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Great Smoky Mountains National Park - The Creation

Franklin Roosevelt was at the Newfound Gap, a foot in North Carolina, and a foot in Tennessee on September 2nd, 1940.  He was there to announce the opening of something that would become an American treasure: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Quite a lot of cash, time, and work went into preserving this area that was east of the Mississippi.  Originally, before the Smoky Mountains would eventually become a park, it was home to a variety of different people.  There is a lot of history to this location, including the rich, historical tale of the native Cherokee Indians.


Long before the European settlers brought their covered wagons and their culture to what is now called the Smoky Mountains, it was the Cherokee natives who reigned over the land, along with several other native tribes.  Part of Iroquois, it was the Cherokee Indians who inhabited the mountains region of the southeastern United States.  The main society was formed around trading, hunting, and early forms of agriculture.  The Cherokee resided in mostly small tribes that were positioned around the huge streams near the prosperous valleys. Homes were created using woven vines along with other plants and a mud mix fixated on frames of wood.

Wall of the Seven Clans of the Cherokee

Compared to some of the other native societies, the Cherokee government was actually fairly sophisticated.  There were two chiefs who served in every village and community. This was despite whatever state the population was in: a Peace Chief, as well as a War Chief.  They did not hold complete power, though.  Most of their choices were made by the tribal people; men as well as women.  They would give their opinion at tribal meetings and during ceremonies.

The Cherokee women happened to be a regular part of the daily decisions of the tribe. This put them ahead somewhat of the other women of the United States during this time. Each gathering of the tribe was had in council house with seven sides. This was built to represent the different seven clans of the Cherokee Nation.  This included the Bird, Paint, Deer, Wolf, Blue, Long Hair, and Wild Potato.  Even though most of the people at the time considered the Cherokee Nation tobe a primitive, vastly uncivilized people, the democratic process was quite similar to the one the United States used at the time.

Early White Settlers:

In the 1700s, the first of the European settlers made their way to the Smoky Mountains.  Those settlers survived using the same lifestyle choices that the Cherokee Indians did: by making use of the land.  They hunted and grew crops.  They also chopped down some of the trees and built houses as well as fences to protect their land.  A normal life for an early European settler included farming, taking grain down to the mill, staying informed of whatever news there was, and going to church services. Early farming was completed using hand tools alone.  This included rakes, shovels, and hoes.  If you were a wealthier settler, you might have been an owner of an animal. They would help you with your plowing.


Pigs were very important to the Smoky Mountain people. Besides being able to help haul produce to the store, the pigs were also important because of how self-sufficient they were.  They would eat almost anything.  This included acorns, plant roots, and snakes – even frogs.  They would also eat the pig feed that the settlers put down.  As long as the settlers used one site for feeding, the pigs would remain mostly civilized.  They would feed them corn and vegetables.

Besides pigs, cows and sheep became a popular part of the early settlers life. Cattle and most of the sheep were often taken higher up the mountains to graze.  There were less flies in higher elevations and surprisingly the grass tended to be more nutritious.  This led to bald spots where trees would no longer grow.  You can see the evidence for yourself: visit Siler’s Bald, Andrew’s Bald, Gregory’s Bald, and a variety of other areas.

Apple Diet

A huge part of the local diet included apples.  This was because apple trees happened to be very prominent in this part of the Smoky Mountains when the early settlers first moved there.  While they did eat a lot of fresh, hand-picked apples, the early settlers also learned how to preserve the fruit they had so it would last longer, and help keep them fed during the colder months.  A common enough practice was drying apples.  Bushels weighing upwards of fifty pounds were able to be dried.  This would help get the water weight out as well; which led to the bushels only weighing around seven pounds each.  The practice of turning apple juice into a sweetened, delicious cider, a very lightly fermented drink, or at the very least vinegar made harvesting each and every apple worth it for the settlers.

It wasn’t uncommon to have a very harsh life in the Smoky Mountains.  Winter months would become terribly cold. The families living in wooden cabins could expect that the biting wind to seep in through the walls. This was because they were often cracked and through the chimney. The mountains got plenty of snowfall. This would force the people to keep in their homes for great periods of time.  They had to come up with ways to still their boredom. This included quilting, reading their Bible, or strumming guitars and singing songs. The songs were either learned or came up with on the spot.  This helped to create the start of bluegrass music.

Multi Generational Homes

It wasn’t uncommon for multiple generations to live in one house.  This included grandparents, mothers and fathers, and children of various ages.  Farming was a huge part of their lives through summer, spring, and fall.  During winter the children would attend school.  There was usually only one school house per area. There was only one teacher to handle children of all ages and grades. Of course, children only went to school for three to five years.  They would learn to read, as well as write, and do basic arithmetic. Farmers paid the teacher $1 for each child.  If they couldn’t afford that dollar, they would often pay her with crops and fruit.  Often times, the teacher would board with one of the local families who would provide for her as long as she taught the children.

War time:

As early settlers became more and more common, the Cherokee Indians became more and more hostile.  Though they wanted some of the white man’s possessions (such as farming hardware, and firearms), they did not like that the white settlers were pushing them from their homes and taking over their lands.

At the start of the 1800s was when the Cherokee Nation started reforming their government.  They elected officials using a somewhat more thorough democratic system that included a chief, a vice-chief, and a council made up of 32 elected officials.  The people created a constitution alongside a variety of new laws.  They tried, in many ways, to make sure the European Settlers knew they were not wanted there.

Written Langauge

A written language, 86 letters long, was created by a Cherokee named Sequoyah.  It was widely based on sounds originating from Cherokee spoken word.  Sequoyah was a silversmith, as well as a half-blood. The Cherokee people made the language official in 1825. Following the adoption of the language, a newspaper came out – the Phoenix.  Since they had a written language, they were better able to correspond with their people. This allowed them to talk with other governments, like the young United States.

Despite the rise of the Native American intellectualism, the President at the time, Andrew Jackson, still put a lot of pressure toward getting the Native Americans to leave their land and move west: specifically, toward Oklahoma and Arkansas. Conflicts continued, becoming more and more violent. It came to a head when a treaty was signed; the Treaty of New Echota.  This treaty was not exactly legitimate. It was created and signed by a man who had no place in the Cherokee government. He didn’t have the stamp of approval from the Cherokee Nation. 

The Treaty Stands

Despite this, President Jackson ruled that the treaty would stand. He forced the Native Americans to leave their lands and travel west. The trek across the rough terrain of Tennessee Valley is now known as the Trail of Tears.  This name came to be as a direct result of the number Cherokee that died from along the path; from many things such as starvation, exposure to the elements, and diseases they couldn’t fight.  It is because of many children who died, there was a flower named after the “tears of the mothers” called the Cherokee Rose. The journey took nearly six months.

There were a number of Cherokee rebels who chose to stay and fight for their homes.  They sometimes fled into the mountain tops to circumvent being captured.  One of these men was named Tsali. Tsali was something of a hero to the Cherokee people, but was named a terrorist by the United States after he killed some of their soldiers.  Tsali surrendered eventually and agreed to his execution in trade for the government letting some of the Cherokee to have a portion of land that was located in North Carolina.


The same land eventually was  granted to a band of Cherokee Indians named the Oconaluftee. This was a group of Native Americans that aided the United States governme look for rebels that decided to fight.  The land was granted to them because of a man named William H. Thomas, who was a North Carolina lawyer, who fought for the rights to stay on their land.  He fought for Cherokee rights for over thirty years. The land that was granted to the rebels and the Ocanaluftee is now named the Cherokee Indian Reservation. In contrast to other reservations, the particular one in question is open to people. It is very tourist friendly.

The Civil War also had a big part in the creation of the society in what is now the Smoky Mountains National Park. Tennessee was more friendly toward the Union, wheras the North Carolina area showed more support to the Confederacy.  Though the Smoky Mountains didn’t see any large scale conflicts, minor fights and battles were common.

Before the Park:

After the Civil War and through the Reconstruction, the Smoky Mountains were very consistent in their way of living: they were very self-sufficent.  They grew crops that were their own, bought and traded their own goods, and stayed prosperous with little help from the rest of the world.  Eventually, though, change happened.

It was close to the start of the twentieth century that logging companies started to eye the primitive forests that were prominent in the Smoky Mountains.  These companies came in, usually hired by the residents of the forest towns, and began to make changes. Twenty years later, several small logging companies had cropped up.  This included Elkmont and Tremont.  People began to become dependent on the goods brought by the logging industry.  Near the start of the first World War, the Smokies were considered to be much more important to the rest of the world.

The Beginnings of the Eastern National Park:

Before the 1920s, almost all of the national parks were in the west.  This was partially due to low  population and the remoteness.  It was also because the government owned much of that land, so they were able to very easily section off pieces that then became parks. Building parks to the east happened to be too much of a hassle due to business development and the land ownership.  Logging companies, farmers, and other various businesses were the main land owners.

The initial idea for a national park originated from an upper-class family in Knoxville.  They were the Davis family.  They traveled west, and visited all the national parks. When they returned home, they began to question why there weren’t any national parks in the east.  Though the area was already settled and there were logging companies were growing in popularity, there were still some people who were landowners that rented out acres for vacationing or hunting.  Once the idea of the national park was brought up by William Davis and his wife, the idea caught momentum.

Logging Companies

When the Smoky Mountains was beginning to draw the attention of more people, the logging companies took a stand against the national park.  Most of those who opposed the idea wanted to establish a National Forest.  The construction of a national forest would allow most of the logging companies to stay and continue their businesses whereas a National Park would want to preserve all of the trees, and the rest of the natural habitat including the wildlife.  However, at the end of the argument, the people pushing for a national park won.

It still wasn’t easy to create the National Park, though.  In order for the idea to even be considered, the United States government needed to own more than three hundred thousand acres of land. It was in 1926 that President Calvin Coolidge passed a bill that gave the Department of the Interior the task of creating  national parks in the Smoky Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley.   With ideas for building the national park prominent in both North Carolina and Tennessee, the final decision was to place the land for the national park in both of the states.


In 1927, both of the states of North Carolina and Tennessee each gave two million dollars toward the building of the national park.  It was not enough, though, to buy the land from the landowners.  Arno Cammerer from the National Park Service as well as Colonel David C. Chapman, from Knoxville, convicned the  Rockefeller family in helping to fund the establishment of the park.  They had promoted parks in the western united states and contributed to their construction.

The Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund was not unsympathetic to the situation in the Smokies. They said they would donate five million dollars on the condition that Tennessee and North Carolina, alongside the park commission matched the amount.  People gave money, children gave pennies, and finally the states and commission reached the desired amount.  The National Park Service started buying land in 1929 that was inside the outlined park boundary. Getting people to agree to leave their lands was difficult, though.  Most of them had resided there for several generations.

Condemnation Suits

Logging companies fought the most.  The Smokies was their bread and butter.  By 1930, the condemnation suits started to grant the states the ability to condemn land in the instance that there was better use.  Ironically, the people in the Smokies were forced off their land, similarly to the Cherokee Nation who’d lived there originally.  They received money for the land, and started searching for somewhere else to live. There were the logging companies that eventually cut deals which allowed for them to continue their work until they were able to move their businesses.  They were also given money for the stock they still had as an extra incentive.

The initial park super intendant didn’t arrive till 1931. Major J. Ross  with a few park rangers were there by June.  The National Park Service moved to the location, and along side it, were the new government buildings belonging to the Civilian Conservation Corps. The majority of the buildings in the park were constructed by the CCC; this put many unemployed men to work during the Great Depression.  In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt oficially dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the date of September 2nd, 1940.

Contributers to the Founding:

There were several key individuals who helped contribute to the funding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It was the the Davis family who started the idea.  Colonel Chapman, the president of a drug company, fought for the support necessary to locate on the Tennessee side and helped with the funding of the place.  Paul Fink actually traveled many of the trails of the national park, many of which are still popular today, and described them thoroughly in his many journals.  Fink was the one to help with the routing of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the park, and the  various other national forests nearby.  Horace Kephartwas part of the settlers in Hazel Creek and promoted the suggestion of a national park in the east when his book was published in 1931.

Then there was George Masa, an immigrant coming from Japan, who happened to work in photography.  He helped promote the dream of a national park by using his well-taken pictures of the area in North Carolina. There was  Ben Morton who was a mayor of Knoxville was also on a committee  which fought for land settlements and large companies to vacate the area. 

Other Important People

Other important people include Mark Squires, who was a a state senator originating from North Carolina that provided help to push the idea of a national park.  There was also Jim Thompson, a photographer who sparked and kept  interest through his photography of the Tennessee side. There was Charles Webb who co-published and edited the Asheville Citizen Times.  It was a prominent newspaper that convinced the population in North Carolina to build the park.  At the end of the day, though, it was ever single person that saw the potential of a preserved wildlife area accessible to the generations that really made this Great Smoky Mountain National Park into a success.

About The Smokies