History of the Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains are among the oldest mountains on Earth. Their rich biodiversity is a remnant of the last Ice Age, when glaciers stopped their southward advance short of the Great Smokies, setting up a treasury of living things that would continue to diversify for thousands of years. Humans have occupied these mountains since prehistoric times, adapting to changes in climate and environment. Hunters and gatherers passed through here over 12,000 years ago. More permanent communities developed during the Woodland Period, 3,000 to 1,000 years ago. By the time European-American settlers arrived to the region in the 1700s, they found themselves in the land of one of the most culturally advanced tribes on the continent, the Cherokee.

Chimneys by Jim Thompson

The Great Smoky Mountains lie in the midst of the Cherokee homeland, where they nurtured complex systems of agriculture, government and trade during more than 1,000 years of habitation. They had a deep knowledge of this land, its plants and animals. By the 1830s the Cherokee had adopted new methods of agriculture and architecture from white settlers and developed a system of written language. Nevertheless, they suffered one of the most tragic episodes in our nation’s history—forced removal from their homeland in what became known as the Trail of Tears. The few who remained, or managed to return, are the ancestors of the Cherokee living on the reservation near the park today.

White settlers came to the Smokies in the late 1700s seeking the opportunity to build a new life, wrestling from the forest farms, homes and communities. They built log cabins and lived off the land--farmed, hunted, pastured livestock and took advantage of the rich resources of the forest that surrounded them. Churches were the centers of their communities. Education was valued, and schools could be found in communities throughout the mountains. Though their early years in this wild land were primitive, by the 1900s there was little difference between mountain people and their contemporaries living in rural areas beyond the mountains.  

Jungle Brook by Jim Thompson
Jungle Brook Homestead, one of the original farms in the Sugarland Valley. Photo by Jim Thompson

The agricultural pattern of life in the Great Smoky Mountains changed with the arrival of the logging industry in the early 1900s. Within 20 years, the largely self-sufficient economy of the people here was almost entirely replaced by dependence on manufactured items, store bought food and cash. Logging boom towns sprang up overnight at sites that still bear their names: Elkmont, Smokemont, Proctor, Tremont. At the same time, loggers were rapidly cutting the great primeval forests that remained on these mountains. Unless the course of events could be quickly changed, there would be little left of the region’s special character and wilderness resources. Intervention came when Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934.

The forest—at least the 20% or so that remained uncut within park boundaries—was saved. Over time, the people—more than 1,200 land-owners—left the park. Behind them remained many farm buildings, mills, schools, and churches. Over 70 of these structures have since been maintained so that Great Smoky Mountains National Park now preserves the largest collection of historic log buildings in the East.

In the Great Smoky Mountains, history is as deep as the sheltered coves and valleys where farms and families once thrived. It passes beyond recorded history to the earliest groups who made their way through this wilderness. And it owes much to a distant history when these islands of green survived the Ice Age and produced a diverse abundance of life capable of supporting eventual settlement by humans. The story of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the story of people and their home. Now preserved and protected “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” that story continues to be written.

Great Smoky Mountains Association is proud to partner with the National Park Service in support of their mission to preserve and protect this historic and treasured place. We offer a broad range of informative, quality materials available in our bookstores and online. Your membership and purchases support the education, interpretation and research activities of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Becoming a National Park

Becoming a national park was not easy for the Smokies. Joining the National Park System took a lot of money and a lot of work by thousands of people. Establishing most of the older parks located in the western United States, such as Yellowstone, was relatively easy. Congress merely carved them out of lands already owned by the government—often places where no one wanted to live anyway.

Getting park land in this area was a different story. The Great Smokies were owned by hundreds of small farmers and a handful of large timber and paper companies. The farmers did not want to leave their family homesteads, nor did the large corporations want to abandon huge forests of timber, many miles of railroad track, extensive systems of logging equipment, and whole villages of employee housing.

The Park Idea

The idea started in the late 1890s. A few visionary people began to talk about a public land preserve in the cool, healthful air of the southern Appalachians. A bill even entered the North Carolina Legislature to this effect, but failed. By the early 20th century, many more people in the North and South were pressuring Washington for some kind of public preserve, but they were in disagreement on whether it should be a national park or a national forest.

What is a National Park?

There are important differences between national parks and national forests, and each concept had its cheering section. In a national forest, consumptive use of renewable resources is permitted under the multiple use management concept. Because the forests were initially set aside for timber harvesting and grazing, the national forests were made a bureau in the Department of Agriculture.

In a national park, however, the scenery and resources are protected, and nature is allowed to run its course. The ultimate decision to establish a national park meant that the scenery, resources and some of the native architecture would be protected for all people to enjoy into the infinite future.

The Work Begins

Smoky Mountain Booster Club
The Smoky Mountain Booster Club played an important role in helping establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The drive to create a national park became successful in the mid-1920s, with most of the hard working supporters based in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina. The two groups had long been competitors over the location of the national park, but they finally began pulling together for a park in the heart of the Smokies, halfway between the two cities.

As a matter of past history and present interest, the park movement was directed not just by the hardcore conservationists, backpackers and trout fishermen, but also by motorists and businessmen.

The newly formed auto clubs, mostly branches of the AAA, were interested in good roads through beautiful scenery on which they could drive their shiny new cars. Area businesses hoped the park would draw tourists who would spend money in nearby cities.

Raising the Money

In May 1926, a bill was signed by President Calvin Coolidge that provided for the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park. This allowed the Department of the Interior to assume responsibility for administration and protection of a park in the Smokies as soon as 150,000 acres of land had been purchased. Since the government was not allowed to buy land for national park use, the former political boosters had to become fundraisers.

In the late 1920s, the legislatures of Tennessee and North Carolina appropriated $2 million each for land purchases. Additional money was raised by individuals, private groups, and even school children who pledged their pennies. By 1928, a total of $5 million had been raised. Trouble was, the cost of the land had now doubled, so the campaign ground to a halt. The day was saved when the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund donated $5 million, assuring the purchase of the remaining land.

Buying the Land

But buying the land was difficult, even with the money in hand. Some 6,000 small farms, large tracts and other miscellaneous parcels had to be surveyed, appraised, dickered over and sometimes condemned in court. The timber and paper companies had valuable equipment and standing inventory, which required compensation.

Worse, in some ways, were the emotional losses to people who had to walk away from their homes. A later survey of the displaced people showed that about half took the money and ran and were glad to have it; the other half expressed 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. However, they could not cut timber, hunt and trap at will or otherwise live as they always had.

Development

The CCC built many of the parks trails, structures, bridges, and roadways during the Great Depression.

The first superintendent of the new park arrived in 1931. By 1934, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina had transferred deeds for 300,000 acres to the federal government. Congress thus authorized full development of public facilities.

Much of the early development of facilities and restoration of historic buildings was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps, an agency created during the Depression to provide work and wages for unemployed young men. The CCC worked from 1933 to 1942 when World War II finally shut the program down. Many of the trails, campgrounds, and the beautiful stone bridges and buildings are examples of their work.

Dedication

The final touch in the creation of the Park was its formal dedication by President Franklin Roosevelt on September 2, 1940. He stood on and spoke from the Rockefeller Monument at Newfound Gap astride the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. That ceremony dedicated a sanctuary that is not a local park, a county park or even a state park, but a national park for all the people of the country and the rest of the world to enjoy.