Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

History of Great Smoky

The Great Smoky Mountains are among the highest peaks in the Appalachian mountain range, yet they are rounder and lower in elevation than younger mountain chains such as the Rocky Mountains. How they came to be this way is a story that began almost one billion years ago. 

The Great Smoky Mountains are among the highest peaks in the Appalachian mountain range, yet they are rounder and lower in elevation than younger mountain chains such as the Rocky Mountains. How they came to be this way is a story that began almost one billion years ago. 

An ancient sea flooded what is now the eastern United States, submerging the remnants of an old mountain range. The sea slowly deposited layers and layers of sediment onto the ocean floor. The intense pressure of thousands of feet of sediment compressed these layers into metamorphic rock. Almost 300 million years ago, the sea added yet another layer of limestone sediment that was composed of fossilized marine animals and shells. The stage was set for the formation of the Appalachian Mountains.

As a result of the eons-old shifting of the earth's tectonic plates (large sections of the earth's crust), Africa and North America collided about 250 million years ago. This caused the older, underlying layer of metamorphic rock to tilt upward and slide over the younger limestone rock, slowly creating a towering mountain range, the Appalachians. The older rocks, known as the Ocoee Series, now compose most of the Great Smoky Mountains. Charlies Bunion, Sawteeth and Chimney Tops are dramatic examples of how the rock layers tilted and buckled to form steep cliffs and pinnacles. In Cades Cove, erosion of the overlying metamorphic rock reveals the limestone layer beneath.

During the ice ages, massive boulders were created by alternating freezing and thawing of the rock. You can see boulder fields on the Cove Hardwood, Noah "Bud" Ogle and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trails.

The Smokies originally looked more like the Himalayas than the rounded mountains we see today. The relentless erosive force of water has sculpted their present-day appearance. Water runoff has also helped to carve the alternating pattern of V-shaped valleys and steep ridges. Landslides caused by a torrential downpour in 1951 created the large V-slash on Mount LeConte, and rock slides in 1984 briefly closed Newfound Gap Road. As you explore the park, look for how water continues to sculpt the land.

Human History

Evidence of human habitation here goes back at least 11,000 years. They were believed to have been a breakaway group of Iroquois, later to be called Cherokee, who had moved south from Iroquoian lands in New England. The Cherokee Nation stretched from the Ohio River into South Carolina and consisted of seven clans. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee lived (and continue to live) in this sacred ancestral home of the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee enjoyed a settled, sophisticated agriculture-based life. Their towns of up to 50 log-and-mud huts were grouped around the town square and the Council House, a large, seven-sided (for the seven clans), dome-shaped building. Public meetings and religious ceremonies were held here. They first encountered Europeans in 1540, when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto led an expedition through Cherokee territory. 

In the late 18th century, Scotch-Irish, German, English and other settlers arrived in significant numbers. The Cherokee were friendly at first, but fought with settlers when provoked. They battled Carolina settlers in the 1760s but eventually withdrew to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

To come to terms with the powerful newcomers, the Cherokee Nation attempted to make treaties and to adapt to European customs. They adopted a written legal code in 1808 and instituted a supreme court two years later. Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith, created an alphabet for the Cherokee language and in the space of two years, nearly all of his people could read and write the language. 

But theirs was a losing cause. The discovery of gold in northern Georgia in 1828 sounded the death knell for the Cherokee Nation. 

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Removal Act, calling for the relocation of all native peoples east of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. The Cherokee appealed their case to the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Marshall ruled in their favor. President Jackson, however, disregarded the Supreme Court decree in the one instance in American history when a U.S. president overtly ignored a Supreme Court decision. 

In 1838, the U.S. government forced some 13,000 Cherokee to march to Oklahoma along what has become known as the Trail of Tears. About one-third of the Cherokee died en route of malnutrition and disease. Altogether, about 100,000 natives, including Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw survived the journey. 

A handful of Cherokee disobeyed the government edict, however. Hiding out in the hills between Clingmans Dome and Mount Guyot, they managed to survive. In 1889, the 56,000-acre Qualla Indian Reservation was chartered with a population of about 1,000 people. Approximately 10,500 of their descendants now live on the reservation, which is located along the park's southern boundary. 

Like the Cherokee, pioneers who settled in the Smokies in the 18th and 19th centuries coveted the fertile valleys. Land soon became scarce. Later arrivals made their homesteads along steep slopes.

Logging began slowly, but by the time it ran its course, it had radically changed the land and the life of the people. Timber, of course, was vital to the early pioneers. They used it for homes, furniture, fences and fuel. They only began cutting it for cash in the mid-19th century. This had little noticeable effect on the forest, however, because men and animals could only carry so much.

Not so by the turn of the century. Technological advances and the eastern United States' need for lumber nearly eliminated all the southern Appalachian forests. Railroads were the key to the companies' large-scale logging operations. Railroad tracks reaching deep into the mountains made the timber readily available. Steam-powered equipment such as skidders and log loaders also contributed to cost-effective tree removal. 

Some 15 company towns were constructed in what is now the park, along with a like number of sawmills. Mountain people who had once plowed fields and slopped hogs began to cut trees and saw logs for a living, abandoning their farms. They were attracted to logging by the promise of security and the stability of a steady paycheck. 

Their security was short-lived, however. By the 1930s, the lumber companies had logged all but the most inaccessible areas and were casting their sights to richer pickings out West. Some of the mountain people returned to farming while others left to seek jobs in mines, textile mills and automobile factories. 

National Park Status

In 1904, a librarian from St. Louis named Horace Kephart came to the Smokies for a respite to restore his health. Kephart found that large-scale logging was decimating the land and disrupting the lives of the people. As the years progressed, he promoted preserving the Smokies as a national park. In the 1920s, prominent Knoxville residents took up the cause and formed a citizens' organization. 

The NPS was looking for park sites in the East after having established parks in the West. Founded in 1916, the young agency hoped to generate further public support for national parks with a park closer to the majority of the nation's population. Along with private efforts, the NPS promoted the idea of a national park in the Smokies.

The states of Tennessee and North Carolina, and countless citizens responded by giving millions of dollars to purchase parkland. The federal government was reluctant to buy land for parks; national parks in the West had been formed from land it had already owned. Eventually, it did contribute $2 million. Coupled with John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s donation of $5 million, the NPS reached its goal.

Lumber companies were bought out in agreements that phased out operations over several years and some people living within the proposed park boundaries were allowed lifetime residency rights. Most people moved, and consequently were paid more for their land. On June 15, 1934, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established, preserving the land for generations to come.