Established in 1833, the mountainous county of Yancey borders the state of Tennessee, and it was named in honor of Bartlett Yancey, a Congressman who served from 1813 to 1817. Congressman Yancey was involved in establishing a fund that led to the formation of North Carolina’s public school system. Burnsville, the county’s seat of government, was named in honor of the famous privateer, Otway Burns, who fought on the coast of North Carolina during the War of 1812. Although a native of Onslow County, Burns would later represent the western counties of the state and advocate for their equal representation in the North Carolina General Assembly. A statue of Burns stands in the middle of Burnsville’s public square, engrained in the base of the statue is the commemoration: “He Guarded Well Our Seas, Let Our Mountains Honor Him.”
Other communities and hamlets within Yancey include Bald Creek, Celo, Green Mountain, Micaville, Pensacola, Sioux, Busick, Day Brook, Hamrick, Murchison, Ramseytown, and Swiss.
The Cherokee inhabited present-day Yancey County, and in 1989 an archeological dig site revealed a pre-historic village and burial mound. The site, located near the Cane River Middle School, testifies to the tribe’s well-developed culture before the inhabitation of the white man.
The English, Irish, and Scotch-Irish settled the region in the mid-eighteenth century. Most of these settlers focused on agriculture, and crop production was the main economic indicator of Yancey County well into the twentieth century. Burley tobacco remained the primary crop grown in Yancey, and numerous storage barns continue to stand in the county.
In the early 1900s, the railroad transformed Yancey economy from an agricultural-based town into a mining community. The Black Mountain Railroad, reaching Yancey in 1911, allowed for the convenient transportation of mica. For most of the twentieth century, the mica industry flourished in Yancey County, and the town of Micaville received its name, for it was the central mining location in the county.
The Blue Mountain Parkway runs along Yancey’s eastern border. The parkway brings substantial tourism traffic to the region, and due to the county’s rich natural environment, numerous campers, hikers, and outdoor enthusiasts visit Yancey annually. In addition to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi rests in Yancey County. Mount Mitchell, which is over 6,500 feet tall, received its name for Elisha Mitchell. A UNC professor who sought to determine the height of the tallest mountains in North Carolina, Mitchell died in his attempt to establish the elevation of the mountain. The first state park of the state opened at Mount Mitchell in 1915, and parts of the Pisgah National Forest extend into Yancey.
Yancey is considered the most mountainous county in North Carolina. With the highest elevation of any county in the state, Yancey boasts in holding half of the ten highest peaks in the Eastern United States. Some geologists and historians believe that the Black Mountains of Yancey County are the oldest peaks on earth.
As in other mountain counties of North Carolina, crafts and artistry have long been traditions of Yancey County’s culture. Over 600 residents specialize in quilting, basket weaving, woodwork, pottery, and sculpting. The artists of Yancey earn over $11 million for the county annually.
An important private academic institution operated in Yancey County from 1901 until 1926. The Yancey Collegiate Institute, originally created by the Baptist Association at Crabtree Church, was the result of concerned residents who wanted their children to receive a proper secondary education. In 1903, the N.C. General Assembly incorporated Yancey Collegiate Institute, and both boys and girls were allowed to attend the school and they were taught mathematics, writing, literature, and reading. The institute proved successful because many Yancey students later pursued degrees at Mars Hill College and Wake Forest College. The institute would open as a public high school in 1926, and it eventually was descaled to become Burnsville Elementary School. Today, the site is part of the National Register of Historic Places, and the Blue Ridge Reading Team operates out of the schoolhouses that were once used by the Yancey Collegiate Institute.
“Yancey County.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).
“Yancey Collegiate Institute.” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website. A Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. http://www.ncmarkers.com/Results.aspx?k=Search&ct=btn, (accessed on October 2, 2011).
“The History of Burnsville.” Yancey County, Chamber of Commerce official website. http://www.yanceychamber.com/history.html, (accessed on October 2, 2011).
By Jonathan Martin, North Carolina History Project
See Also:Related Categories: Counties