The Great Smoky Mountains are one of the most beautiful and diverse mountain ranges in the country. Formed 200-300 million years ago, these wonders of nature were able to escape the last ice age 10,000 years ago, providing a perfect northeast, southeast source of travel for both our earliest ancestors and the wildlife living there.
Every year millions of Americans visit the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in hopes of catching a brief look back in time. Modern visitors arrive by motorized vehicles, where as our earliest visitors arrived on foot. No horses, no wheels, just feet. Just like visitors of today, they too, never stayed long.
12,000 years ago the first people moved into what would one day become Tennessee. The Paleo-Indians did not live in permanent homes. Instead they were a nomadic culture. This means they traveled, following the animal herds and food supply. Some of the animals they may have hunted might include: the mastodon, giant bison, giant beaver, giant armadillo and the saber-toothed tiger, just to mention a few. The area that is now Tennessee was geologically a much different place with colder climates closer to those of Northern Minnesota or Southern Canada, providing an excellent environment for such animals as the mastodon, jaguar, and the giant sloth. Although these animals are now extinct, traces, such as bones and fossils have been left behind. Today, archaeologists continue to find sites containing fossilized bones all over Tennessee. In Williamson County, Tennessee, two mastodon skeletons were found. One bone had marks that could have only been made by sharp human tools. Although a lot of the larger animals have gone extinct you will still see such creatures as deer, ducks, rabbits, coyotes, and even the tiny arctic shrew. And if you were to step back in time you would still recognize the Cumberland Plateau, the Mississippi River and the Great Smoky Mountains; not even 10,000 years can change the way the world looks that much.
Archaeologists are scientists who study these early cultures and although it is difficult to know everything about their lives, a lot can be learned from the stone weapons and tools that they have so generously left behind to be studied. The ATLATL (spear thrower) is a hand held tool used to throw a spear a longer and harder distance. It was used as a primary hunting weapon until the invention of the bow and arrow. The Forbidden Caverns are a wonderful place to see and learn about the many flint and chert arrowheads, tools, knives and other handy items created in the long ago past.
8,000 years ago a new culture group evolved: Archaic-Indians. Less nomadic, they started building basic shelters and staying in one place for longer periods of time. Their homes were mostly Asi Wattle and Daub houses, but most were dependent on location and terrain. Some groups preferred living in caves or under the boughs of trees. The plants, animals, and environment were very important to them and played a major role in their religion and culture. They often took their names from things found in nature. The name Tennessee is believed to come from a Cherokee Indian word, “Tanasi”, meaning ‘Little River’.
3,000 years ago evolution took another giant step forward with the Woodland Indians. They were the first to grow crops. They grew corn mostly, but squash and pumpkin were also popular. They learned to make better pottery, woven items, and beautifully tanned skins.
They were also the first to use the bow and arrow, making hunting that much easier. These Early Indians are also responsible for the numerous Burial Mounds that can be found throughout most of Eastern Tennessee. The Woodland Indians were followed by an even more advanced culture known as the Mississippians who flourished until around the 16th century.
These early ancestors became such tribes known as: Catawba, Cherokee, Mosopelia, Muskogee Creek, Natchez, Shawnee, Tali, Tuskegee, and the Yuchi. Some of which can still be found living in the area today. Following is a more modern time line of important historical events centered around our early settlers:
1500 Hernando de Soto Explores the area in search of gold
1673 James Needham and Gabriel Arthur scout and trade with Cherokee Indians in
the Tennessee River Valley.
1775 Daniel Boone blazes the Wilderness Trail through the Cumberland Gap
Opening the way for settlers
1776 July 4, 1776 United States Declaration of Independence
1830 Indian Removal Act
1832 Department of Indian Affairs Established
1887 Congress passes Dawes General Allotment to break up the largest of the
The Indian reservations for sale to white settlers
1934 Great Smoky Mountain National Park Established on June 15, 1934
1969 All Indians declared citizens of the United States
Not much is known about the earliest settlers who arrived here more than 12,000 years ago. What we do know comes from the tools and items they have left behind.
They hunted, they gathered, they were nomadic and they were completely dependent upon the land and the environment for all their food, clothing, and shelter. It is believed that they traveled in small family ‘bands’ or ‘tribes’, usually consisting of 30-50 members. Was this for safety? Was it easier to feed smaller groups? These are questions that may never be answered, but if they are it will be through the hard work and dedication of the many devoted scientists and archaeologists who continue to study this amazing land we call the Great Smoky Mountains.
If you want to come see this historical place for yourself, there are plenty of places to stay in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. You can stay in hotels, or chalets, or one of the awesome cabins that’s offered. Whatever your budget, there’s something for everyone. If you’re trying to be good on money, there are cheap but comfortable cabins to choose from. If you’re splurging a bit, there are more luxurious cabins. Some of the cabins have more updated amenities, such as dishwashers. Some of them offer a blast from the past, allowing you to see how the settlers really lived. You can choose a cabin that is pet friendly and motorcycle accessible.
Wherever you stay, and whatever you do, the Great Smoky Mountains make an excellent place to vacation; so come on over, and bring your family and friends. Learn about the different cultures that slowly formed what is now Tennessee!