At the time of the American Revolution the value of the unexplored regions of the new nation was unknown, especially along the barrier of thickly forested slopes of the Appalachian Mountains. French King Louis XVI appointed André Michaux Royal Botanist and sent him to investigate the plants in America that might be of value. An adequate supply of good timber for shipbuilding was a primary concern of the French.
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Michaux arrived in New York in November 1785. After establishing a garden in New Jersey, he sailed south to establish a larger garden near Charleston, South Carolina, which became his primary base for the next decade. From 1787 to 1796 he traveled to destinations as distant as the Mississippi River and Canada. His first foray into the American wilderness took place in June 1787, when he crossed into western North Carolina while following the rivers that form the sources of the Savannah. He camped on June 15th on the Highlands Plateau near the present town of Highlands.
Michaux’s journal documents the hardships he endured during this journey. On June 11, 1787, he set out with two Cherokee guides and an interpreter from the Indian village of Seneca (modern Clemson) in South Carolina. Although he had experienced man-made terrors in an earlier journey to the war-torn Middle East, where he'd been robbed, almost killed, imprisoned, and lost all his possessions, he now found himself even more frightened by "the unpredictable hazards of nature." He dreaded wading across torrential streams on slippery, underwater rocks. He was tormented by the thorns of smilax vines growing in impenetrable thickets, which tore at his flesh. He had a horror of stepping on poisonous snakes, and he feared being irretrievably lost if he failed to keep up with his Indian guides. He described “an increasing horrible fear of stepping on huge trees that were so rotted they gave way underfoot and we became half buried in bark and the leafy plants that surround them.”
Despite the physical dangers, the rain, and dense fog, the party pressed on up the mountains into North Carolina reaching the headwaters of the rivers that form the Keowee and Chattoga. On June 13 he discovered Shortia galacifolia. For the next hundred years, Michaux was the only botanist to have seen this mysterious plant, which was so rare no other botanist could find it.
On June 14 they camped near modern Cashiers. The following day they climbed a Cherokee hunting trail, which followed today's Norton Mill Creek. Among the high mountains of the Highlands Plateau on the Blue Ridge Divide, they trekked along trails so deep they "scarcely saw the light of day." After hiking twelve miles, they were compelled to camp on June 15 near modern Highlands.
The next day they crossed several mountains and creeks, which drained into the Little Tennessee River, and camped in the valley. The next morning the interpreter told Michaux that his Cherokee guides no longer recognized the way; it would be impossible to follow the river into Tennessee. Having the good fortune to find a path used by fur traders, they turned south through Georgia.
What Michaux learned on this first trip to North Carolina changed him. Some French writers of the eighteenth century extolled the virtues and harmony of the perfect state of nature in the wilds. But the wild, untamed nature that Michaux faced could kill or maim. Nature, as Michaux encountered it, was not something to be romanticized, but was a series of dangerous obstacles to be confronted and overcome. Although he was a rugged individual by the standards of his time, he was not prepared for the combination of physical and mental challenges he faced in the raw American wilderness. In following his Indian guides and sharing their dangers and hardships, he overcame his fears, continued his work, and emerged stronger for the experience. He would return to the wilderness again and again to make more discoveries.
Michaux frequently returned to North Carolina in search of plants new to science and for the enrichment of French agriculture and forestry. He would describe and name a significant percentage of the vascular plants native to the Carolinas. The most important plant he discovered, however, remained the little evergreen ground cover Shortia galacifolia that he found on this initial journey. Michaux neither described nor named it, but the little plant, which he brought back to Paris, so captured the imaginations of succeeding generations of botanists that their century-long search for it made western North Carolina the botanical Mecca of eastern North America.
J. P. F. Deleuze, The Annotated Memoirs of the Life and Botanical Travels of André Michaux (2011)
Patrick D. McMillan, “André Michaux, Botanist-Explorer of the South Carolina Upstate: Who Was this Man?” in Brad Sanders, ed., Proceedings of an Oconee Bell Celebration, March 16-18, 2007, Clemson University (2007)
Charles Sprague Sargent, ed., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (Jan.-July 1889), 1-145
Henry Savage, Jr. and Elizabeth J. Savage, André and François André Michaux (1986)
Robert Zahner and S. M. Jones, “Resolving the Type Location of Shortia galacifolia T. & G.,” Castanea (September 1983), 163-73