Project Canterbury

William West Skiles

A Sketch of Missionary Life at Valle Crucis in Western North Carolina 1842-1862

Edited by Susan Fenimore Cooper

New York: James Pott & Co., 1890.

Chapter I.

Some fifty years since, the valley of the Watauga, in North Carolina, was a secluded region, isolated and forgotten, a mountain wilderness, showing only here and there the first rude touches of civilization. The narrow winding trail or foot-path, the rough sled-road, often dangerous for wheels, here and there a log cabin, with a narrow, rough clearing about it, or at long intervals a rude saw-mill or gristmill, with perchance a small, unpainted frame dwelling, or a blacksmith shop and a humble backwoods store, marking the beginning of a hamlet, such were the only traces of human habitation to be found on the banks of the stream. But the Highland valley was magnificent in natural beauty. It lay in the elevated country between the Blue Ridge and [5/6 ] the Alleghanies, nearly three thousand feet above the sea, while grand old mountains of successive ranges, broken into a hundred peaks,, rose to nearly double that height on either hand--many so near that their distinctive features could be clearly seen, while others were only dimly outlined in the distance. These mountain ranges were peculiarly interesting, differing in some particulars from those in other parts of the country. Their vegetation was singularly rich and varied.

About the year 1840, a gentleman from New York, after wandering in the low country of North Carolina, on a botanical excursion, determined to penetrate into the isolated region beyond the Blue Ridge, in quest of rare plants. After leaving the beautiful little village of Lenoir, the road at length followed the bank of the Yadkin, until it reached the Blowing Rock Gap, in a spur of the Blue Ridge. The Blowing Rock Mountain derived its name from a powerful wind rising with increasing force from the depths of a dark caƱon a thousand feet below, and sweeping over a ledge of rock on the mountain side. The [6/7] rough track crossed this Blowing Rock at an elevation of two thousand feet above the valley below, winding over heights which were not precipitous, but steep, declivities. The head-springs of the Yadkin, always very cool and refreshing, were passed. The Yadkin, it will be remembered, is the main tributary of the Pedee, flowing into the Atlantic. The headwaters of the John's River, flowing into the Catawba, were also passed, only a quarter of a mile beyond. A little to the northward, on the western declivities of the Blue Ridge, lay the head-springs of the New River, flowing into the Great Kanawha, and thence through the Ohio and the Mississippi, into the Gulf of Mexico. The Blue Ridge is crossed by no stream. It is the dividing range in North Carolina.

Following the Blue Ridge for several miles farther, the track left the mountains where they trend westward and wound downward into the valley of the Watauga, amid an unceasing accompaniment of brooks and cascades. This wealth of clear, bright waters gave a peculiar character to the country; their [7/8] murmur was ever in the traveller's ear. And the profusion of magnificent flowers, large in size and brilliant in colouring, gave additional charm to the mountain path; the azaleas, pink, purple, and orange; the grand rhododendrons, rose and purple; the laurel, scarlet trumpet flowers, the large yellow honeysuckle, and many others were thronging the undergrowth, cheering the wanderer on the rude highland track. There was something of gloom in the picture, too; the height of the surrounding mountains, the depth of the valleys and gorges, the dense, darkly coloured forest, covering hill and dale with a sombre green drapery, broken only here and there by very small clearings--all these told of the wilderness. Leaving the open, breezy mountain-tops, the wanderer seemed plunging downward into a basin, dark, mysterious, and all but uncanny in its sombre aspect. The remarkable richness and beauty of the vegetation, however, when seen in detail, either on the mountain-side, or in the few cleared acres, relieved the mind from what there might be of gloom in the general aspect. After an abrupt [8/9] descent of 500 feet, the Watauga was reached at a point called Shull's Mill-pond, 2,917 feet above the sea,about five miles from its source. This wild stream flows from the western face of the Grandfather, the highest mountain of that group of the Blue Ridge, which reaches an elevation of 5,897 feet. The general direction of the stream is northward, the rude mountain road following its winding course; at one point the track was so narrow that it was dangerous for waggons to attempt passing each other, and this danger continued for a distance of a mile. The country was indeed too thoroughly wild, and too thinly peopled, to allow of the hope of a good road. Only occasionally the traveller passed a small, rude log cabin, with a scant strip of clearing about it.

It was in this wild, and yet luxuriant region, so full of interest to the botanist, that the traveller from New York wandered for a time, gathering treasures for his herbarium, and delighting in the grand beauty of the country. He also became interested in the families living in the rude cabins where he sought shelter. [9/10] He found them very poor, ignorant, but simple, honest, and kindly, though very quiet and undemonstrative in manner. They received him hospitably and gave him the best of their mountain fare. And they were anxious for instruction. On his return northward he met Bishop Ives, and spoke warmly of the gratification he had derived from his excursion on the Watauga, and dwelt earnestly on the religious privations of these mountaineers: "An interesting population in great spiritual destitution."

Bishop Ives was at that time the head of the Diocese of North Carolina, and entirely faithful to the doctrines of the Church which had consecrated him to that holy office. He was so much interested in the traveller's report that at his next Visitation of the Diocese he made his way across the Blue Ridge, and on the 20th of July, 1842, he held a service in the valley of the Watauga. In his report to the Convention of the Diocese he spoke particularly of the people:

"While my sympathies were deeply excited in view of their great spiritual destitution, my admiration was at the same [10/11] time awakened by the simplicity of their character, and the deep earnestness of their petition for instruction. I addressed a few of them on their wants, and promised to send them, the moment it should be in my power, a Missionary, who should teach them the rudiments of knowledge, and preach to them the Word of God."

A few months later, in December, 1842, the Rev. Henry H. Prout came to fulfil the Bishop's promise. His labours began at the "Lower Settlement," near the point where the Watauga flows into Tennessee. He travelled on horseback or on foot. The paths, or trails, through the grand old forest were often obstructed by fallen timber, over which horse and rider must needs climb as best they could. The streams must be forded. A bridge, even of the rudest kind, was an effort of civilization to be found only in the most favoured spots. The "Lower Settlement" was at that date a scattered hamlet of the rudest kind, but it became the centre of Missionary work. On Mr. Prout's arrival he gave notice that he would hold a service on the following Sunday. This announcement made, the next step--by no means an easy one--required the collecting of a congregation. [11/12] The nearest cabins were scattered about, within a distance of a dozen miles, along the banks of the streams, on the mountain sides, or in the deep forest glens. The first of these parochial visits was characteristic of many others. Following the bank of the stream, climbing over fallen timber, or creeping under the great, moss-covered mouldering trunks, the Mission ary came at last to a solitary cabin. It appeared desolate and deserted. At first he thought it uninhabited, but as he drew near he discovered a faint smoke rising from the low chimney, and perceived the smell of beef boiling. He knocked. The door opened, and a wild-looking woman appeared, amazed and bewildered by this civilized visiter. She gave him the usual backwoods salutation: "What mout yer name be?" "What mout be yer business?" He was invited in, however, and made welcome after a rude fashion. A small rough table stood on the earthen floor; opposite the great yawning stone chimney stood a bench against the wall; these, with the iron pot on the crane, were the chief furniture of this mountain cabin. The Missionary explained [12/13] his errand, which excited a sort of dull wonder. The Gospel message was respectfully received, however, and the good man passed on to another cabin, and by the like rough paths. Thus the week was spent, and the blessed Lord's Day came round. The service was held in a cabin at the "Lower Settlement." It was well attended. Men and women came straggling in, many on foot, some on horseback, the wife in sun-bonnet and straight, narrow gown, riding behind her husband. Here and there a woman was seen mounted on a steer, with a child or two in her arms, while the husband, walking beside them, goad in hand, guided the animal over the rough path. The women all wore sun-bonnets, or handkerchiefs tied over their heads. Some were bare-footed. There were many more feet than shoes in the congregation. The boys and girls, even when full grown, were often bare-footed. This was no doubt the first service of our Church held in that region. And it was declared to be the first religious service of any kind held in the valley of the Watauga for seven years. The simple [13/14] folk showed themselves interested and grateful. Regular services followed, and as a consequence of the naturally civilizing effect of a reverent and dignified Christian worship, the people began of their own accord to wash and mend their clothing more carefully, to aim at a more respectable appearance in public for themselves and their children. The cabin in which the services were held soon became too small. The school began. A school-house of logs, large enough for the Sunday services, was built. Little improvements appeared, and at the end of several months a visiter, who had known the hamlet earlier, cheered the Missionary's heart by declaring he could not have believed it possible that so great a change for the better could have taken place in so short a time. Those wild pupils became very dear to the servant of God. They tried very hard to learn their lessons well. Occasionally some of the parents would come in, and pore intently over the spelling book. All did their best. Every now and then the lessons ceased, and a simple Hymn was sung, in which all joined, feeling that it was a grand thing to sing the [14/15] Lord's Praise. The verse most frequently heard was the Doxology of the saintly Bishop Ken:

"Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, y' angelic host,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost."

And where, among the English-speaking race, have not those holy words been devoutly sung? Is there one hour in the day when they do not flow from Christian lips, in one quarter of the world or another?

The results of these early labours in Ashe, now Watauga County, were reported by the missionary in 1843, as follows:

"Baptisms, 9; Confirmed, 1; Marriages, 3; Burials, 4.

"During the past year about fifty children have been instructed in the Catechism. Twenty-five prayer-books have been distributed. A Catechetical Library of 100 volumes, furnished by the Bishop, has been in general circulation.

"H. H. Prout."

Among the Baptisms recorded in this report one had taken place in a log cabin, the only dwelling in a secluded valley remarkable for its wild beauty. The Missionary held a [15/16] service in the cabin, where a small congregation had collected. The valley, entirely shut in by forest-clad mountains, was watered by three small, limpid streams, two of them leaping down the hillsides in foaming cascades; the principal stream, formed by the junction, after a short course of about two miles, passing through a narrow gorge, threw itself into the Watauga. The waters rushing over the rocky bed of the stream, and the many lesser brooks leaping down the mountain side, filled the air with an unceasing murmur, now loud and full, then more gentle and subdued. It was this secluded valley which, from the cross-like form of the three streams at their junction, was now to receive the name of Valle Crucis. It will be remembered that there was formerly a valley and a religious house in England of the same name.

In the month of August, 1843, Bishop Ives visited this valley and confirmed one person. He became so much charmed with the country and so much interested in the people that he proposed making this ground the site of important Mission Work for the Diocese. [16/17] Encouraged by the sympathy of several prominent clergymen and laymen, he took the first steps towards organizing the Mission by purchasing a tract of land. The little valley itself contained 125 acres of level land, one-third of which was under cultivation. This was purchased for $1,500. Later additions adapted to grazing, or valuable for timber, amounted in all to 2,000 acres. The prices of the later purchases have not been ascertained. The Bishop proposed making this valley an important centre of work for the entire Diocese, to include a Missionary Station, a Training School for the Ministry, and a Classical and Agricultural School for boys. The latter school was designed to aid the foundation.

When first visited by the Bishop it was thoroughly solitary ground. As an Indian would have said, there was but "one smoke" in the valley. The log cabin of the mountain miller was the only human dwelling, a very rude little grist-mill and a small tannery the only other buildings. But a change was now at hand. In August, 1844, contracts were [17/18] made for clearing the land and putting up the necessary buildings, which included a sawmill, a log kitchen, a dining-room of adobe, a dwelling-house of four rooms of hewn logs, and a frame building with boarded walls, 60 x 18, containing a school-room on the ground floor, beneath which a basement, walled and floored with brick, was afterwards excavated the whole length of the building, through a cut on the hillside, that was used for the chapel. The storey above the school-room served as a dormitory, with rooms for the teachers at each end. To these buildings others were soon added: a house of adobe 26 x 18, two storeys high, with a cellar below, a large frame barn, with brick basement for stables, a blacksmith's shop, and several log cabins for labourers. These were all scattered about in pleasing positions and near each other. A Bishop's house and a Chapel were also planned. Early in 1845 the school opened with thirty boys, the number increasing to fifty during the summer. The Rev. Mr. Thurston was, under the Bishop, head of the Mission and director of the school, in which [18/19] he was assisted by several well-educated young men, Candidates for the Ministry, of whom there were seven. The household affairs were managed by Mrs. Thurston and two other experienced ladies.

The Mission was expected to cover a circuit of thirty-five miles in the adjoining mountain region.

The first year of the school was far from satisfactory, owing to several causes. The buildings were not finished in time, and at the approach of cold weather the boys were not comfortably lodged. But a greater obstacle arose from the fact that a number of lads had been sent to Valle Crucis by their friends, as to a Reformatory. There were some excellent boys in the school. But the misconduct of others, who knew absolutely nothing of discipline and subordination, proved the source of very serious trouble. It became necessary to resort to expulsion, in some cases. The misconduct of those unruly ones had even a bad effect on the neighbouring Missions; the opponents of the Church were not slow to tell the Missionaries that this misconduct was the [19/20] natural result of Church teaching! A number of the boys were recalled by their friends. The ladies lost courage, and withdrew one after another. And, at length, the Rev. Mr. Thurston died, after a short illness, of an inflammatory fever brought from the low country.

But improvement was at hand. The school opened anew under the charge of Mr. Jarvis Buxton, a Candidate for Holy Orders, with good results. The young theological students pursued their studies with courage and devotion. The Missionary work was carried on by the Rev. Mr. Prout, with diligent fidelity.

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