History of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve, which testifies to its unique blend of cultural and natural history. The park was chartered by Congress 1934 and dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940.

Carter Shields Cabin, Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

The Great Smokies, named for the fog that is prevalent in the area after its frequent rainfalls and in the morning, are part of one of the earth’s oldest mountain ranges. The mountains’ northeast-to-southwest made it ideal for species migrating to escape glaciation during the last ice age. Since the ice never reached the southern Appalachians during that era, the region has retained much of its biological diversity.

Human habitation of the Great Smoky Mountains dates back at least 9,000 years, evidenced by Paleo-Indian artifacts such as projectile weapons and tools. By the time European settlers arrived in the area, the mountains were a central homeland of the Cherokee, whose history in the region dates back at least 1,000 years. Part of the extensive Iroquois Nation, the Cherokee had permanent settlements that grew from hunting, agriculture and trading, a matriarchal societal structure and advanced, democratic political systems.

Encroaching American settlement ran afoul of the Cherokee, leading to conflict and eventual forced removal of the tribe at the behest of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. This tragic episode, known as the Trail of Tears, expelled most of the Cherokee, as well as Seminole, Choctaw and other native peoples from their homelands in the American southeast to what is present day Oklahoma.

White settlement of the area soon gave way to the destructive clear-cutting of timber in the area’s forest. Local residents, the federal government and private citizens rallied to raise awareness of conservation in the area and purchase land to be set aside as a national park. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated $5 million towards land acquisition. Yet, progress proceeded piecemeal as homesteaders, miners and loggers were evicted from the area. Many homesteads and Appalachian mountain farms survive to this day, preserved by the park as historic sites.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a major site of Depression-era programs by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, whose workers built trails, fire watchtowers and made infrastructure improvements to the park.