Stories Behind the National Parks - Part #2

Stories Behind the National Parks - Part #2

Though we see the National Parks in the present day as stunning natural lands where we can appreciate the vast biodiversity of the United States, the parks also offer rich history lessons. A trip to a National Park offers the opportunity to learn about America's geological, anthropological, cultural, and biological history. 

To honor the National Parks and what they were before they were National Parks, recently we decided to launch a mini-series on the history behind some of this country's most cherished public lands.

This article marks Part #2 in the series, where we explore the history behind Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America's most-visited National Park!

Indigenous History

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) is located in Tennessee and North Carolina. It's one of only three U.S. National Parks that spans more than one state, Death Valley (Nevada and California) and Yellowstone (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) being the other two. 

According to the National Park Service, the anthropological history of the mountains that comprise GRSM goes back about 10,000 years. The region was first inhabited by prehistoric Paleo-Indians, the first people to come to North America.

While the mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina were home to several Indigenous tribes throughout the centuries, the best-preserved histories and cultures of the region are of the Cherokee Indians. An established and affluent network of Cherokee tribes spanned much of the southeastern United States, the GRSM area included. The Cherokee can trace their history in the region back more than 1,000 years.

Throughout the Smoky Mountains, Cherokee tribes hunted, traded, and farmed, usually setting up permanent villages in river valleys and foothills. They built log structure homes, developed agricultural systems, and bartered with other tribes. While each tribe had elected leadership, much of the communal life was carried out in a democratic fashion. Members of tribes were able to voice their concerns and thoughts over tribal conditions. Cherokee tribes were often matriarchal.

As European settlers began to expand westward in the early and mid-1800s, Cherokee Indians were taken from their homes, held in stockades, and forced to move to Oklahoma and Arkansas. A six-month journey in which about 4,000 of the 14,000 Cherokee died, the forced move became infamously known as the "Trail of Tears." 

During the forced removal, a Cherokee leader named Tsali led a quiet revolt and evaded capture for many years. He and his tribe members stayed hidden until 1838 in the mountains that now comprise Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Of his own volition, Tsali turned himself in to the U.S. Army for trial and execution on the agreement that other Cherokee would be allowed to stay in the region and not be forced west.

Tsali's sacrifice allowed the Oconaluftee Cherokee, an eastern tribe of Cherokee, to remain in North Carolina on a reservation to the immediate east of GRSM. To this very day, the Oconaluftee Cherokee live in a reservation called the Qualla Boundary Reservation, just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

While the Indigenous history of the Smoky Mountains bears its unfortunate share of sadness and tragedy, the Oconaluftee Cherokee who still live there have preserved their traditions, language, customs, and ancestral ways. The Qualla Boundary Reservation is open to the public, and visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park are encouraged to take a day trip to the reservation and learn about the Indigenous history of America's most visited National Park.

The Great Smoky Mountains - Becoming a National Park

Shortly after most Cherokee tribes had been displaced to Oklahoma and Arkansas, major logging firms moved into the Smoky Mountains and began harvesting trees. While this enterprise was good for the economy, residents of the Smoky Mountains grew fearful that their lands and the region in general would be decimated by "cut-and-run" style clearcutting. Communities across eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina began banding together and pressuring governments at the local, county, state, and federal level to establish a National Park in the region.

The creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park was not easy. First, there was a matter of fundraising. Unlike other National Parks out west, the federal government did not already own the land on which the park would be designated. GRSM is over 800 square miles in size, or about 522,427 acres. Almost all of that land was privately owned, from large tracts owned by logging firms to smaller farms and homesteads.

Local communities and the federal government had to work together to raise funds to buy the land, only succeeding when John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated the final $5 million to the campaign. The stunning photographs of the region, taken by Japanese immigrant George Masa, also played a key role in convincing influential donors to throw their dollars into the hat.

In May of 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill for the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park. But this was only one step towards creating the park. It wasn't until 1934 that the federal government purchased the last tract of land and Great Smoky Mountains National Park was born.

On September 2nd, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the park and gave an official dedication speech. Reflecting on how the land of the park was almost over-forested into oblivion, FDR spoke to the American people on the importance of conservation and the freedom such conservation creates for all Americans.

The following is an excerpt from his speech:

"We used up and destroyed much of our natural heritage just because that heritage was so bounteous. We slashed our forests, we used our soils, we encouraged floods, we over-concentrated 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. That way of life is menaced. We can meet the threat. 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, women and children -- and face the common menace as a united people, we shall be free tomorrow. And so, to the free people of America, I dedicate this park."

Today, more than 80 years after FDR gave that speech, we're quite glad for the foresight of our ancestors, for the beauty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and for our ability to enjoy the natural wonders of the park and the deep, significant history of the lands that comprise the park.

Our Dedication to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Out of all 63 National Parks, there is none that our award-winning poster artists have created as much artwork for as Great Smoky Mountains National Park. GRSM is like a second home to us, as it is in our "backyard," as we like to say. To see how the park has inspired us and helped fuel our passion for vintage poster art and National Park art, check out our Illustrated American National Parks Poster Art Collection.

And be sure to check back next week. We'll be exploring the history and stories behind another of America's most cherished National Parks!

Until next time,

-Ren Brabenec

Anderson Design Group Writing Staff

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