People have occupied these mountains since prehistoric times, but it was not until the 20th century that human activities began to profoundly affect the natural course of events here.
When the first white settlers reached the Great Smoky Mountains in the late 1700s they found themselves in the land of the Cherokee Indians. The tribe, one of the most culturally advanced on the continent, had permanent towns, cultivated croplands, sophisticated political systems, and extensive networks of trails.
By the 1830s the Cherokees had adopted the ways of the whites to the extent of developing a written language, printing their own newspaper, and utilizing the white man’s agriculture and architecture. Nevertheless, most of them were forcibly removed to Oklahoma in the 1830s in a tragic episode known as the “Trail of Tears.” The few who remained are the ancestors of the Cherokees living on the reservation near the park today.
Whites began settling in these mountains in the late 1700s. At first, living was primitive, but by the 1900s there was little difference between the mountain people and their contemporaries living in rural areas beyond the mountains.
Earlier settlers had lived off the land by hunting the wildlife, cutting the timber for buildings and fences, growing food, and pasturing livestock in the clearings. As the decades passed, many areas that had once been forest became fields and pastures. People farmed, attended church, hauled their grain to the mill, and maintained community ties in a typically rural fashion.
The agricultural pattern of life in the Great Smoky Mountains changed with the arrival of lumbering in the early 1900s. Within 20 years, the largely self-sufficient economy of the people here was almost entirely replaced by dependence on manufactured items, store bought food, and cash. Logging boom towns sprang up overnight at sites that still bear their names: Elkmont, Smokemont, Proctor, Tremont. At the same time, loggers were rapidly cutting the great primeval forests that remained on these mountains. Unless the course of events could be quickly changed, there would be little left of the region’s special character and wilderness resources.
Intervention came when Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934. The forest—at least the 20% or so that remained uncut within park boundaries—was saved. The people—more than 1,200 land-owners—left the park. Behind them remained many farm buildings, mills, schools, and churches. Over 70 of these structures have since been maintained so that Great Smoky Mountains National Park now preserves the largest collection of historic log buildings in the East.
Places to Explore the Rich Cultural History
- Cades Cove: This scenic valley contains more historic buildings than any other location in the park. Among the collection are a working grist mill, three churches, cantilever barns, and homes which reflect a variety of 19th century construction styles. The Cherokees called the cove Tsiyahi—otter place—presumably because river otters lived there. Although there are no signs Cades Cove was ever a major Indian settlement, the Cherokee did hunt and gather food in the cove and they developed a trail system that was used by European-American explorers and settlers.
- Mountain Farm Museum: This open air museum located adjacent to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center offers visitors the opportunity to explore a variety of historic farm buildings. Included in the collection are a magnificent log home, springhouse, apple house, smoke house, corn crib, blacksmith shop, and massive log barn. Historic demonstrations and special interpretive events are conducted in summer and fall. A self-guiding booklet, available at the Farm Museum, details the life of mountain farms and explains the uses of various buildings.
- Mingus Mill: Located one half mile north of the farm museum along the Newfound Gap Road. It is an excellent example of a gristmill powered by a 19th century water turbine. Open daily in summer and on weekends in spring and fall, it presents the flavor of milling, and provides an opportunity to learn how waterpower was harnessed for the production of corn meal and flour. The miller will be glad to answer your questions and corn meal and flour are available for purchase.
- Cataloochee Valley: This off-the-beaten-path destination receives relatively light visitation. Yet for many who do make the journey, the picturesque cove is remembered as their favorite place in the Smokies. The Cherokees named Cataloochee, an appellation which has been translated to “standing up in ranks,” a reference to lines of trees silhouetted against distant ridges. The first trail into the valley was built by the Cherokees, who used the area frequently for hunting and fishing. The first European-Americans set down roots in the valley during the 1830s. By 1910 over 1,200 people lived in Cataloochee, making it the largest settlement in the Smokies.