An Old Account of Mt. Washington
A Word Upon its Insect Life
A Word on Mt. Katahdin

Sieur de Monts Publications XVIII
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President American Academy of Arts and sciences, 1846 to 1863

In the United States, exclusive, or possibly inclusive, of Louisiana,* the highest point or ridge of land is undoubtedly that of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. From the earliest settlement of the country, these mountains have attracted the notice of the inhabitants and of mariners along the coast, by the distance at which they are visible and the whiteness of their appearance during three-quarters of the year. They were for a long time the subject of fabulous representations; the Indians had a superstitious dread of them, and travelers who occasionally ascended their summits returned with exaggerated reports of the difficulty and distance, as well as of the strange productions found on the more elevated parts of their surface.

*See Note A, page 33.


The earliest account of an ascent of the White Mountains is given in Governor Winthrop's Journal, and appears to have taken place in the year 1642. This account is curious, at least for its antiquity.

"One Darby Field, an Irishman, living about Piscat, being accompanied with two Indians, went to the top of the White Hill. He made his journey in eighteen days. His relation at his return was, that it was about 160 miles from Saco, that after 40 miles travel, he did for the most part ascend; and within 12 miles of the top, was neither tree nor grass, but low savins, which they went upon the top of sometimes, but a continual ascent upon rocks, on a ridge between two vallies filled with snow, out of which came two branches of the Saco river, which met at the foot of the hill where was an Indian town of some 200 people. Some of them accompanied him within 8 miles of the top, but durst go no further, telling him that no Indian ever dared to go higher, and that he would die if he went. So they staid there till his return, and his two Indians took courage by his example and went with him. They went divers times through the thick clouds for a good space, and within 4 miles of the top they had no clouds but very cold. The top of all was plain, about 60 feet square. On the north side was such a precipice as they could scarcely discern the bottom. They had neither cloud nor wind on the top, and moderate heat. All the country about him seemed a level, except here and there a hill rising above the rest, and far beneath them. He saw to the north, a great water which he judged to be 100 miles broad, but could see no land beyond it. The sea by Saco seemed as if it had been within 20 miles. He saw also a sea to the eastward which he judged to be the gulph of Canada; he saw some great waters in parts to the westward, which he judged to be the great lake Canada river comes out of. He found there much Muscovy glass, they could rive out pieces 40 feet long, and 7 or 8 broad. When he came back to the Indians, he found them drying themselves by the fire, for they had a great tempest of wind and rain. About a month after, he went again with five or six of his company, then they had some wind on the top, and some clouds above them, which hid the sun. They brought some stones which they supposed had been diamonds, but they were most chrystal." —Winthrop's Journal, p. 247.

The relation of Darby Field may be considered as in the main correct, after making reasonable deductions for the distance, the length of the Muscovy glass, and the quantity of water in view, which it may be suspected has not been seen by any visitor since his time.

Within the last forty years the White Mountains have been repeatedly ascended and accounts of their productions and phenomena published. The object of this paper is to detail such observations as were made by a party from Boston who visited them in the beginning of July of the last summer.

These mountains are situated in latitude about 44.15 north and are distant about 150 miles from Boston. Their Indian name according to Dr. Belknap, was Agiocochook.


Our approach to them was made from the northwest, commencing at the town of Lancaster, a village situated on the Connecticut river, 25 miles from their base. From this town a road has been cut through a gap of the mountains to Portland, constituting the principal outlet of the Coos country. This road takes the course of the Israel's river, a branch of the Connecticut, passing between the Pliny Mountains on the left and the Pondicherry mountain on the right.

From Lancaster the road passes through Jefferson (formerly Dartmouth) and Bretton Woods to the Notch, running over the foot of the Pondicherry mountain in its course.

It lies for most of the way through thick woods, but rarely enlivened with the appearance of cultivation. At Playstead's house, 13 miles from their base, the White Hills presented the appearance of a continued waving range of summits, of which it was difficult to select the highest. At Rosebrooks, 412 miles from the Notch, the view of them was very distinct and satisfactory. We could now clearly discern the character of the summits, five or six of which were entirely bald and presented the appearance of a grey and ragged mass of stones, towering above the woods with which the sides and base were clothed.

Between Rosebrooks and the Notch is a plain, or rather a swamp, the waters of which pass off in different directions, partly to the Ammonoosuck, a branch of the Connecticut, and partly by an opposite course to the Saco. After crossing several brooks running toward the former, we came to another stream, the water of which was so sluggish that it required some time to become satisfied that it was actually flowing in the opposite direction. This stream has its origin in a pond of one or two acres, situated near the road, and having no other inlet or outlet. This pond appears to be the principal source of the Saco river.


The waters of this stream being collected from several sources proceed directly toward the side of the mountain. At the point where to all appearances they must be intercepted in their course, there occurs one of the most extraordinary features of the place, well known by the name of the Notch. The whole mountain, which otherwise forms a continued range, is here cloven down quite to its base, affording a free opening to the waters of the Saco, which pass off with a gradual descent toward the sea. This gap is so narrow that space has with difficulty been obtained for the road, which follows the course of the Saco through the Notch eastward. In one place the river disappears, being lost in the caves and crevices of the rocks, and under the shelves of the adjoining precipice, at length reappearing at the distance of some rods below. The Notch gradually widens into a long narrow valley, in the lower part of which is situated the town of Bartlett.

There is no part of the mountain more calculated to excite interest and wonder than the scenery of this natural gap. The crags and precipices on both sides rise at an angle of great steepness, forming a support or basement for the lofty and irregular ridges above. One of the most picturesque objects in our view was a cliff presenting a perpendicular face of great height and crowned at its inaccessible summit with a profusion of flowering shrubs.* For many miles below the commencement of the Notch the eye meets on both sides a succession of steep and precipitous mountains, rising to the height of some thousands of feet, and utterly inaccessible from the valley below.

*Rhodora Canadensis in full flower June 20.

Several brooks, the tributaries of the Saco, fall down the abrupt declivities, forming a succession of beautiful cascades in sight of the road.

The White Hills have been ascended by various routes, from their different sides. The course which is usually considered as attended with the least difficulties is that which commences at the plain of Pigwacket, at present the town of Conway, and follows the course of the Ellis River, a northern branch of the Saco having its origin high in the mountain.


The place of leaving the road, to follow the track of this stream, is in the town of Adams, about 20 miles from the summit of the highest part of the mountain. Of this distance seven or eight miles may be rode over on horseback; the rest must be performed on foot. After leaving the borders of cultivation, our course lay through thick woods, on a level or with a gentle ascent, not much encumbered with an undergrowth of bushes, for six miles. The walking was tolerably good, except the circumstance of being obliged once or twice to ford the streams. Our encampment for the night was made at the mouth of New river, a principal branch of the Ellis. This river takes its name from the recency of its origin, which happened in October, 1775. At this time, during a great flood, that took place in consequence of heavy rains, a large body of waters, which had formerly descended by other channels, found their way over the eastern brink of the mountains and fell down toward the Ellis, carrying the rocks and trees before them in their course, and inundating the adjacent country. By this freshet the banks of the Saco were overflowed, cattle were drowned, and fields of corn were swept away and destroyed. Since that period, the New river has remained a constant stream, and at the place where it descends the last precipice, forms a splendid cascade of 100 feet in height.

From this encampment, which was seven miles from the top of the mountain, we proceeded the next day, (July 2) two or three miles by the side of Ellis River, on a gradual ascent, occasionally encumbered by the trunks of fallen trees. We now left the Ellis for one of its principal branches, called Cutler's river, leading directly towards the principal summit. After climbing by the side of this stream for a considerable distance, the trees of the forest around us began to diminish in height, and we found ourselves at the second zone or region of the mountain. This region is entirely covered with a thick low growth of evergreens, principally the black spruce, and silver fir, which rise to about the height of a man's head, and put out numerous, strong, horizontal branches, which are closely interwoven with each other, and surround the mountain with a formidable hedge a quarter of a mile in thickness. This zone of evergreens has always constituted one of the most serious difficulties in the ascent of the White Hills. The passage through them is now much facilitated by a path cut by the direction of Colonel Gibbs, who ascended the mountain some years since.


On emerging from this thicket, the barometer stood at 25, 93, giving our elevation above the sea, at 4,443 feet. We were now above all woods, and at the foot of what is called the bald part of the mountain. It rose before us with a steepness surpassing that of any ground we had passed, and presented to view a huge, irregular pile of dark, naked rocks.

We crossed a plain or gentle slope, of a quarter of a mile, and began to climb upon the side. There was here a continued and laborious ascent of half a mile, which must be performed by cautiously stepping from one rock to another as they present themselves like irregular stairs winding on the broken surface of the mountain. In the interstices of these rocks were occasional patches of dwarfish fir and spruce, and beautiful tufts of small alpine shrubs, then in full flower.

Having surmounted this height we found ourselves on a second plain. This, like the first, was covered with withered grass, and a few tufts of flowers. Its continuity is interrupted by several declivities, one of which we descended to our left, to reach a brook that crosses it here from the rocks above. There remained now to be ascended only the principal peak, the one designated in Winthrop's Journal, by the name of the Sugar Loaf, and in Belknap's New Hampshire, by the name of Mount Washington. This we accomplished in half an hour, by climbing the ridge to the north of it, and walking on this ridge to the summit.


The day of our visit was uncommonly fine, yet the atmosphere was hazy, and our view of remote objects indistinct. The Moosehillock, one of the highest mountains of New Hampshire, situated in Coventry, near the Connecticut, was visible on the south. The Kyarsarge, double-headed Mountain, and several others were in full view at the east. The country around in almost every direction, is uneven and mountainous. Its appearance is described by Josselyn in his "Rarities of New England," published in 1672, who says that the country beyond the mountains to the northward "is daunting terrible, being full of rocky hills, as thick as mole hills in a meadow; and clothed with infinite thick woods."

Our anticipations were not realized in regard to several phenomena we had been taught to expect at the summit. The state of the air was mild and temperate, so that the over-coats which we carried up in expectation of extreme cold, were left at the foot of the last ascent. The thermometer stood at 57° Fahr. on the summit at 12 o'clock, and on the same day at Conway, 25 miles distant, on the plain below, it was at 80°. The snow lay in patches of an acre in extent upon the sides, but appeared to be rapidly dissolving. We were not conscious of any material alteration in the density of the atmosphere, as neither sound nor respiration were perceptibly impeded. Instead of an absence from these barren regions of animal and vegetation life, we found a multitude of insects, buzzing around the highest rocks; every stone was covered with lichens, and some plants were in flower in the crevices within a few feet of the summit.

The ascent from our encampment at the mouth of New river, including stops, had employed us six hours and a half. The descent from the summit to the same place occupied about five hours. We left on the mountain our names and the date, inclosed in a bottle and cemented to the highest rock.

Parce, viator,
Cui fulmina parcent
Hoc fragile monumentum
Lemuel Shaw,
Nathaniel Tucker,
Jacob Bigelow,
Franciscus C. Gray,
Franciscus Boott,
Die Julii 2dO. A. D. 1816,
Monte Agiocochook superato,
Hic reliquerunt.

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Last Updated: 03-Dec-2009