Explore the Rich Culture and History of Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Gatlinburg, Tennessee, underneath the hustle and bustle of a destination city and vacation paradise among the mountains, was first settled as a small cabin town and a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. Imagine riding in tow with family and hopes for a different life, heading into the unknown. Arriving at the entrance of the towering Smoky Mountains as thick white clouds slowly crawl over the tall dark peaks of evergreen pines, those hopes parallel with fears.

Gatlinburg first served as a beacon of hope for travelers passing through the mountain lands of the majestic Appalachian Mountains. As with any distinguished city, much of her established greatness did not come without turmoil and triumphs throughout her progression into one of the nation’s most visited destination cities. In short, Gatlinburg was not always – and did not easily become – a bustling tourist town.


First Settlers Around Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Long before any European-decent settlers arrived in the South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee areas of the Appalachian Mountain region, The Native American tribes of the Cherokee, a branch of the Iroquois Nation, resided in the mountain and foothill areas of these states. Today, visitors can travel into the past from Gatlinburg along Newfound Gap Road, which opens to the Qualla Territory, the city of Cherokee, North Carolina, where Native American inhabitants have beautifully preserved traditions, art, and tribal customs of the Cherokee.

Along the Oconaluftee River, one of the hundreds of streams that run through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and throughout the Appalachian Mountains, the Cherokee resided along the sacred river waters which sustained much of Native American life for fishing, drinking water, and fertile soil for agriculture.

Below Sevierville County, where Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge would someday become home to European settlers and present-day Eastern Tennessee Counties of Monroe, Polk, and McMinn, the Cherokee settlements along the western foothills of the Appalachians would be recognized by British settlers and traders as the Overhill Native American settlements. Friendly relations between white settlers and traders prevailed through the American Revolutionary War from the late 18th century into early 19th century, but Gatlinburg and other European settlements of the mid-19th century would not be afforded that harmonious relation due to the mass removal and migration of the Cherokees that spawned from the Treaty of New Echota and President Jackson’s Removal Act in the 1830s, known as the Trail of Tears. The Eastern Band of Cherokees who evaded American militia during the tribes’ mass removal and lived in the forest of the Great Smoky Mountains were eventually allowed to reside in their lands, now known as the Qualla Indian Reservation in western North Carolina at the end of Newfound Gap Road, the connecting highway that leads to Gatlinburg.

The farming community of White Oaks Flat, nestled beside fertile riverbeds among the numerous springs and rivers flowing through the mountains, changed its name to Gatlinburg upon the wishes of Radford Gatlin, a businessman who offered to facilitate the U.S. postal service within his already existing general store in 1855 on the terms that the town be named after himself. Even though the town would keep his name, Radford Gatlin was evicted from the settlement in 1859 after spawning and persisting numerous fights and confrontations with other Gatlinburg inhabitants solely based on his views and opinions, heavily related to the Civil War, despite the mountain settlements’ ability to quietly remain unscathed but much of the war.

Growth of an Industry | Logging in the Smoky Mountains
Following the invention of the band-saw, the logging industry experienced exponential growth in the heavily wooded areas of Appalachia. As more and more loggers and logging businesses moved into the area, there was a need for lodging. This spawned numerous cabins and hotels and new ways to make a living. While the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge communities persisted in their farming-based sustenance up to the 1960s, artisanship and crafting grew into popular ways to make extra money. Many of these trades spawned, not only from the rise in human traffic to the beautiful mountain regions, but also from the early 19th century northern philanthropists who sought to teach mountain women and children how to read, write, and harken back to colonial skills such as spinning and weaving.

The Birth of a Rich Arts & Crafts Culture
The Pi Beta Phi School classrooms would be crowded by local women and children who not only wanted to learn to reconnect with their artisan roots, but also saw the possible profit to be made on the growing tourism flooding into the area. The National Park Service established the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, simply adding to the growth. Men also cashed in on their non-native visitors to the hometown areas by offering guided hikes and trail rides, sprinkled with their rustic, mountain-language commentary lending visitors the most authentic experience of the Smokies.

Arthur Ogle (a member of one of the area’s original families to settle in the region) and a handful of other men who had grown up in the mountain towns created their own versions of the Smoky Mountain historical narratives that would become part of the personality and framework for many attractions and sites found in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge today.

Protecting the Natural Surroundings
As more and more logging invaded the Appalachia region in the 1900s, environmentalists sought to protect the area’s natural and majestic beauty and encouraged the federal government to interject, thus establishing the area between the Northern and Southern Cherokee National Forests as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Following the catastrophic era of the World Wars, many Americans turned to the nostalgia of “simpler times” and hailed mountain living as an escape from the fast-moving globalization creeping into modern society. Between 1941 and 1954, as veterans returned home and the Baby Boom launched, visitation to the Smokies more than doubled. In the year 1959 alone, 3.2 million visitors “got away” to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; an estimated 40 percent of that human traffic travelled through Gatlinburg, Tennessee.


A Gateway to the Smokies

City and area business and architectural developers modeled this gateway city to resemble Aspen-style Swiss mountain villages and even created legislation that mandated the adherence to this architectural design to all businesses and attractions within Gatlinburg city limits. This assures a coherent feeling of authenticity despite the growing tourism and tourist attractions into the mountain city of Gatlinburg.

Below are a couple attractions hinged upon a historical focus and preservation of mountain culture for you to learn and experience the history of Gatlinburg first-hand!

Battle of the Burg
While managing to stay relatively neutral during the Civil War, Gatlinburg did experience a little of the gunfire and warfare – luckily without casualties. In the Battle of Burg Hill, Union armies marched from Knoxville to Sevierville in hopes of gaining access to the valuable underground caves by taking Burg Hill Fort, occupied by Confederate forces to protect the salt peter mines. Watch and meet talented Civil War reenactors and learn a detailed history of a forgotten battle that occurred right on the land where hundreds of restaurants and attractions reside present-day. The best part: IT’S FREE! Have fun while the whole family learns in the beautiful mountain-valley setting for a memorable day of free entertainment!

Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community
Recognized as the nation’s largest group of independent artisans, the beautiful and colorful 8-mile loop, designated a Tennessee Heritage Arts and Crafts Trail, is littered with quaint mountain shops where talented craftspeople have worked since 1937! Visit with the family to witness the most populated area of baskets, blankets, wood carvings, furniture, paintings, and so much more, created by the talented and dedicated hands of local artists. It’s an incredibly important part of Gatlinburg’s present and certainly of the history of Gatlinburg!