Thomas Divide: Heart and soul of the North Carolina Smokies

Thomas Divide: Heart and soul of the North Carolina Smokies

By Ben Anderson

If the park has a geographic heart and soul, perhaps it can be found in the form of Thomas Divide, at least on the North Carolina side. 

A long, crescent-shaped ridge that extends from near Newfound Gap to the Deep Creek area, the divide loftily separates the watersheds of two iconic streams that eventually flow into the Tuckasegee River: Deep Creek and Oconaluftee River. Thomas Divide Trail, one of the park’s longer paths at nearly 14 miles, traces most of the divide’s crest that rises to roughly a mile high atop what is no longer a treeless Nettle Creek Bald. Most of the trail was constructed in the 1930s by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps from the Deep Creek camp.

The divide itself is named for William H. Thomas, one of the most interesting and important figures in the annals of Western North Carolina. Thomas, the adopted white son of Cherokee Chief Yonaguska (Drowning Bear), was chosen by a dying Yonaguska in 1839 to become chief himself of the remnant Quallatown Cherokees after the merciless Trail of Tears removal. Nicknamed “Wil-usdi” or “Little Will,” Thomas was heavily engaged in acquiring land for what would become the nucleus of the 56,000-acre land trust known today as the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. During the Civil War, he commanded Thomas’ Legion of Indians and Highlanders, who were attacked and defeated by Union forces at the Battle of Deep Creek in February 1864.

The divide’s name is only part of the reason for its prominence in park history. On the western side of Thomas Divide, the Left Fork of Deep Creek has its own lasting place in Smokies lore. During the 1838–39 removal, Cherokee fugitive Tsali reputedly hid from federal troops for several days under a large rock overhang along Keg Drive Branch, a tributary of the Left Fork. 

On the opposite side of the divide, roughly paralleling Newfound Gap Road for several miles, is the lovely Oconaluftee, a name corrupted from the Cherokee word Egwanulti, or “by the river.” Formed a few miles south of the Smokies crest, where Beech Flats Prong and Kephart Prong join forces, the Oconaluftee flows through much of the Qualla Boundary past where the stream merges with Raven Fork near Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

The divide has a notable 20th-century history too. In the early 1900s, John E. Davis built a fine chestnut log home near the ridge’s southern end that was relocated to the Oconaluftee Valley after the park was established, thus becoming the centerpiece of what is now called the Mountain Farm Museum. The house later became the primary structure featured in the Davy Crockett television miniseries in the mid-1950s.

When it’s safe to reopen the park, I know it won’t be long before I find myself up on Thomas Divide, the heart and soul of the North Carolina Smokies.

Ben Anderson is a GSMA seasonal sales assistant and author of Smokies Chronicle: A Year of Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (blairpub.com).

From top: A map of Thomas Divide and it's namesake, William H Thomas; John E. Davis home in it's original location and now Mountain Farm Museum.

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