“It is good and right that we should conserve these mountain heights of the old frontier for the benefit of the American people.” – F. D. Roosevelt
On September 2, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt stood at Newfound Gap, with a foot on each side of the Tennessee and North Carolina State line, and dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A tremendous amount of vision, work, time, money, and dedication was needed to make this dream a reality. Before the Smoky Mountains could become a national park, many men and women worked with tireless zeal and vision, often playing out unknown and unsung parts to make the mountains what we know and love today.
Although the Smoky Mountains were first settled in the 1700s, the idea to create a national park didn’t begin until the late 1890s when a few farsighted people began to push to create a park in this area like those that had been created out west. The original idea for a park came from Ann Davis, a wealthy Knoxville woman who had visited parks in the west and returned asking why we couldn’t have a national park in the Smokies, too.
The drive to create a park grew in the 1920s, and most of the early supporters lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina. Competitive at first, the two groups later joined ranks and began pulling together for the park to be located between the two cities. In May of 1926 a bill was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge to provide for the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This bill 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 of the 520,000 acres of selected parkland.
That’s when things got really interesting. Since the government was not allowed to buy land for national park use, the former political boosters had to become fund raisers. Money was appropriated by the TN and NC legislatures but the rest was raised by the people and through private donations. The next challenge was attaining the land. Unlike earlier parks created in the west on vast tracts of lands already owned by the government, these eastern lands in Tennessee and western North Carolina were privately owned. Eighty-five percent of the land was owned by logging companies and the other 15% by farmers, individuals, and businesses – none of whom felt eager to relinquish their property. However, the lands were finally purchased and in 1934 the deeds for all the parklands were transferred to the federal government, who formally established the Great Smoky Mountains as a national park on June 15, 1934. Much of the building of the park’s bridges, and structures were done by the CCCs in the 1930s and early 1940s. And in September, 1940, the park was formally dedicated at Newfound Gap by President Franklin Roosevelt.
Even before the park became a reality, early settlers were helping to make the mountains known – literally by first coming here. Perhaps you, like myself, can trace your ancestry back to some of the first settlers to Tennessee or North Carolina and maybe back to some of the first settlers to the Smoky Mountain region.
The first pioneer families came to the Gatlinburg area about 1806, to the Cades Cove valley in 1818, and to the eastern Cosby region even earlier. On the North Carolina side of the mountains, the first white settlers arrived in the Bryson City area in about 1809 and in the Cataloochee Valley about 1814. These forerunners paved the way for more settlers who soon followed.
Martha Ogle is believed to be the first settler to the Gatlinburg/ Smokies area, then called White Oak Flats in the early 1800s. A recent widow, she came with her family to start a new life in what her late husband had described as a “land of paradise.” These early times in the 1800s were difficult in this rural area and it took hard work to survive and thrive. As families like Martha Ogle’s came into the wilderness and carved out homes and lives, others followed, including Reagans, Whaleys, Trentams, and Bales … and Radford Gatlin, for whom Gatlinburg was named.
John Oliver and his wife Lucretia Frazier Oliver were the first permanent settlers in Cades Cove. John came from a respected family in upper east Tennessee near Elizabethton. Lucretia had been a bound girl, orphaned out to another family to raise before being courted by John. They married in April, 1812. But their early marriage was interrupted by the War of 1812. John marched off and served under the command of General Andrew Jackson in the Horseshoe Bend area of Alabama. After he returned, the couple lived for a time in Carter County, where John worked as a collier, struggling with hard times, before the opportunity came to migrate to Tennessee.
The Olivers, along with Joshua Jobe, who initially persuaded them to settle in the cove, traveled 125 miles from Carter County to Cades Cove, a journey that took 8 to 10 days then with no roads and only Indian trails to follow. Lucretia had a small baby when they left and she was pregnant with a second child. It must have been a very difficult trip. Like Martha Ogle’s family, the Olivers probably came with little more than the clothes on their backs, a rifle, a good ax, knives, utensils and dishes, a skillet and Dutch oven, blankets and other necessities. The cove was not cleared when they arrived, and bears, mountain lions, panthers and other kinds of wildlife permeated the forest.
They wintered in an abandoned Cherokee hut until Jobe returned in the Spring of 1819 with other settlers and a herd of cattle in tow. He gave the Olivers two milk cows to ease their complaints but it must have been a hard, scary first winter for them. With warmer weather, they built a crude first home, and later a larger cabin. They cleared land for crops and fruit trees, built barns, corncribs, and fences. They raised nine children in their small log cabin. The Oliver cabin you visit, when in Cades Cove today, was built by John Oliver as a “starter“ house for their son when he married. The original Oliver cabin actually lay about 50 yards away and no longer stands.
Cades Cove actually belonged to the Cherokee Nation prior to 1818, who hunted and fished in it, so in a sense the land wasn’t really open for settlement when the Olivers came. However, a year after the Olivers arrived, the Cherokee released their claim to the land through the Calhoun Treaty, opening the door for more settlement. Other families soon followed in the 1820s … the Tiptons, Shields, Burchfields, Cables, Sparks, and Gregories. They gradually established churches, the first grist mill, and schools. Each family provided for their own and all joined in for common celebrations, gatherings, church and school events, funerals and weddings.
Most of the earliest settlers to the North Carolina areas, that are now part of the Great Smoky Mountains, came to the Oconoluftee area near Cherokee and to the Cataloochee Valley in Western North Carolina. First settlers to Oconoluftee were Jacob Mingus, who built Mingus Mill, Ralph Hughes, Abraham Enloe and others. In Cataloochee the Caldwells, Palmers, Cooks and Messers were early arrivals, and despite its remote location, the Cataloochee area grew and prospered more than other early mountain settlements.
It’s hard to believe that all the area of the Smokies, thought to be 200-300 million years old, was once wilderness and only primitively inhabited when you visit the park today. We too often forget the love, dedication, sacrifices, and work of hundreds of men and women of earlier times who struggled to settle this once vast wilderness and who fought to help the mountains become a national park. Today, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America and over ten million people visit it every year. There are over 800 miles of trails for hiking or horseback riding and 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail pass across the mountains. The park maintains over 80 historic structures including log buildings, churches, schoolhouses, barns, and working grist mills. In addition, there are 20,000 kinds of animals, birds, plants, ferns, mushrooms, flowers and other natural species in the park. It’s a true treasure – and it’s right in my own back yard.
Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act