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Great Smoky Mountains - History

Despite the fact that the Great Smoky Mountains are one of the higher points in the Appalachian mountain range, they are actually rounder and lower in elevation than some of the newer mountain ranges. This includes the Rocky Mountains. You might be wondering how they got to be this way. That’s a tale that stretches back almost a billion years ago.

An Ancient Sea

There was once an ancient sea that flooded the area that is now the eastern united states. It submerged the remainder of an old mountain range. This sea deposited layers upon layers of sediment onto the ocean floors. The extreme pressure of thousands of feet of sediment (matter that settled to the bottom of a liquid) caused these layers to turn into something called metamorphic rock. It was almost three hundred million years ago that the sea added another layer of limestone sediment. This was caused by fossilized shells, and marine animals. This was the beginning of what would be the Appalachian Mountain Range.

Early Smoky Mountain Family with Musical Instruments

As a result of the shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates (large groupings of the earth’s foundation) eons ago, Africa and North America collided about two hundred and fifty million years ago! Because of this, the underlying metamorphic rock tilted upwards and slid over the younger limestone rock. This created what would now be called the Appalachian Mountains. The older rocks – often called Ocoee Series – now make up most of the Great Smoky Mountains. Charlies BunionChimney Tops, and Sawteeth are extreme examples of how the rock layers buckled and tilted. They formed steep cliffs and pinnacles. In Cades Cove, you can see the erosion of the metamorphic rock. This also allows you to see the limestone underneath.

It was during the famous ice ages that massive boulders were created. This was because of the constant freezing and then thawing of rock. To this day, you can see the boulder fields on the Cove Hardwood, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trails, and Noah “Bud” Ogle homestead.

Original Appearance

While they might look round today, the Great Smoky Mountains initially looked more like the Himalayas. It was the constant erosive force of water that created their present-day appearance. Water runoff has also helped to create the alternating patterns of steep ridges and V-Shaped valleys. In 1951, there were landslides caused by a torrential downpour. This caused the large V-Slash on Mount LeConte. The rock slides in 1984 briefly closed the Newfound Gap Road. If you go to visit the park, make sure you observe how water still continues to sculpt the road.

There is proof of human habitation of the Great Smoky Mountains that dates back over eleven thousand years. They were believed to originally be a group of Iroquois, now called Cherokee. They had moved south from Iroquoian lands in New England. The Cherokee Nation stretched all the way from the Ohio River into South Carolina. It was made up of seven different clans. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee lived (and still live) in this ancestral home.

The Cherokee Indians

The Cherokee Indians enjoyed a sophisticated, settled, agricultural-based life. They had villages made up of up to fifty log and mud huts. They were often grouped around the town square and the Council House. This was a large, seven-sided dome-shaped building. This was to honor the seven different clans. Public meetings and religious ceremonies were usually held here so that everybody could attend. The first time they encountered Europeans was in 1540. This was when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto led an expedition through their territory.

It was in the 18th century that the Scottish, Irish, English, German, and also many others began to arrive in great numbers. The Cherokee Indians were friendly at first, but eventually began to fight with the new settlers. In 1760, they began to battle Carolina settlers. They eventually withdrew to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In order to try and make peace with these new European settlers, the Cherokee Indians began to attempt to adapt to the European customs. They also proposed treaties as a way of ensuring peace. In 1808, they adopted a legal code and instituted a supreme court two years later. Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith, took the time to construct an alphabet for the Cherokee language. In just two years, almost of all the people could read and write this language. This was something new to all of them. They also taught their children, and it soon became common.

Steam Locomotive - logging in the Smoky Mountains

Unfortunately, this was not enough to ensure their survival. They were fighting a losing cause from the start. It was the discovery of gold in Northern Georgia that really caused the end of the Cherokee Nation.

Indian Removal Act

Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. This called for the relocation of all the natives east of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory. This is now Oklahoma. The Cherokee tried to appeal their cause to their Supreme Court, and Chief Justice Marshall ruled in their favor. However, President Jackson decided to completely disregard the Court’s decision. This was the one time in American history where a president has completely ignored a ruling from the Supreme Court.

In 1838, the American Government forced nearly thirteen thousand Cherokee Indians to march to Oklahoma along what has become known was the Trail of Tears. Almost a third of the Indians died during this march because of illness, malnutrition, and disease. Mothers who’d lost a child would plant a Cherokee Rose where they’d lost children. It has a gold center, for the Gold taken from the Cherokee lands, and seven leaves on each stem; representing the seven Cherokee clans. It is now the official flower of the State of Georgia. Altogehter, about one hundred thousand natives, including the Seminolethe Chickasawthe Cherokee, and the Choctawsurvived this journey along the Trail of Tears.

Some of the Cherokee Indians disobeyed the government decision, however. They hid out in the hills between Clingmans Dome and Mount Guyot. Here, they managed to survive. In 1889, the fifty six thousand acre Qualla Indian Reservation was home to a population of about one thousand people. The reservation is located on what is now the park’s southern boundary. It's home to over ten thousand of these native people.

Logging in the Smokies

Just like the Cherokee Indians, the pioneers who settled in the Smoky Mountains in the 18th and 19th centuries wanted the fertile valleys for their own. Land soon became scarce. Those who arrived later had to make their homes along steep slopes.

Logging in the Great Smoky Mountains came slowly. By the time it had been around for a while, it had greatly changed the land and life of the people. Timer was very important to the earliest pioneers. They used it for everything; homes, furniture, fences, fuel, and more. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that they began cutting it for profit. This had very little obvious effect on the forests. Men and animals could only carry so much at a time.

The turn of the century changed things, however. There were technological advances and the eastern United States’ need for timber ultimately led to an almost extinction of the southern Appalachian forests. It was railroads that were the key to the companies’ huge logging operations. They used the rail road tracks to reach deep into the mountains, and this made lumber readily available. Steam-powered equipment like log loaders and skidders also helped to create affordable tree removal.

Lumber Companies and Towns

There were more than fifteen company towns constructed in what is now known as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There were also a number of sawmills. It was then that the mountain people who had once been focused on plowing fields and raising hogs began to change their routines to cutting and sawing logs. They abandoned their farms because the attraction of logging. It was just to great to resist: security and stability of a steady paycheck.

This was short-lived, however. By the 1930s, lumber companies had taken timber from everywhere but the most inaccessible areas. They were already looking west where there were richer pickings. Some of the mountain people actually returned to their farms. They were ready to give agricultural life another shot. However, some left to seek out jobs in mines, automobile factories, and textile mills.

W.P. Davis

One of the very first people who decided that the area needed to be a protected park was W.P. Davis, who hailed from Knoxville, Tennessee. It all began with a tour that he and his wife took of the western national parks. His wife wondered why the Great Smoky Mountains didn’t have their own national park. Thus the beginning of advocating for the park began.

Horace Kephart is an important figure to the park’s formation. He was the first to decide to advocate for the preservation of the natural characteristics of the mountains.

It wasn’t until 1934 that the park truly became an authorized area. It was after the successful advocation from the Great Smoky Mountain Conservation Association. Formed in 1923, it’s sole purpose was to promote the idea of a national park. It was led by Colonel David Chapman. James E. Thompson also played a large role, by taking pictures of the national park; images that would show everyone the beauty of the area.

Preserving the Park

Since clear cutting was destroying the environment, several of the locals and even some tourists banded together to attempt to put a stop to it. They wanted to preserve the park, and they were eventually successful. This came after a two million dollar donation from the united states government. It also included a five million donation from John D. Rockefeller. This was in addition to what had already been raised.

As expected, the park was an overnight success! Just nine years after it’s creation, in 1941, the park actually set a new record. In one year, they had over one million visitors! It has maintained it’s status as one of the most popular parks in terms of visitors. Tourism has kept on growing and to this day, the popularity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has not waned. People of all ages come for various reasons. They want to see the beautiful trees, and also the miles of wondrous foliage. Also, they want to see the variety of animals that live in the park. Of course, they also come to hike the 850 miles of unpaved roads and trails.

If you’re looking for a place to vacation, definitely check out the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. You can get a taste of what life was like for the early settlers; many of the original structures still exist to this day.


Not to mention, the National Park is near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This is one of the most popular vacation spots in the country. People come for all reasons. They want to get married, and they want to do it a scenic place where they can match their wedding colors to the myriad of vibrant colors that come in the autumn. Also, they may want to have a family reunion where people can hike, sight see, and even ski during the winter. They may also want to visit the Wildlife Encounter where they can meet the family of black bears (unless it’s winter and they’re hibernating).

There are many fun activities, including fishing! There are many streams and lakes that are full of fish. It’s also a great activity to do with the entire family. Or a great activity if you want some alone time. Grab a pole, and go relax while catching fish; even if you throw them back instead of taking them home for dinner.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee is also home to many vacation rentals. You can find cheap cabins for rent, or more luxurious ones, depending on your budget. You can rent a cabin that has room just for you and your significant other, or you can rent one that can host your entire family! Choosing one is easy now that the Internet has become such a large part of vacation planning.

The Great Smoky Mountains have a rich history, great views, and remain one of the top places for people to visit, vacation, and enjoy. Bring yourself or bring your family, but make sure that you plan a vacation here sometime in your life. You won’t regret it!

About The Smokies