Silas McDowell (1795-1879) was, according to Gary S. Dunbar, a “gentle genius” who “left an indelible, though unobtrusive, mark on the western North Carolina mountains, his adopted home.” Born in the York District of South Carolina, McDowell, a distant relative of Joseph McDowell of Pleasant Gardens, North Carolina, was orphaned at age two. His schooling was at Asheville’s Newton Academy after which he was apprenticed as a tailor. For ten years he followed that trade, leaving Charleston for the mountains of North Carolina at age twenty-one. In 1823 he acquired a farm in Haywood County (now Macon) where he would live out his years.
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McDowell’s circle of friends and correspondents was wide-ranging: fellow tailor and future president Andrew Johnson; botanists Moses A. Curtis and Asa Gray; historian and manuscript collector Lyman Draper; writer Hinton Helper; and political leaders Zebulon Baird Vance, Thomas L. Clingman, and David L. Swain, whose niece he married in 1828. Robert Strange drew from McDowell much of the background for his 1839 novel Eoneguski and in the introduction acknowledged his friend as “a scholar, a gentleman, and one deeply versed in the legendary lore of the country.”
Although not a trained scientist, McDowell made substantial contributions to the botanical exploration of the North Carolina mountains. He was also a devoted student of and author of articles on fruit growing, horiticulture, animal husbandry, and geology. His most noteworthy article was “Theory of the Thermal Zone,” published in 1861 in Agricultural Reports, in which he originated the concept of a “thermal belt,” a temperate area between mountains and flatlands ideal for growing certain crops. McDowell himself was, according to C. O. Cathey, “the outstanding apple producer in the state” in the 1850s and developed several new varieties. Like Sidney Weller of Halifax County, he was also a pioneer in viticulture, or grape growing.
In the postwar years, McDowell devoted himself to documenting western North Carolina history, exchanging materials with Draper and penning his own reminiscences of events such as the Vance-Carson duel of 1827. Today his papers are in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Gary S. Dunbar, “Silas McDowell and the Early Botanical Exploration of Western North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (Autumn 1964): 425-435
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, IV, 98 – sketch by Gary S. Dunbar
Cornelius O. Cathey, Agricultural Developments in North Carolina, 1783-1860 (1956)
Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography (1888)
James Wood Davidson, The Living Writers of the South (1869)
John Preston Arthur, Western North Carolina: A History (1914)