Story and image by Don McGowan
The great open valleys of the Smokies—Cataloochee in North Carolina; Big Cove in Qualla Boundary; and Cosby, Tuckaleechee, and Cades Cove in Tennessee—are self-contained microcosms of the diverse human history of this wonderful land. Ongoing research and discovery is continuously adding to our understanding of these places: How was it for the people who came here? Who were they? What did they do to survive and thrive?
We know that Native American cultures have been active in these areas as far back as the Early Archaic Period, perhaps as long ago as 11,500 calendar years before the present. Ancestors of the Tsalagi (Cherokee) have claimed these mountains as their spiritual home for some 4,000 years and possibly longer. Ultimately they established Tsiya'hi, “Otter Place,” as a semi-permanent seasonal camp in Cades Cove.
It was not until 1818 that the era of white presence began in Cades Cove with the arrival of John and Lucretia Oliver, who survived their first winter in the area by taking advantage of an abandoned Tsalagi shelter and accepting food from locals. A year later, the Treaty of Calhoun ceded Tsalagi lands that included Cades Cove, and white settlement would begin in earnest. For more than a hundred years following the Treaty of Calhoun, the story of Cades Cove would be that of a secluded mountain valley, home to productive farms, businesses, schools, and churches. At its peak, it could claim nearly seven hundred residents.
When Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formally established in 1934, it was the citizens of Cades Cove who were some of the most resistant to leaving the homes they, and their ancestors, had known for generations. Some park supporters were intimidated and threatened, but eventually the idea of preservation took hold, and the beauty of the valley became part of the greater beauty of the park that we know and love.
I remember Kermit Caughron, one of the last permanent residents of the cove, who passed away in 1999. Kermit was born in the cove in 1912. I think of Kermit and his herd of beef cows, Hereford mostly, whenever I’m working the valley, especially along Hyatt Lane, across the Loop Road from where his house once stood. It’s been much easier to photograph the valley with the cows gone, but it’s hard to get used to the place with no old timers around.
Don McGowan owns and operates EarthSong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.