Cataloochee Valley Beginnings

In 1776, America was a newly established country. With the ending of the Revolutionary War, America was awash in opportunity. However, the eastern seaboard was getting a bit crowded as ships arrived daily from Europe.

Already having crossed an ocean for the New World, Americans proved to be risk takers and many of them were ready to explore the land.

While the coastal cities went through a population metamorphosis, Cherokee Indians remained the primary inhabitants of the Smoky Mountains.

However, in 1791, the United States government signed the Treaty of Holston with the Cherokees, effectively securing the rights to the land.

Afterwards, the Smoky Mountains saw an influx of newly minted Americans who pushed the Cherokees out. The exit of Indians took more than forty years and culminated in forced removal by the government.

Thousands of Indians died during their relocation, which is now known as the Trail of Tears.

BUY THE BOOK – Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation (Amazon)

Cataloochee Valley Map | Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Cataloochee Valley Map | Great Smoky Mountains National Park

By the early 1800’s, mountain farming communities sprang up throughout the Smoky Mountains. Utilizing trails created by the Cherokees, farmers made their way to areas previously hunted and farmed by the Indians, and built homes there.

Pioneer families founded each one of these mountain farming communities looking for a new beginning on cheap, farmable land. They found it in the Smoky Mountains.

Although Cataloochee Valley is the most remote of the Appalachian farming communities, it became the largest and most prosperous. At its height, it boasted 1,251 residents. They farmed, planted apple trees, and traded with outsiders.

Cades Cove and Roaring Fork are two nearby farming communities that grew during the same time period, but with far fewer residents.

The mountain ground was rocky, uneven, and hard to farm. Nevertheless, these American pioneers forged ahead and made a life for themselves.

RELATED: Little Cataloochee Trail

Civil War

When the Civil War began, most of the Appalachian communities sided with the Union, including a majority of the Cades Cove residents on the other side of the mountain. Cataloochee Valley residents did not.

This remote valley was home to many Confederate sympathizers and a large number of the men went off to war.

The absence of young men going to war made farming even more difficult. Afterwards, many of the men did not return; they had lost their lives. Others returned, but had lost limbs or were in poor health, unable to farm.

Cataloochee Valley, unlike most other mountain farming communities, did not succumb to the temptation of logging the land. Railroads made logging a profitable option in the mountains.

Commercial loggers eventually stripped the Smoky Mountains of nearly two-thirds of its trees. Cataloochee Valley residents resisted, and today some of the oldest and tallest trees in the Smokies can be found here.

RELATED: Boogerman Loop Trail

The farmers kept farming and selling apples grown in their orchards. Some ventured into tourism and began hosting tourists vacationing in the mountains.

A few families built rooms onto their homes and rented them out. They were survivors, and they survived.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Many factors contributed to the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One major impetus was logging. The mountains were beautiful, but logging had taken its toll. The mountains lost their majestic vistas and stood bare.

As loggers stripped the mountains of trees, the natural habitat disappeared. Deforestation led to the death of much of the indigenous wildlife. When possible, many wild animals fled to new areas.

Cataloochee | Great Smoky Mountains National Park Entrance

Cataloochee | Great Smoky Mountains National Park Entrance

John D. Rockefeller Jr. stepped in and contributed $5 million to fund a new park. The U.S. Congress allocated an additional $2 million. Many residents of Tennessee and North Carolina pitched in what they could, but not everyone was happy about the idea.

The pioneer families that settled in the Smoky Mountains soon were required to vacate the land they worked so hard to develop, and start over again. They lost their farms, land, and homes. However, they didn’t leave without a fight.

Some filed lawsuits against the federal government in an attempt to stop the confiscation of their land. They lost. Years before, the government forced the Indians off the land, and now they forced the homesteaders out.

While its beginnings may be controversial, the end result is one of the most beautiful national parks in America. To preserve the memory of the early Smoky Mountain pioneers, several areas are designated as open air museums. Cataloochee Valley is one such place.

Palmer House

George Palmer left Buncombe County, North Carolina after losing a large sum of money gambling. To save face, he packed up his family and looked for a place to start over. The remote Cataloochee Valley appealed to him. After relocating, his family became one of the most successful in Cataloochee Valley.

Palmer House | Cataloochee Valley | Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Palmer House | Cataloochee Valley | Great Smoky Mountains National Park

George and his wife, Nancy, had two sons; George, also known as Uncle Fate, and Jesse. The home in the picture belonged to Uncle Fate.

These two brothers were very industrious and amassed great wealth through farming, banking, assessing land, and performing other community services. Uncle Fate’s son, Jarvis, was a chip off the old block and made a name for himself in tourism.

Jarvis Palmer and his family owned a good bit of land, along with the fishing rights to nearly three miles of the Cataloochee Creek. They sold daily fishing licenses to vacationers allowing them to fish the creek.

Later on, they built a two-room bunkhouse where fishermen could sleep and get a home cooked meal. The bunkhouse is still around, across the street from the home.

When the park was established, the Palmer’s moved out of Cataloochee Valley and a ranger moved into their home.

Beech Grove School House

As the Cataloochee Valley community grew, they built three schools to accommodate the educational needs. Children began school at 8:00 am and finished the day at 4:00 pm.

Parents set aside Fridays to visit their children and see what they accomplished during the week. The only remaining school building in the community is in Big Cataloochee, and it has quite a story.

Beech Grove School | Cataloochee Valley | Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Beech Grove School | Cataloochee Valley | Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The population outgrew the small schoolhouse, so the community sent two men to Waynesville to petition the government for a new, larger school. The government denied their request, based on the contention that the residents of Cataloochee Valley did not pay enough taxes.

After returning to Cataloochee Valley, the men removed all the desks and furniture from the school and set fire to the building. They then re-submitted their request to Waynesville based on the new circumstances that the school burned down. They got their new school.

Caldwell House and Barn

Originally spelled Colwell, this family settled in Cataloochee Valley in the 1800’s and stayed until the evacuation in 1938. The original cabin was replaced in 1906 using contemporary materials. Today you can visit the new house and the barn.

The Caldwell Barn | Cataloochee Valley | Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Caldwell Barn | Cataloochee Valley | Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Other Structures

In is heyday, Cataloochee Valley was home to more than 200 homes, barns, mills, stores, etc. Today, far fewer buildings remain.

Some of the popular structures you can see when you visit are the Will Messer Barn, Palmer Chapel, Beech Grove School, Caldwell House and Barn, Palmer House and Bunkhouse, Hannah Cabin, Little Cataloochee Church, Cook Cabin, and the Messer Farm.

Elk Reintroduction

More than 150 years ago, Smoky Mountain elk populations were lost when their habitat was destroyed and hunters over hunted. In 2001, the National Park Service reintroduced twenty-five elk back into Cataloochee Valley, with two dozen more introduced a year later.

Elk | Cataloochee Valley | Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Elk | Cataloochee Valley | Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Today, more than 150 elk are home in the Smoky Mountains. Many of them remained in Cataloochee and can be seen roaming the valley in early morning and evenings.