The History of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Basics

Name: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Location: Tennessee, USA; North Carolina, USA

Size: 522,419 acres

Key Features: Clingmans Dome, Newfound Gap, Chimney Tops, Laurel Falls, Cades Cove 

The History

The story in a nutshell: everyone was evicted and then the government made a park.

But history is a bit more complicated than that. Let’s dive in, shall we?

A circa 1940 postcard depicting the Cherokee of North Carolina. Tichnor Brothers Collection.

A circa 1940 postcard depicting the Cherokee of North Carolina. Tichnor Brothers Collection.

The Cherokee

Before the arrival of the first European settlers in the late 1700s, the land of Great Smoky Mountains National Park was occupied by the Cherokee Indians. They lived in small communities, typically near fertile land. The Cherokee were divided into seven clans – Long Hair, Blue, Wolf, Wild Potato, Deer, Bird, and Paint. Each clan lived in a democratic political structure, with two chiefs – a Peace Chief and a War Chief – serving as their leaders.

When European settlers arrived, they largely co-existed with their Cherokee neighbors. Then, in 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act. The Cherokee were forcibly removed from their homes and made to relocate to Oklahoma. Approximately 4,000 Cherokee died during this move on the Trail of Tears.

Not all of the Cherokee left for Oklahoma. Some married European settlers to avoid removal. Others rebelled against the eviction by hiding in the mountains. A particularly prominent figure in this rebellion was the warrior Tsali, who was sought after by law enforcement for his involvement in the deaths of several soldiers. To avoid causing more hardship for his Cherokee brethren, Tsali chose to turn himself in and face execution. This sacrifice made him a hero to many Cherokee.

Descendants of the Cherokee who hid in the mountains now live on the Qualla Boundary, just south of GSMNP. This land was purchased by the tribe in the 1870s and is now under federal protection.

A logging train in the Smoky Mountains. National Park Service archives.

A logging train in the Smoky Mountains. National Park Service archives.

The Logging Era

The fertility of the land in GSMNP was enough to encourage pioneers to settle in the area. At that time, logging wasn’t just a business – it was necessary for a persons livelihood. Homes, furniture, fences, and wood-burning stoves all required a sizable supply of wood. The mountains had plenty to supply.

This abundance of resource did not go unnoticed. By the 1850s, businesses started cutting timber to export and sell. At the time, the impact on the land was minimal. There were only so many trees a group of men could cut and haul via livestock in a day.

The arrival of the 20th century changed everything. The advent of the railroad and steam-powered equipment suddenly made logging a breeze. Production output increased exponentially, as did the decimation to the land. By the time the logging industry in GSMNP ended in the 1930s, approximately 20% of the forest remained.

Librarian and travel writer Horace Kephart.

Librarian and travel writer Horace Kephart.

Horace Kephart

In 1904, travel writer and librarian Horace Kephart took a sabbatical to the Smokies for health reasons. He discovered that the lumber industry was destroying the land and disrupting the lives of the people who lived there. 

In 1913, he published a book titled Our Southern Highlanders: A Narrative of Adventure in the Southern Appalachians and a Study of Life Among the Mountaineers . In this novel, he described the daily rural life and culture of the Appalachian Mountains. This book was, at the time, considered to be the first publication to discuss the people and history of Southern Appalachia. 

Kephart advocated intensely for the creation of Great Smoke Mountains National Park. By the 1920s, he garnered so many supporters, the region had a citizen’s organization devoted entirely to establishing GSMNP. 

Later on in his life, Kephart would be instrumental in mapping the route of the Appalachian Trail through GSMNP.  

Kephart was killed in an automobile accident on April 2, 1931. Three years after his death, the park he so greatly championed for was officially dedicated. 

ccc - mary ridge trail

The Civilian Conservation Corps building the Mary Ridge Trail. Photo circa 1935. National Park Service archives.

The Making of a National Park

After founding several parks in the west, the National Park Service turned their eyes eastward. They desired to create a national park located close to the majority of the American population.

Enter the Smokies.

The first step was to acquire funding, and it was a tricky one. The government hesitated on paying for a national park; all the ones in the west had already existed on federally-owned land. In the end they pitched in $2 million. The states of North Carolina and Tennessee contributed as well, along with countless donations from private citizens. When John D. Rockefeller, Jr. tossed in his donation of $5 million, there was finally enough money for NPS to create the park.

There was just one problem: there were still people living on the land.

Many people, enticed by the settlement payment, moved on their own accord; others had to be evicted from their lands. The lumbar companies were bought and phased out of operation over the course of several years. Some residents were permitted the right to live out the rest of their lives on their property, which would at their death be absorbed into the park boundary.

Piece by piece, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was assembled.

During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps worked on constructing trails, watchtowers, campgrounds, and other infrastructures.

Then, on September 2, 1940, came the big day.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt travelled down to the freshly minted Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In front of a large crowd gathered at Newfound Gap, he gave a speech. In it, he spoke of the lessons learned from the history of the region:

We used up or destroyed much of our natural heritage just because that heritage was so bountiful.

We slashed our forests, we used our soils, we encouraged floods, we overconcentrated our wealth, we disregarded our unemployed—all of this so greatly that we were brought rather suddenly to face the fact that unless we gave thought to the lives of our children and grandchildren, they would no longer be able to live and to improve upon our American way of life.

And then, without much further ado, he dedicated the park.

The winds that blow through the wide sky in these mountains, the winds that sweep from Canada to Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic—have always blown on free men. We are free today. If we join together now— men and women and children -to face the common menace as a united people, we shall be free tomorrow.

So, to the free people of America, I dedicate this Park.

The crowd at Newfound Gap during the ceremony when Roosevelt dedicated the park to the American people.

The crowd at Newfound Gap during the ceremony when Roosevelt dedicated the park to the American people.

Fun Facts

• Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the United States. In 2010, the park clocked in over 20 million visitors. Several of the surrounding towns – such as Gatlinburg, TN – are dependent on tourism for their economy.

• GSMNP is the most polluted park in the United States. The National Parks Conservation Association calculated 150 days of unhealthy air from 1993 to 2003.

• Fontana Dam, the northbound entrance of GSMNP on the Appalachian Trail, is the largest dam east of the Mississippi River.


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