History of The Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies amid the Southern Appalachian Mountains, straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The Smoky Mountains are virtually half in one state and half in the other. The Appalachians are a long mountain range running northeast to southwest, from Canada to the coastal plain of Alabama. The range was named by the Spanish explore Hernando de Soto, who may have been the first nonnative to see these mountains. He called them the “Appalachians”, after an Indian tribe he had encountered along the Gulf Coast.
The Southern Appalachians are divided into two mountains ranges-the Blue Ridge to the east and the Unakas to the west. At the widest part of the Unaka range stand the Great Smoky Mountains. The Smokies have sixteen peaks above 6,000 feet along the crest from the Pigeon River on the northeast to the Little Tennessee River that flows westward to the Mississippi River.
By the time white settlers came to the Smokies, Cherokees were the dominant tribe. They called themselves Ani-Yunwiya, “the Principal People,” Cherokee being the white man’s name for them. The Indians called the Great Smokies, Shaconaqe, “place of blue smoke.”
The Cherokees lived in thousands of villages along the Little Tennessee River that flows along the southeastern boundary of the present national park. When European settlers came to the region, they could not abide such vast lands being left unused, although from the perspective of the Cherokees, the land left in natural state was well used. With Treaties in 1978 and 1819, the Cherokees were forced to give up the Great Smoky Mountains. With the Indian Removal Acts the Indians were moved to Oklahoma in 1938. The route became know as the “Trail of Tears” because more than 4,000 died along route. Some however escaped into remote villages and hid in the coves and hollows of the Smokies before the Army could seize them. In addition about 70 Cherokee households had earlier ceded their lands were exempt from the move. These exempt households, along with the escapees, coalesced to become the Eastern Band of the Cherokees, while those who moved to Oklahoma became the Cherokee Nation, or the Western Band. In 1870 the U.S. government officially recognized them and to day they remain on their reservation at the foot of the Smokies in North Carolina.
With the Cherokees gone from the interior of the Smokies, the mountains were open to settlement. The settlers moved up the coves and into the river valleys of the mountains. They built cabins and opened fields. They were self-sufficient people who gathered nuts and berries and hunted wild game while cultivating crops and rising hogs and chickens.
Early families lived alone in their coves, widely separated from their nearest neighbors. Communities grew along watercourses and in fertile coves. Oconalufee and Cades Cove were settled first; there were large concentrations in Greenbrier Cove and the Sugarlands and Cataloochee Valleys.
Large lumber companies learned of the unending forests of the Smokies and moved into the mountains. They bought land and began cutting roads and establishing rail lines to haul out the trees. Champion Fiber Company and Little River Lumber Company were the largest. Company towns. Places like Smokemount, Tremont and Elmont were built to house the workers.
In the 1920’s, when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was proposed, it was a unique venture. All previous national parks had been formed out of lands already owned by the U.S. government in the western part of the country. To create a national park in the eastern United States, the land would have to be purchased.
While there had been talk since 1890’s of establishing a national park in the southern Appalachians, the idea for a national park in the Smokies originated in 1923 with Willis and Anne Davis. In 1923 a Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association was established.
Consequently, at the same time in Washington DC renewed talk of a need for a national park had started. A southern Appalachian National Park Committee was sent to investigate potential site. The Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association met with the group in Asheville, North Carolina, and some members of the committee visited the Smokies in August 1924; the committee was taken to the top of Mount LeConte, where a camp was established. On December 13,1924, the committee recommended the establishment of two parks, Shenandoah in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina.
In 1926, U.S. Congress passed a bill for the lands to be taken over by the federal government when the states of North Carolina and Tennessee had purchased at least 150,000 acres, and for a national park to be established. The bill was signed by President Calvin Coolidge on May 22,1926.
The boundaries encompassed more than 6,000 separate tracts of land, including large ranges owned by eighteen lumber companies who had valuable equipment and standing inventory which require compensation, more than 1000 small farms and something like 5000 small lots. In 1926 there were 7300 people living in the designated area. Emotional losses to people who had to walk away from their homes were great. A later survey of the displaced people showed that about half took the money and ran and were glad to have it; while the other half expresses feelings from mild inconvenience to outright hostility. Some people were allowed to stay under lifetime leases, particularly if they were too old or too sick to move. Younger ones were granted leases on a short-term basis, if they wanted to try to stick it out. The money to buy the land had to be raised. The funds came from private contributions, including $1391.72 given by schoolchildren, from federal and state and government appropriations; and from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial-John D Rockefeller Jr. donated $5 million from this fund established by John D. Rockefellers Sr. as a memorial to his wife.
By 1930, purchased land in both states totaled 152,000 acres, surpassing the minimum needed for the federal government to accept stewardship. On June 15, 1934, the U.S. Congress authorizes full establishment of the national park. On September 2,1940, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he stood along the curved wall of the Rockefeller Memorial, build at Newfound Gap for the dedication ceremonies.
By 1959, 508000 acres had been purchased for $12.7 million for the park. The volunteer efforts of hundreds of citizens of Tennessee and North Carolina resulted in a cast forestland preserved for the enjoyment of all Americans for generations to come.