crossed the Tugaloo River at the only place used for fording. It was so dangerous that two of our horses narrowly escaped drowning.

Larkin and John had fought beside their brother, Colonel Benjamin Cleveland, who was a hero at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. Cleveland counties in North Carolina and Georgia, and the town of Cleveland, Tennessee were all named for the Colonel. After the Revolution, the three Cleveland brothers brought their families to the Tugaloo just east of Toccoa, Georgia.

Leaving the Tugaloo, Michaux went east, spending the night of December 3 sleeping on the ground at Seneca. That night he wrote that his twenty mile trip had been:

…through country completely covered with forests, like all southern provinces, but it was very hilly…

Michaux spent a couple of days botanizing on the Keowee. On December 6, he proceeded upriver to some unnamed Indian village, where he spent the night with a hospitable native family.

On December 7, after securing a Cherokee guide to accompany him, Michaux continued about fourteen miles up the river, camping on the shores of the river at the foot of the mountains.

The next day, Michaux drew closer to the head of the Keowee and found the way becoming more and more difficult. About two miles before the head of the river, Michaux recognized the Magnolia cordata he had been seeking, collected specimens of “a new plant with denticulated leaves” (later identified as Shortia) and also found a place to stay for the night:

In this area there was a small hut inhabited by a family of Cherokee Indians. We stopped there to camp… The weather changed and it rained the whole night. Although we took shelter under a large white pine our clothing and blankets were drenched and soaked. Around the middle of the night I went into the hut of the Indians which could barely hold the family of eight persons, men and women. There were further six large dogs which added to the dirtiness of this housing and to the inconvenience. The fire was in the middle, without an opening on top of the hut to let the smoke escape; however, there were enough openings all over the roofing of this house to let the rain in. One Indian offered me his bed which consisted of a bear skin and took my place by the fire. But finally I was so annoyed by the dogs, which fought all the time for a place by the fire; that I returned to rny camp, especially since the rain had ceased.

On December 9, Michaux wanted to investigate the more precipitous of the two headwater streams to reach the highest mountains:

We had to cross precipices and creeks covered with fallen trees where ten times our horses plunged down and came close to perishing. We climbed up to a waterfall where the thunder of the falling water resembled distant shots of musketeers. The Indians said that at night fires could be seen at this place. I wanted to camp there, but the unexpected snow and the wind were so cold that we looked for an area lower on the mountain that was less exposed to the cold and that had more grass for our horses. The night was terribly cold. There was only pinewood to keep up the fire which burned poorly due to several snowfalls. Our snow-covered blankets became stiff with ice shortly after having been warmed.

Despite the cold temperatures. Michaux collected plants all of December 10 and for part of December 11:

I noticed a chain of high mountains stretching from west to east and where the frost showed little in places exposed to the sun. I gathered a ground juniper (Juniperus repens) that I had not yet noticed in the middle parts of the United States… On these mountains I saw several trees of the northern regions such as river birch (Betula nigra), alternate-leaved dogwood, white pine, hemlock spruce, etc. We crossed an area of about three miles through rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum).

By the evening of the 11th, Michaux had returned to the head of the Keowee. On December 12, he was retracing his steps as he continued downriver:

We kept close to the river and saw several flocks of wild turkeys. Our Indian guide fired at them, but the rifle failed several times since we had not been able to protect it from the rain in the preceding days. Thus our supper consisted of a few chestnuts that our Indian guide had gotten from another of his nation. We made eighteen miles. The weather was very clear. The freeze set in early in the evening, and, after having asked my Indian to tell me the names of several plants in his language, I wrote my journal by the light of the moon.

On December 13th I attempted to shoot a wild turkey at daybreak; there were plenty in this area but I was unsuccessful and we broke camp without breakfast. We were famished and changed our direction towards a camp of Indian hunters, and, although the hills became less steep, it was one o'clock in the afternoon before we arrived there after a journey of six hours estimated at only fifteen miles.

They cooked bear meat for us, cut into small pieces and fried in bear grease. Although it was smothered in grease, we had an excellent dinner, and, although I ate a lot of the fattest part of the meat, I did not become indisposed. The bear grease is tasteless and resembles a good olive oil. It doesn't even have a smell. When some food is roasted with it, it does not congeal until it freezes. After dinner, we made sixteen miles and arrived at Seneca in the evening.

What Andre Michaux actually meant by “the head of the Keowee” has been a subject of disagreement for many years. In 1886, seeking the same patch of Shortia that Michaux had described, Charles Singer Sargent attempted to retrace the 1788 journey. Sargent had his own theory about “tete de Kiwi”:

It has been suggested that the spot described by Michaux as the "Tete de Kiwi" might have been the junction of two rapid mountain torrents, the White Water and the Devil's Fork... It is more probable however, that the spot described as the head of the Keowee is the junction of the Toxaway and Horse Pasture Rivers, several miles above the mouth of the White Water and close to the North Carolina boundary… They are swift rivers flowing through beds cut deep in the rock, broken by innumerable rapids, and full of logs and boulders; in each about six miles from its mouth is a noble fall, or rather a series of cascades of great height and beauty. It was near one of these falls probably that Michaux wished to camp on the evening of the 9th of December, and the evidence favors the belief that it was the falls of the Toxaway.

Sargent believed that Michaux found the old Indian trail that continued up the Toxaway and crossed the Blue Ridge Divide between Hogback and Tigertail (now Panthertail) Mountains. This would have brought Michaux to the Tuckasegee headwaters that flow through Panthertown Valley. According to Sargent, the distant chain of high mountains that Michaux observed on December 11, 1788 would have been the Balsams.

Subsequent investigators have challenged Charles Sargent’s conclusions. In 1983, Robert Zahner and Steven Jones published the results of their attempt to follow Michaux’s path. They assert that the “head of the Keowee” mentioned by Michaux was actually the confluence of the Whitewater and the Toxaway, rather the confluence of the Toxaway and Horsepasture as claimed by Sargent. Instead of going up the Toxaway, Michaux went up the Whitewater to reach the “high mountains” (Chimney Top, Terrapin and Sassafras) where he botanized on December 10 and 11. Zahner and Jones explain that the spot where Michaux collected Shortia, two miles downriver from the head of the Keowee, was very near where Jocassee Dam stands today. This was also the location of an old Cherokee village called “Toxaway” destroyed by Colonel Archibald Montgomery in 1760.

I would like to see more evidence before casting my vote for one theory over another. Some of that evidence, though, is lost beneath the waters of Lake Jocassee. What remains indisputable is Andre Michaux’s ability to meet the challenges of exploring the backcountry. While returning to Charleston after his December 1788 trip through the mountains, Michaux encountered difficulties of a different kind. His biographers, Henry and Elizabeth Savage, describe the events of December 21:

After fording twenty large streams in bitter cold weather, he sought shelter and warmth in the home of an American loyalist with no love for Frenchmen. “This American tory said to me on my arrival that he would kill me if I spent the night at his house,” recounted the botanist, “and I told him I was not afraid of that because I was not fat enough nor my purse either! He wanted to badger me about my country but I was a match for him and he had to be content with making me pay dearly for my lodging.”


The illustrations, above, are of the main object of Michaux’s trip, the plant he identified in his journal as Magnolia cordata. He brought back specimens that were introduced into cultivation, but it would be another 150 years before the tree was once again found in the wild.

The “cucumber tree” or “cucumber magnolia,” notable for its rich yellow blossoms is now considered a variant of the Magnolia acuminata species (Magnolia acuminata var. subcordata).

I’m afraid things are not quite that simple, though. Michaux’s magnolia has persisted as a subject of debate and speculation for botanists up to the present time, and for a thorough examination of this subject, we would involve William Bartram, John Fraser, Magnolia auriculata, M. macrophylla, M. fraseri, Mountain Magnolia, Frasers Magnolia and much more. This is not something I will attempt to sort out, but I'll recommend a couple of articles for any intrepid botanical sleuth who wants some context:

The late Robert Zahner has a helpful article, “Bartram’s Mountain Magnolia,” on the Chattooga Conservancy website,

And Charlie Williams published “André Michaux and the Discovery of Magnolia macrophylla in North Carolina” in Castanea, (Southern Appalachian Botanical Society), Vol. 64, No. 1 (March 1999), pp. 1-13.

With apologies to Monsieur Michaux, I will call on his old friend Puc Puggy to wax rhapsodic over a tree that he saw near Mobile in the summer of 1775:

…how gaily flutter the radiated wings of the Magnolia auriculata, each branch supporting an expanded umbrella, superbly crested with a silver plume, fragrant blossom, or crimson studded strobile and fruits.

Finally (and this is not too much of a stretch) J J Cale sings about those whippoorwills that Bartram heard in the Keowee Valley where Michaux found that special magnolia.

Encore! Encore!

For all stories on Andre Michaux http://gulahiyi.blogspot.com/search/label/michaux


kanugalihi said...

very nice.

mountains running east to west must be the pisgahs. and if one went up the toxaway along the ridge between toxaway river and toxaway creek you are following an old trade route, which crossed over toxaway somewhere near bearwallow creek and then followed the intervening ridge up to the bench at Hogback where 281 meets 64. i'm sure that all of these long ridges were used by indians, and they are surely still used by wildlife, but this is one of the most gradual transects from the base to the top that one may make.

and to stop rambling, if you go to the east towards Frozen Creek instead of west and down across the Toxaway and up Bearwallow, you travel through the contintental divide without even noticing it (I'm sure that we can thank some excavating machines for reducing the topography in Maple Gap, a bit, but it's a natural break along the Brevard fault line that follows Frozen Creek road from the dumpsters at the confluence with West Fork on US 64).

My point being that from the W Fork and Rosman area the pisgahs do indeed run west to east. But so does the escarpment.

GULAHIYI said...

Interesting. I'm not as familiar with the topography of that area as I would like to be. I had one quick hike at Gorges SP last summer after they reopened.

I wonder if that trade route you mentioned is the Eastatoe Trace. I understand it passed through Rosman, but I didn't know how it continued west (a southerly course through Jocassee, or more northerly along the Toxaway).

Maybe I can locate Margaret Seaborn's book on Michaux's travels in Oconee County. Zahner and Jones relied on her interpretation of Michaux's route and seemed to confirm the Whitewater/Toxaway location. But I think there are still some factors that suggest it could have been Toxaway/Horsepasture.

kanugalihi said...

Might be hard to find these days but years ago a guy named Tim Barton I think published a map of trails and a small number of waterfalls and landforms in what is now Jocassee Gorges State park and surrounding gamelands. If i remember right he had found some interesting glyphs of some sort in a few places. used to be able to get it at the french broad grocery but it burned and at the gas station at NC 281. that book may contain some helpful information.

GULAHIYI said...

Thanks for the tip. Unlike most areas around here, that neck of the woods doesn't seem to have tons of hiking maps and trail guides. It'll be nice to see a Nat Geo map like the ones they've put out for Pisgah, Nantahala, and GSMNP.

Litobrancha said...

The Transylvania county library has a copy. not sure if this link will work but here is the title

A history of the Auger Hole, encompassing a 9,600 acre tract of land (offered for public sale to a state or federal agency by Duke Power Company), drained by the Toxaway River and Horsepasture River, in the southwest corner of Transylvania County, North Carolina / by Tim Barton.


GULAHIYI said...

I appreciate that lead. It sounds like something I would enjoy perusing. And that would give me a good excuse to spend some time in Brevard, which might be my favorite small town in Western NC. I have yet to see my first white squirrel, though.

Régis Pluchet said...

Probably André Michaux heard the whippoorwill too. A Cale's song for André Michaux : it is very exciting !
Best wishes, from Régis Pluchet, great-great-grant-nephew of André Michaux, correspondent of André Michaux International Society (www.michaux.org).

GULAHIYI said...

Good to hear from you, Regis. I plan to post a couple of more stories on AM. Right now, I'm trying to figure out what happened to 2800 acres of land that he purchased in Oconee County, SC during his trip to the mountains.

Régis Pluchet said...

Do you can the Oconee Bells Celebration at Clemson University (March 16-18 2007) ? See :
Excuse my bad english. I don't speak english, I can just write a little english.
I'm writing a text about the last Michaux's travel to Mauritius and Madagascar where he died.

GULAHIYI said...

Merci, Régis.
I didn't attend the Oconee Bells celebration. But Dr. McMillan's video on Oconee Bells inspired me to get out and find them this past spring.
I hope to read your text on Michaux's final travels.

Régis Pluchet said...

My text on Michaux's final travel will published october 2010 (in french !). In USA, Michaux traveled with Cherokees and other Indians (Illinois ?). Cherokees were deportee. But it is possible that Indians remember today of Michaux. I research music of the Michaux's indians friends.
You said to Frances Hunter your interest with Monsieur Genet (Citizen Genet). If you read in french, you can read : Citoyen Genet (la Révolution française à l'assaut de l'Amérique) by Claude Moisy. Moisy describe the Michaux's secret mission.
I published a text in english about Michaux in Castanea :
I have an interest to New Harmony, H.D. Thoreau, Tao Te King and Gandhi too !
Michaux's son, F. Andrew Michaux North American Sylva were published in english in New Harmony by french naturalist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur. Lesueur traveled with Michaux the elder to Mauritius and then to USA. Lesueur's website (in french and part in english) :