Smoky Mountains History 2017-06-01T14:53:53+00:00

Smoky Mountain History

black bear muzzle face smoky mountains

East Tennessee is the home to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an area that is rich is American history. The story is a combination of geography, with our Smoky Mountains and verdant valleys, wildlife, like Black Bears and Elk, and people, from the earliest Cherokee inhabitants, the amazing story of the National Park creation, to the 9 million visitors annually, this story has a lot of interesting elements. Here are some highlights of our East Tennessee and National Park history.

East Tennessee and the Smoky Mountains
smoky mountain national park stream
Hundreds of million years ago, East Tennessee was a huge, shallow sea. Gradually, over millions of years, soil, sand, gravel and silt collected in the bottom of the sea and with pressure became layers of hard rock. 200-300 million years ago these layers of rock became the Great Smoky Mountains when continents collided and folded these sedimentary layers upward into a belt of mountains now known as the Appalachian Mountains. This mountain range extends over 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia and the Smoky Mountains are a portion of that range.

Mammoth ice sheets, wind, rain, freezing and thawing carved the craggy surfaces of the mountains leaving boulders, cliffs and unique features behind. The Smokies are some of the tallest mountains in the Appalachian chain with 16 peaks topping 5,000 feet. Mount LeConte is the tallest at 6,593 feet, making it the tallest mountain in the east. Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest summit, is the third tallest peak east of the Mississippi River.
smoky mountains national park peak
Because of the glacial influence on the Smokies climate, coupled with the rane of elevation and the southwest to northeat layout of these moutains, you will find a huge diversity of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, plants, insects, birds and animals in the National Park. Five forest types support over 1,500 species of flowering plants and at least 4,000 non-flowering varieties. But it is the wildlife that draws the most attention of the visitors to the Park. There are 65 species of mammals, 67 native fish species, over 200 varieties of birds and more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians that have been identified so far in the Smokies.

The most famous inhabitant of the National Park, and the symbol of the Smokies, is the American Black Bear. The Park is the largest protected bear habitat in the East and houses approximatly 1,500 bears.

Another famous citizen of the Park is the majestic Elk who were eliminated from the Tennessee-side of the Park in the mid-1800’s and was headed for extinction. In 2001 the National Park began a restoration program with the Elk introducing 25 elk and then another 27 in 2002. The plan is working and the elk are now doing well in the Smokies.

Also living in the Park are white-tailed deer, chipmunks and squirrels – inluding the red squirrel and the northern flyng squirrel – groundhogs, endless species of birds, brook and rainbow trout, over 30 species of salamanders, turkeys, raccoons, coyotes, opossums, foxes, beavers, skunks and bobcats. Wild animals are best observed during mornings and evenings when it is cooler and they are foraging for food.

smoky mountain wildlife collage

The most famous inhabitant of the National Park, and the symbol of the Smokies, is the American Black Bear. The Park is the largest protected bear habitat in the East and houses approximatly 1,500 bears.

Another famous citizen of the Park is the majestic Elk who were eliminated from the Tennessee-side of the Park in the mid-1800’s and was headed for extinction. In 2001 the National Park began a restoration program with the Elk introducing 25 elk and then another 27 in 2002. The plan is working and the elk are now doing well in the Smokies.

Also living in the Park are white-tailed deer, chipmunks and squirrels – inluding the red squirrel and the northern flyng squirrel – groundhogs, endless species of birds, brook and rainbow trout, over 30 species of salamanders, turkeys, raccoons, coyotes, opossums, foxes, beavers, skunks and bobcats. Wild animals are best observed during mornings and evenings when it is cooler and they are foraging for food.

The People of East Tennessee and the Smoky Mountainscherokee indian vintage photo

Prehistoric Paleo people were the first inhabitants of the National Park area, and the Cherokee Indians, a branch of the Iroquois nation, were well established when the first white settlers reached the Park in the 1700’s.

The Cherokee were a culturally advanced people with permanent towns, a political systems, cultivated croplands and an extensive network of trails. The Cherokee Chief Sequoyah developed a written language for the tribe known as syllabary, which has 86 characters in its alphabet. Most of the Tennessee Cherokee were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in the 1830’s. Their journey became known as the “Trail of Tears” because 4,000 of the 14,000 Cherokee who began the journey died along the way. The Oconaluftee Cherokee gained permission to remain in North Carolina through the efforts of William H. Thomas, a businessman who grew up among the Cherokee. He served as their attorney and adviser for 30 years.cherokee indian camp

Life in the Smoky Mountains was a hardscrabble existence for the European settlers. They lived off the land, hunted wildlife, and eventually cleared land and built fences to grown crops and raise cattle and hogs. In the early 1900’s the lumbering industry clearing thousands of acres of the Smoky Mountains and replaced the settler’s self-sufficiency with manufactured items. Elkmont, Smokemont, Proctor and Tremont were all logging boom towns that supported the logging industry.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Creating a National Park was difficult. People lived within the proposed boundaries of the new park and many individuals and companies owned the lands. In addition the lands ranged over two states – Tennessee and North Carolina. But farsighted people began discussing the idea as early as the late 1890’s and by the early 20th century people in America began pressuring Washington D.C. for some kind of public preserve.great smoky mountain park history

In May of 1926 a bill to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Shenandoah National Park, was signed by President Calvin Coolidge. But the government was not allowed to buy land for national park use so it was up to individuals, private groups, businesses and the states themselves to come up with the money to buy the land. Both Tennessee and North Carolina appropriated $2 million each for land purchases. School children raised millions of dollars, sometimes one penny at a time, and by 1928 a total of $5 million had been raised. By then the price of the land had doubled and the day was saved when the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund donated $5 million, assuring the land purchases for the Park.

By 1934 the deeds for 300,000 acres of land in Tennessee and North Carolina had been deeded over to the Department of the Interior and Congress authorized full development of public facilities. Some people were allowed to remain on their land, which was now Park property, under lifetime leases, but they could not hunt, trap or cut timber. More than 1,200 land-owners had to leave their land and they left behind farm buildings, mills, schools and churches. Today, over 70 historic building remain for visitors to enjoy. This collection is the largest collection of historic log buildings in the Eastern part of the United States.

And in September of 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt formally dedicated the Park. He stood upon the Rockefeller Monument at Newfound Gap and dedicate this “national park for all the people of the country and the rest of the world to enjoy”.

Today the Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosts over 9 million visitors a year, and the cities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Townsend host those visitors with accommodations, attractions, dining and shopping activities. But the main attraction has been, and always will be the natural beauty and grandeur of this wonderfully diverse and breath-taking “national park for all the people of the country and the rest of the world to enjoy”.