The Regional Review

Volume VII - Nos. 1 & 2

July-August, 1941

by CHARLES S. GROSSMAN, Assistant Architect


DeSoto, the first white explorer on this continent, possibly may have viewed the Great Smoky Mountains in their deep blue haze. The Great Smokies were the home of the Cherokees until the advancing frontier of the white man drove them from their home. During the "Great Exodus" of 1838 when the Cherokees were rounded up and moved to a new home west of the Mississippi, a small band under the leadership of Tsali, hid in the mountains. The descendants of this group now occupy the Qualla Indian Reservation on the southern fringe of the park.

Hunters and Indian traders were the first white men to penetrate the rugged slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains. During the war for American Independence the Cherokees were allies of the British. In 1776 General Rutherford swept through the Cherokee settlements destroying their crops, burning their towns and driving the survivors into the mountains. During this expedition Rutherford and his men penetrated as far as the valley of the Oconaluftee. Records indicate that some of the men who accompanied General Rutherford were the first to make entries of land in this area, evidently being impressed with the richness of the river bottoms.

The first settlers came during the last years of the eighteenth century or the early part of the nineteenth century. By 1820 several settlements were established on both the north and south slopes of the Smokies. These early settlers were descended from English, German, and Scotch-Irish stock who had previously settled in Pennsylvania, western Maryland, Virginia and along the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge of North Carolina and South Carolina.

Habits of thrift, hardihood, and independence characterized these people.

Most of the settlers came with only the bare necessities. An ax, an auger, a long rifle with lead and powder, a pot, an oven, and seeds to plant the first crop, and a cow, if the trail they followed was not too steep and rough, constituted the means for establishing their new homes and providing a livelihood. Many of these folk were descended from craftsmen such as metal workers and wood workers; the women were resourceful; and all together, by force of environment, were able to supply the necessities of life from the materials at hand.

The first settlers in the Oconaluftee valley were soldiers who had accompanied General Rutherford on his expedition against the Cherokees. In Cades Cove, John Oliver and Job Jones made the first permanent settlement about 1818. These two men had fought with Washington in the "Jerseys". The early settlers in the vicinity of Gatlinburg made their way from Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia over trails through gaps in the Great Smokies. The trails these first travelers followed were rough, impassable except on foot or on horseback, and goods had to be carried on men's shoulders. As the choice lands along the larger streams were occupied, individual families moved up into the narrow valleys and into the coves and almost inaccessible areas of the mountains. By the time of the War Between the States about all of the areas in the park that have ever been inhabited, had been occupied, and that state of stagnation or social inertia occasioned by isolation had set in.


The first task of the settlers was to clear a patch of land and plant a crop against the coming winter. Their first shelter was a crude structure built so as to afford the quickest possible shelter and protection to their precious possessions. It was usually located near a spring near the foot of a hill. The walls of the house were of round logs with the chinks filled with moss. The roof was covered with rived or split shakes. To construct the doors, slabs were split from a log and pegged to crude wooden hinges with wooden pegs. Stone on the site and mud for mortar supplied the materials for the chimney and the hearth. The only window consisted of a small shuttered opening cut through the logs on one side of the fireplace. During the winter the shutter remained closed. From time to time as necessity demanded or time permitted, a barn, a corn crib, a bear-proof pig pen, and a bear-and-fox-proof chicken house, all built of logs, were added to the group. On a stream nearby a pounding mill or a "tub" mill would be constructed to crush or grind the family corn.

As the family increased in size or just pure pride of ownership demanded, larger and finer houses were built to replace the first crude houses. It is the later building, many of which still remain in the park, which reflect the skill and pride of craftsmanship which many of these people possessed. In some of the finer log buildings poplar logs 24 by 30 inches in diameter were used to construct the walls of the house requiring only three rounds of logs for the first story. These logs were hewn in two sides, usually to a thickness of four or five inches. Hewn with a broadax, their faces are true and smooth. In one such house the logs were hewn on four sides and all joints so accurately made that no chinking was required between the logs. In three known examples the chimneys of these later cabins are of hand made brick, that was moulded and burned nearby. The ultimate in log cabins is reached in Cades Cove. A bridegroom promised his bride to build her the finest cabin in the mountains. Not being satisfied with a fine hewn log cabin he took the logs to the Johnny Cable sash saw mill and had them sawn four square. The cabin is one and a half stories and the chimney is one of the three hand made brick chimneys' mentioned before. To the rear of this new cabin stands the original one story cabin with its rough round logs and saddle-notched joints.

Above. The house and garden of the Walker sisters in the Little Green Brier, Elkmont, Tennessee. The split picket fence is the type commonly used by the Smoky mountaineers.

Below. This typical corn crib and gear shed is one of the "carry-alls" for the mountain farm. The strap hinges on the crib door are hand-wrought iron.

As the tide of emigration swept down the river valleys of east Tennessee and across the Blue Ridge, more and more settlers penetrated into the Great Smokies. In the larger coves several families were soon settled and a form of social life was established. Churches were organized and church houses built, grist mills for custom grinding, sash saw mills and iron forges made their appearance. On June 17, 1827 John Oliver and a group of men organized the Primitive Baptist Church in Cades Cove. In the year 1828 Davis Fout built the Cades Cove Bloomery Forge on Forge Creek. This forge continued to operate until 1859. About half a mile downstream from the forge Johnny Cable built his grist mill and sash-saw mill. This evidence of progress noted in Cades Cove was equally true of other large coves and creek bottoms. In the narrow and inaccessible coves and valleys individual families continued to live in isolation.

It is interesting to note how topography and environment influenced the activities and architecture of the various areas in the park. The settlement along the Oconaluftee was located on an old Indian Trail which followed along the Oconaluftee, crossed the Smokies and along the West Prong of Little Pigeon. As settlements developed on both sides of the Smokies this trail became a stock trail over which mules, horses and pigs were driven from Kentucky and eastern Tennessee to South Carolina and Georgia. This traffic afforded an outlet for the products raised on the rich lands along the banks of the Oconaluftee. The rich flat floor of Cades Cove permitted extensive agriculture. During the summer months herds of horses, cattle, sheep and hogs were grazed on Thunderhead, Spence Field, and Gregory's Bald, large grassy meadows on the crest of the Smokies. In the fall, fattened by their summer's grazing, the cattle were driven over the narrow trails to market. Whenever it was possible for the people to raise a surplus above the bare needs of existence, and secure a market for their surplus they prospered. Their prosperity was reflected in their buildings and their community life. Barns were large and their contact with the world outside was reflected in their homes and social life.

In the narrow rock strewn valleys, as the Sugarlands Valley near Gatlinburg, the people had a hard struggle for existence. Trails were rough and steep and communication with the world outside was extremely difficult.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park presents a unique opportunity to preserve frontier conditions of a century ago, which have vanished elsewhere. The cultural and human interest aspects of this park are as outstanding as its scenery and vegetation.

The white population of the region still exhibits the pristine ruggedness and self-sufficiency of the pioneer period shortly after the American Revolution.

Several typical mountain communities remain intact within the park boundaries and may constitute valuable outdoor exhibits in a proposed "museum of mountain culture". Already large collections of household goods, tools, farm equipment, weapons, chiefly primitive and hand-wrought, have been assembled. Studies of the folklore, ballads, linguistics, genealogy and local tradition, initiated several years ago, are being continued. These cultural studies contemplate a regional picture of native folk life in the Great Smokies.


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Date: 04-Jul-2002