by Jennifer Watts
Many songs have been written about the Smoky Mountains. Many you might have heard, like “Rocky Top” and “On Top of Old Smokey.” But what is the story behind the songs? Are you ready to learn more? Let’s take a closer look at the story behind the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The mountains we call the Smokies were formed millions of years ago. They changed into what we see today over all that time. Many people have called them home for thousands of years. Archeologists have found artifacts that date back to over 10,000 years ago!
Postcard from the 1940s, TSM Collection.
The Smokies got their name from the Cherokee people. They called it “Shaconage” (shah-con-ah-jey) which means “place of the blue smoke.” The name comes from the blue mist that floats above the peaks of the mountains.
European settlers moved to the mountains in the late 1700s. Life for them was very hard. These early settlers moved onto land that belonged to the Cherokee people. They cut down trees to build their homes. They cleared the land to feed their animals and plant crops. They also hunted for food. Sometimes conflict between the two groups led to fighting.
In the 1830s, many of the Cherokee were forced to move west. More settlers began moving onto the land. By the 1900s, the land was owned mostly by farmers, timber companies, and paper factories. Small communities grew into big towns like Elkmont, Smokemont, Proctor, and Tremont. Over time, the beautiful forest was being cut down for lumber and paper products. People began to worry about the future of the mountains.
Postcard of Newfound Gap from 1943, TSM Collection.
During the 1920s, a growing push toward conservation of the land was popular. In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill that established the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The goal was to save the forest and wildlife who lived there. The Park would include land from two states: Tennessee and North Carolina. In 1934, the two states donated 300,000 acres of land for the park. Another 150,000 acres had to be bought from the people who lived and worked there. Money to buy the land was raised by state legislatures and ordinary citizens. Even school children collected money! They raised $10 million! That land was the beginning of the park.
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) worked to get the park ready for visitors. They built roads, bridges, hiking trails, and campgrounds for people to enjoy. In September of 1940, the park was officially opened by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Newfound Gap.
Today the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is over 500,000 acres between Tennessee and North Carolina. It is enjoyed by nature lovers from around the world. It is known as the most visited park in the United States! In 2016, over 11.3 million people visited. People can hike the 850 miles of trails or stay the night at one of the ten campgrounds. Maybe one of them was you!
Archeologist - the person who digs items out of the ground to study the past.
Artifact - an object used by people in the past.
Conflict - a disagreement between people or groups of people.
Conservation - protecting animals, plants, and natural resources.
How long have people been living in the Smoky Mountains?
Who gave the Smoky Mountains their name?
Why do you think people decided to conserve the Smoky Mountains?
What activities would you do to help save The Great Smoky Mountains?
Create your own Smoky Mountain playlist. How many songs can you find about the Great Smokey Mountains.
To learn more about Indian Removal in the 1830s, checkout the kids blog “The Unwanted Journey on the Trail of Tears” (https://tnmuseum.org/junior-curators/posts/the-unwanted-journey)
Tennessee Social Studies Standard(s):
SSP.01 Gather information from a variety of sources, including Printed materials (e.g., literary texts, newspapers, political cartoons, autobiographies, speeches, letters, personal journals), Graphic representations (e.g., maps, timelines, charts, artwork), Artifacts, and Media and technology sources.
SSP.05 Develop historical awareness by sequencing past, present, and future in chronological order and understanding that things change over time.
3.12 Locate the following cities and physical features in Tennessee: • Cities (Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville), Rivers (Cumberland, Mississippi, Tennessee), Mountain Range (Great Smoky Mountains).
3.18 Analyze how people interact with their environment to satisfy basic needs and wants, including: housing, industry, transportation, and communication.
5.16 Describe how New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt impacted American society with government-funded programs, including: Social Security, expansion and development of the national parks, and creation of jobs.
5.48 Describe the effects of the Great Depression on Tennessee and the impact of New Deal policies in the state (i.e., Tennessee Valley Authority and Civilian Conservation Corps).
5.53 Compare and contrast the three grand divisions of Tennessee in terms of the following: Major industries (e.g., Eastman, FedEx, and Nissan), Tourism (e.g., Bristol Motor Speedway, Civil War sites, and Graceland), Agriculture and livestock (e.g., soybeans in West TN, tobacco in Middle TN, and dairy in East TN), and Geography (i.e., Gulf Coastal Plains, the Nashville Basin, the Highland Rim, the Cumberland Plateau, the Great Valley, and the Great Smoky Mountains).
“Great Smoky Mountains: History and Culture.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/historyculture/index.htm.
“Great Smoky Mountains: Park Statistics.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/management/statistics.htm.
“Great Smoky Mountains: People.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/historyculture/people.htm.
“Great Smoky Mountains: Stories.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/historyculture/stories.htm.
“Great Smoky Mountains: Things to Do.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2016. https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/things2do.htm.
“History of the Smokies.” Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2021. https://www.smokiesinformation.org/history-of-the-smokies.
Jones, Joshua. “The Great Smoky Mountains: Women of the Smokies.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/historyculture/women-history.htm.
Ives, Burl. On Top of Old Smokey. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P51eCjKN2Kw.
Jennifer Watts is the Scheduling Coordinator at the Tennessee State Museum.