Ancient Native American Mica Mining
in Western North Carolina
Robert S. "Bo" Smith


Last Updated:
  February 19th, 2018

Last Updated:
 June 11th, 2013

Last Updated:
 July 12th, 2013

Back Story and Research
Last Updated:
  October 16, 2015

Executive Summary
  Last Updated: February 19th, 2018

This "Executive Summary" is a description of my research and field work concerning Ancient Native American Mica Mining in Mitchell County, North Carolina. I will use both the term "aboriginal" used by William H. Holmes in his Smithsonian Institution study of 1919 and "ancient", perhaps the more appropriate term. I am using both terms to describe Native American Mining conducted about 2000 years ago during the Mid-Woodland Period.

William H. Holmes was Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution from 1902 to 1909. He conducted a study of Native American Mica mining in Mitchell County in 1913 as part of a comprehensive study of aboriginal Native American mining and published his results in 1919.  (Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology Buletin 60, Handbook of Aboriginal Antiquities, Part 1, The Lithic Industries).  During his study in Mitchell County, he collected stone mining tools at the Sink Hole Mine which were reported to be about 2000 years old and are currently in storage somewhere at the Smithsonian Institution .  He determined that at least three Mitchell County mica mines were actively mined by the "ancients"; the Sink Hole and Robinson mines near Bandana southwest of Bakersville and the Clarissa Mine located north of the Cane Creek east of Bakersville.
An excellent description of early studies of mica mining by the "ancients" at Sink Hole is Peter R. Margolin's article in North Carolina Archeology Magazine (2000, vol. 49):
 "The Sink Hole at Bandana: An Historic Blue Ridge Mica Mine Reveals It's Past".

The Hopewell Era:
This mining took place during the Mid Woodland Hopewell Tradition period; the "mound Builders
( 300BC-500AD), known for their extensive trade network. The "mounds" were often lined with sheets of mica and contained mica sculptures and jewelry and objects such as mica mirrors.  There were also caches of mica buried in their settlements.  Much of this mica is known to be from Mitchell County in western North Carolina.
The question is:  Did the Hopewell travel to Mitchell County, set up temporary settlements near the mines and do their own mining at Sink Hole, Robinson, and Clarissa? 
Or, was the mining conducted by local Mid-Woodland Native Americans who then traded the mica with the Hopewell?

During my research, I bacame associated with a graduate student, Jeremiah Stager, from the University of Alabama who was interested in the Hopewell Tradition and their possible role in Mitchell County Mica Mining. I acted as a consultant on mica mining issues associated with his work and doing the "leg work" seeking out as much local information as posssible. He made two trips to the area in 2012, the second one with Jesse Morton, a colleague from Mississippi State University.  They came to look into the possibility of doing some archeological site work in the area.

This is the field work we conducted:

Clarissa Mine:  I made an initial visit in 2012 to the Clarissa Mine with the assistance of Jack Dellinger who grew up in Hawk on the Cane Creek and has lots of local knowledge of the area. 
The Clarissa Mine Native American mine works consisted of a large cut in the ridge on the west side of the cove north of Cane Creek.  W.C. Kerr, a geologist, who traveled throughout North Carolina wrote in his "Reports of the Geogical Survey" in 1875 the there were also tunnels at Clarissa that were threee and a half feet in height, and that the tunnel walls contained tool marks of the ancient miners". There was an archeological study conducted on the Wilson Farm located on the Cane Creek floodplain near the Clarissa Mine.  This study was conducted by Bennie C. Keel and Brian J. Egliff and was published in the Southern Studies Magazine Vol. 33 in 1984 by The Archeological Society of North Carolina and The Research Laboratories of Anthropology at The University of North Carolina.  This study concluded that there was an aboriginal Native American settlement in the area before and after the Mid-Woodland period.  Many artifacts were recovered and evaluated.  There were stone tools recovered that could have been used for mining (drills and chisels) but very few ornamental mica artifacts were found.  However interesting the Clarissa Mine would be for additionl study, there were problems with access to the mine area to conduct archeological field work.  Jeremiah and Jesse made a follow-up visit to Clarissa and after looking at the area concluded that we would concentrate on the Sink Hole and Robinson mine area in Bandana. 

Robinson Mine: I made numerous trips during the summer and fall of 2012 to the Mitchell County Mapping Office
and to Bandana to talk to local residents to determine land ownership of the Robinson Mine and surrounding property. I determined the location of the Robinson Mine but learned that the mine and related mica workshop had been demolished, fill dirt brought in, and landscaped to provide land to expand the existing Silver Chapel Baptist Church cemetery. I also learned that the location of the Native American "ancient's" mica workshop located between the Sink Hole and Robinson mines and indicated on William Holmes' map had also most likely been demolished and landscaped to provide cemetery space on the Sink Hole side of the cemetery. On a positive note though, I met Carolyn and Alvin Livingston who live on Johnson Hollow Road immediately adjacent to the Robinson Mine site.  Alvin's grandfather was a miner and was the younger brother of William Robinson who was the owner and operator of both the Sink Hole and Robinson mines during Wiliam H. Holmes' visit in 1913.  Alvin's mother was the daughter of Edwin Robinson and niece of William Robinson.  I met with Allvin and Carolyn on several occasions and they become enthusiastic supporters of our research.   In December, 2012, Alvin and Carolyn hosted a meeting of local Bandana residents to meet with Jeremiah and Jesse to discuss potential sites for searching for evidence of an ancient Hopewell settlement in proximity to the mines. The local residents also shared stories and allowed Jeremiah and Jesse to inspect their "points" collections. Some of the "points" in these collections have been evaluated as as being thousands of years old!

Many of the "points" in the collections were from "ancient" Native American societies

  Alvin and Carolyn presented me with seven stone mining tools that Alvin had located in his basement.  He  thinks he originally found these tools in his grandfather's barn. They most likely came from the Robinson Mine.

Robinson Mine stone mine tools from left to right
Unknown , ruler, drill, celt, two drills, two chisels

We used this stone mine tool (drill) as a model for the Navive American Mica Mining painting

The six tools to the right of the ruler are metamorphosed granodiorite. I loaned one of the chisels to Jeramiah to take back to the University of Alabama for evaluatiion.

Sink Hole Mine:  In his paper, "Prehistoric Mica Mines in the Southern Appalachians" (Archeological Society of South Carolina, vol. 6) in 1974, Leland G. Ferguson described the  Sink Hole Mine, previously called the Silver's Mine, as "one of the first mines to be opened in North Carolina and one at which the ancient workings are best developed".  Most of the ancient mine works were destroyed by "modern" mining during the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s.  However, "new evidence of aboriginal work was discovered during the 1950s when work was expanded at the mine" (Jasper Stuckey, 1965, "North Carolina: It's Geology and Mineral Resources"). This "expanded work" consisted of "mucking" operations which involved removing the ancient mine works (widening the ravine) to obtain mica pieces left behind by the ancients.  I became initially interested in the subject of ancient native American Mica Mining at the Sink Hole Mine when I heard stories of a "young boy" who had discovered an ancient mining tunnel in the old mine works in the early 1950s.  I discovered that the "young boy" was still alive and lived in the area.  Ed Silver (co-owner of Sink Hole Mine) arranged a meeting with this "miner", Pat Howell, in June 2012.  Pat told us his story and showed us the area where the tunnel had been.  The tunnel had been removed during the late 1950s during "mucking" operations.  I have included details and pictures of this interview in the 2012 webpage. I  made numerous trips during the summer and fall of 2012 to the Mitchell County Mapping Office and to Bandana to talk to Ed Silver and other local residents to determine land ownership of the Sink Hole Mine area and surrounding property.  The archeology crew (Jeremiah and Jesse) met with Ed Silver in December, 2012 which resulted in Ed showing us the location of the William Robinson homestead on Water Street near the Sink Hole mine.  My research had resulted in numerous stories of native American artifacts having been found there in such a concentration to imply that a settlement may have been located there. Jeremiah and Jesse spent some time in a field near the William Robinson homesite and found some flakes of dark chert, possibly Knox chert that might indicate the presence of a Hopewell living site.

The Painting
To provide visibility on the topic of aboriginal mica mining in Mitchell County, I commissioned a local artist, Jerry Newton, to execute a painting depicting my concept of what a Hopewell miner might have looked like mining the tunnel at the Sink Hole mine. The painting concept is based on my interviews with the "local boy" who discovered the tunnel at the Sink Hole Mine in the early 1950s and subsequent research.  The painting evolved over a perod of six months.  It was Jerry's first experience combining actual Sink Hole Mine clay and mica with his usual materials. The painting was completed in the late spring of 2013.  I commissioned a local digital photgrapher, Kay Workman, to photograph the painting so that high quality digital prints culd be made. 
I presented the painting to the general public at the North Carolina Mineral and Gem Show in Spruce Pine on August 3rd, 2013. Next,
I loaned the painting  to the Yancey County Chamber of Commerce so that they could display it for the public at their Visitor's Center in Burnsville, NC.   After seeing "the painting" at the Yancey Visitor's Center and reviewing this website, a group of graduate students at Appalacian State University in Boone, NC decided to do  a project on aboriginal mica mining in western North Carolina. As part of their project, "the painting" was loaned to the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum (BRAHM) from December 2015 through April 2016 as a part of their winter exhibit. After the exhibit, the painting was returned to the Yancey County Visitor's Center where it remains today!
  I donated the painting to The Yancey History Association in December 2017 with the stipulation that it continue to be displayed for the public.

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