Joe Hudgins Author of the Thunderbird Story
Joe Hudgins Author of the Thunderbird Story

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Early Inhabitants/Explorers - By Ronald E. Johnson

Many of today's routes were originally just an animal tracks worn down by buffalo, deer, and bear taking a path of least resistance. These rough trails were then used by Native American Cherokee Indians for centuries as trading/war paths. The earliest white men to use the trail were soldiers, explorers, hunters, and trappers moving into dangerous territory in the 1700s. Many of the old Cherokee Trails actually had natural markers, trees that were bent over by the Indians to point the way. These were called "bent", "yoke", or "marker" trees. On some of the major trails the Cherokee reportedly covered as much as 100 miles a day.

Chesquah, a Cherokee Indian born circa 1773, recalled seeing large herds of Buffalo grazing in what is now Robbinsville circa 1789. He lived at the junction of East and West Buffalo Creeks and the Cheoah River, today on Lake Santeetlah.  Chesquah, who died circa 1880 and was buried at Ground Squirrel Gap, is said to have followed the last herd of buffalo heading west across Hooper Bald. This photo at right of Chesquah is very similar to one said to be Nathan Kirkland. It was not unusual for Indians to also take a white man's name.

In later years settlers used a steer or "cow-brute" to find the easiest passage on lands where animal trails had not yet been established. Heading the steer in the general direction they would follow and place stakes along the future path.

A number of historical figures had explored close to the Appalachians if not actually crossing into present day Tennessee. The earliest was Hernando DeSoto (c1500-1542) who came searching for gold in 1540 and according to one expert crossed the mountains before heading westward to the Mississippi River. Spanish explorer Juan Pardo came 27 years later in 1567 also looking for gold. He established a fort near present day Morganton, North Carolina before heading west stopping near Asheville before making his way through the Great Smoky Mountains of today.

By the late 1500s England, seeing the French claims in the north and Spanish claims in the south, decided they should resurrect their interest in colonizing the Virginia/North Carolina coast. It was not until the 1640s that Governor William Berkeley heard rumors of "a huge mountaine within five days journey, and at the foot thereof great Rivers that run into a Great Seas, to which people come in ships". It was more than twenty years later before Berkeley took action in searching for this supposed passage to India. He sent German physician John Lederer westward to the slopes of the Blue Ridge. He did not cross the mountains when told that bearded white men were ahead, which he interpreted as enemy Spaniards. Lederer returned to Virginia.

The next to confront the rugged Appalachian Mountains were Gabriel Arthur and James Needham (?-1673), a young English physician who crossed at one of three locations to meet with the Cherokee at Chota on the Little Tennessee River to establish trade.  The routes were from Boone to the Watauga River; from Canton crossing at Swannanoa Gap; or following the French Broad and Pigeon Rivers to the Over the Hill Towns. This more southerly route could have led to crossing into Tennessee somewhere near present day Deals Gap or possibly the Unicoi Gap farther to the south.

Arthur remained at Chota while Needham returned to Virginia. En route Needham and his guide "Indian John" had an argument that resulted in the death of Needham. Arthur was accepted by the Cherokee and in Indian dress accompanied them on a raiding party on Spanish settlements in Florida and Shawnee towns on the Ohio. He was captured by the Shawnee who discovered he was a white man and returned him to his Cherokee wife back in Chota. The Cherokee chief later escorted Arthur back to Virginia.


At first relations with the Cherokee were good as both parties benefited from the trading that was taking place. But the many forces taking place at the time led to distrust and warfare. The Spanish, English and French sought comrades in the Indian Nations. The Indians themselves had conflicts not only with other tribes, but with members of their own who acted against the chief's wishes. It was destined to become a bloody time in American history.

An English fort was constructed circa 1756 near present day Vonore, Tennessee. Fort Loudon, located six miles from the Cherokee town of Chota, was rhombus shaped. Access to the site across the mountains proved treacherous with parties often managing only six miles in a day. The heavy cannons had to be lashed crossways on the backs of pack horses. Occasionally the protruding end of the cannon would catch on a tree along the narrow trails causing the animal to fall and break its neck. The exact path taken by these soldiers is unknown, but was most likely across the Unicoi Gap some 20 miles south of the Dragon. This Unicoi Trail was improved and opened to west bound settlers circa 1813. By 1820 property owners had begun collecting tolls from those using the now wagon passable roadway.

The mountain forests in the 16-1700s were nearly devoid of underbrush. The Indians had a practice of burning the forest floor to enhance hunting of wild game which included buffalo, elk, deer, wolves and even moose.  By the early 1900s the forest thickets were returning with major growths of rhododendron, flame azaleas, and other shrubs.

A number of bloody incidents between the English and the Cherokee occurred in 1759-60. These escalated into all-out warfare. Many of the forts, including Loudon were attacked. Fort Loudon was abandoned in 1760. As some 200 soldiers marched in retreat, the Cherokee attacked killing twenty-nine and took the rest captive. The attack occurred about 10 miles south of the fort on the Tellico River. This route leads one to believe the access route across the mountains was at the Unicoi Gap southwest of Deals Gap.

A massive force was assembled to exact revenge on the Cherokee. Some three-thousand soldiers marched into the immediate area and burned all Cherokee towns and crops along their route. This force very likely took the Deals Gap route on the way back into North Carolina burning towns along the banks of the Tuckaseegee River. A peace treaty was finally adopted ending the Cherokee War in 1761.

New battles with the Cherokee erupted in June 1776 when war against the white man was declared by the Cherokee. Bands of Indians attacked helpless settlers across western North Carolina and northern Georgia. Retaliation was swift and merciless. Several armies were amassed and laid waste to most of the Cherokee towns including many west of the mountains. One army attacked Indian villages moving from Waynesville to Franklin near Wayah Bald Gap. Another army destroyed the Cherokee town of Stekoa (present day Stecoah), crossed the Tuckaseegee and Oconaluftee Rivers, destroying more. Most of the villages were deserted when the soldiers arrived, so there was little bloodshed.

Roads in the late 1700s were little more than trails, especially in the western parts of North Carolina. The state more or less left it up to the counties to maintain roadways. In the Blue Ridge mountain men walked or rode horses over trails that had been used by trappers and hunters.

The Botanist William Bartram explored western North Carolina in 1775 making it as far west as present day Robbinsville. The French botanist Andrea Michaux made several exploratory trips in the years of 1785-88. In 1793 he made it as far as present day Nashville. Most Europeans of this era deemed the mountains of western North Carolina as "impassable."

One of the first white men to possibly cross the Blue Ridge using present day Deal's Gap was John Sevier in March 1781. Sevier with a raiding party of 150 men on horseback "started to cross the Great Smoky Mountains over trails never before attempted by white men, and so rough in places that it was hardly possible to lead horses." History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees, James Mooney, pg 59.

Early 1800s

In the early1800s one of the paths became a crude roadway used to access the extremely remote settlement of Cades Cove via Happy Valley and Rabbit Creek. In 1830 Joshua Parson who lived near the Little Tennessee and Abrams Creek is credited with improving the Parsons Turnpike Toll Gate Road which more or less follows present day US 129 along the Little Tennessee.

Another route was improved in 1838 with Russell Gregory heading the project that lead from Forge Creek near Cades Cove following Parson Branch to the turnpike (US 129). Today this 8-mile gravel road still exhibits some of the excitement of the early days with 19 water fords. But note that the Parsons Branch Road is “one-way” out of Cades Cove to the Dragon. This route suffered severe damage in the floods of 2002 and was closed for several years as it underwent extensive repairs. It has been closed several times due to flooding. The latest closure in 2015 was due to the many dead hemlock trees that could potentially fall onto passerbys. The dying hemlocks of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest were dynamited recently for public safety.

In the 1840s Dr. Isaac Anderson was assigned the task of building a toll road between Knoxville and the Little Tennessee River valley in North Carolina. He enlisted the help of Cherokee Indians in laying-out the route and clearing it. Each Indian was paid with one yard of calico for each day worked. This was in the area of Bote Mountain east of Cades Cove. This road was only completed on the Tennessee side and soon fell into disrepair when North Carolina failed to connect to it. Cades Cove: The Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community, Durwood Dunn.

The Swiss-American geographer Arnold Henry Guyot explored the mountains of western North Carolina in the 1850s. He wrote that the western slopes were used by "Tennesseans for grazing cattle. Numerous paths, therefore ran up the western slopes, and along the dividing ridge. But the eastern slope is still a wilderness, little frequented. Here the Little Tennessee cuts that high chain by a deep widening chasm, in which no room is left for a road on its immediate banks the mountains near by rising to 3,000 ft. above it, and upwards; the point where it leaves the mountains being scarcely 900 ft. above the level of the sea."

There were a number of more treacherous paths connecting Cades Cove to North Carolina. One family migrated south along Forge Creek crossing the mountains at Ekaneetlee Gap (3,800 feet elevation) and descending into North Carolina settling in Possum Hollow on Hazel Creek. Another crude path followed Forge Creek to the south passing through Rich Gap (4,600 feet elevation) just to the east of Gregory Bald and descending along Twentymile Creek.

There were many conflicts between the Cherokee and white settlers who infringed upon their world in these early years. Both sides took lives in needless disputes and quarrels. This undeclared warfare resulted in one of the saddest events in our early American history – the Trail of Tears relocation of the Cherokee to Oklahoma. Many Native Americans refused to assemble and leave the only land they had ever known. The Dragon was one of the remote paths they used to evade the Army patrols sent to capture them.

Civil War

The Civil War brought more bloodshed to the Dragon and surrounding areas. There is a gravesite located near mile marker 6.5 giving testimony to the times. It is where Union soldier Bas Shaw age 50 was buried after being killed in 1864 on the Old Tennessee River Turnpike.

During the war the few who resided in the Appalachian Mountains were called "outliers". Most of the mountain people wanted no part of either side. Raiding parties from North Carolina raided Tennessee while the Tennesseans stole from the North Carolinians. The mountain crossings themselves were primarily guarded by Confederate troops. When they could not able to capture passing bands they reverted to shooting them.

Shaw, a relative of John Jackson "Bushwack" Kirkland (photo) by marriage, was taken prisoner on the Little Tennessee River by Confederate soldiers. While en route to Asheville Bas Shaw was shot and killed December 8, 1864. It is unknown if he had tried to escape or was just murdered. He was buried on a ridgeline just uphill from US 129 (the Dragon). Many believe that his uncle John Kirkland pulled the trigger. Kirkland had killed two of Shaw's sons the year before who were Union soldiers.

Another incident in the area during the winter of 1864 involved Confederates pursuing several escapees along the Little Tennessee. Jeff Deavers and brothers George and Bartley Williams had stolen horses from the barn of William Coleman. The three were located near A. B. Welch's house on the Little Tennessee some 15 miles from Coleman's. All three were killed. They were buried along the Little Tennessee Turnpike where they had been shot. The bodies were later moved to the National Military Cemetery in Knoxville.

Another story cited in many histories describes a family that was robbed and taken into the woods next to the Turnpike by the Kirklands who were waiting to hold-up a Union soldier carrying pay to nearby units. The family's young baby began to cry threatening to give away the gangs location. When the parents were unable to quiet the infant, the gang killed the baby and stuffed it into a hollow tree trunk.

John Kirkland was so feared that lawmen refused to chase him into the remote forests. There were two known hideouts for the gang; one near present day Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and the other near the horse stables in Cades Cove. Kirkland relocated into Polk County, Tennessee where he died in 1902. He had never been arrested.

Gangs, such as the Kirkland Bushwhackers, often attacked patrols whether they were northern or southern. The bushwhackers preyed on anyone who happened their way. They killed two of Bas Shaw's sons nearby. The forested mountains offered the perfect hiding place to escape detection and law officers feared venturing after them as well.

Another incident involving U. S. Army Captain Lyon's raiding party took place near Robbinsville. It is likely they crossed from Tennessee at Deals Gap and descended on the Belding Trail into present day Graham County. They killed Jesse Kirkland, brother of Bushwhacker John, and several others on Isaac Carringer's Creek. Moving into Robbinsville they killed a Cherokee Indian. Retreating along the Santeetlah River they over-nighted at Stratton Meadow before crossing back into Tennessee.

Late 1800s

Another historical figure who crossed the rugged trail through Deals Gap was John Denton in 1870. Denton and a friend named Gus Langford made a retreat from Tennessee after having a run-in with some local boys. Seems they got too friendly with several girls at a dance and were ganged-up by the locals. After throwing a few rocks at the locals coming out the door, Denton and Langford went home, packed up their things, and headed their wagons east for North Carolina where they knew they could "get lost". They crossed the Little Tennessee River at Calderwood and trekked through the mountains, crossing into North Carolina at Deals Gap. Denton made his way into present day Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest where he made a lean-to for temporary protection from the elements and settled in. He was a true mountain man standing six-foot -three and literally strong as an ox. His story of survival is an interesting one.

As more settlers moved into the area landowners began collecting tolls for use of the road. Toll Booth Corner, located about midway over the Dragon, was a place to pay for the right to cross private property owned by George Davis. There were also corrals to keep the livestock in transit over night and meager sleeping quarters for guests. Local legends tell of some who tried to cross without paying the toll and were caught and hanged on the spot.

There is also a gravesite nearby just off the Cherohala Skyway with a plaque reading "HERE LIES AN UNKNOWN MAN KILLED BY THE KIRKLAND BUSHWACKERS". There is a marker on the top of Huckleberry Knob where two surveyors died in a winter storm, December 1899. One was buried there, the other body was removed. In 1982 nine United States Air Force crew members were killed when their C141 transport plane crashed on John's Knob during a low-level training mission. The crash was so intense that no remains were found over the half mile of wreckage. There are likely many more buried in the nearby mountains that have escaped attention.

Early 1900s

The people of these remote areas were a most hardy bunch. Some today might question why anyone would settle in such a dangerous and desolate place. The following story describes the remoteness. Written by backwoods traveler Bud Wunst, it appeared in the July 22, 1900, issue of The Morning Post, Raleigh:

But I have only come three and a half miles from Mrs. Crowder's. In fact, she came part of the way with me. She did not wear the two large navy revolvers around her waist, as I had been told she would: but she did wear a pair of thick canvas leggins to keep the snakes from biting her ankles. I remember her resolute old face now, as she parted with me on the ridge near the Stack gap, while I made a sketch of the Hay-o, the Hang over and the Fodder Stack mountains. She is over sixty years of age. On her sun-tanned, bare arm hung a large tin bucket partly full of salt for the cattle she herds, and in her hand she carried a long stick to kill "rattle bugs" with, as she calls rattlesnakes. She was much distressed when I told her about the bear I had not killed, and she told me she would rather have heard of the death of that "old black man," as she called him, than any news I could have brought her. She ploughs, plants corn and rye and potatoes and turnips and all vegetables, slips her own rails, makes and renews all her fences, having laid over 300 panels last winter, mows her mountain meadow, cuts her own fire wood and hauls it on a sled to house, goes to mill and does all the work a man would have to do if there was one within three miles of her, which there is not, Bowers, her son-in-law, being her nearest neighbor. She is assisted by her two grown daughters, Marge and Caledonia, who is called Doan for short.

It was a hard matter to tear myself away from her; but I had no trouble in parting with Bowers, who, she said, is so lazy he couldn't get his breath if it didn't come "natural."

The rest of the article Wunst retells his meetings with Frank and John Swan, Andy Kirkland, born 1850, (brother of "bushwacker John"), Squire Stratton, age 72, Bill Depety, and Sheet's store on his trek to Jeffries' Hell via Citico, Whiteoak, Waucheesi, Rafter and the Tellico River. He also recalled sitting on a "wool-sac" at Doc Stewart's house on Big Santeetlah Creek and meeting hunter-trapper John Denton who wore "two long curls in front of either shoulder".

In a previous article dated July 15, 1900 in The Raleigh Morning Post he detailed more of his travels to the far western reaches of North Carolina. In his search for Jeffries Hell he hiked along Big Santeetlah Creek passing Arch Stewart's, Arch's son Doc Stewart, and then overnighting at John Swan's place at current day Swan's Cabin. Seven miles to the west he encountered William Stratton's thirty acres with 300 head of cattle on a high secluded meadow. He visited Absalom Stratton's grave site where the early settler is buried half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina. Today the grave which reads "A.S., Was Born 1757, Died 1839" can be seen just a few feet off the Cherohala Skyway at mile 1.6 where Santeetlah Creek Road intersects.

Wunst then hiked across Stratton Bald to Haoe which he called Hay-o and then out to Hangover for a wide view of the mountains. In the magnificent view were Fodder Stack, Slick Rock, the Cheoah River, Yellow Creek, Santeetlah, the Little Tennessee River, and the Snowbird Mountains.

Wunst's hiking partner was eleven-year-old Frank Swan, son of John Swan, who told him how Jeffries Hell came to be named:

If you want to know where Jeffries Hell is I will tell you. It lies between the Sassy Fac Mountain on the south, the Stae sic (State) ridge on the east and the Fodder Stack ridge on the north. Two forks of Citico creek come out of it. It is densely covered with spruce pines and laurel. It covers about twenty-five square miles of territory. It is almost impenetrable. When one gets into it, the trees and undergrowth are so thick that he cannot see out on any side or above. Consequently, one soon gets bewildered and I imagine two would get so too.

Years and years ago a man by the name of Jeffries - not the judge of evil fame - got lost in this wilderness and wandered about in it for days without food. When he got out he said he had been to hell and the name has clung to it ever since. I did not go into it. I can find hell enough to suit me outside.

The tolls on "toll gate road" continued into the 1910s. The last keeper of the toll gate for ten years was Dee Hill. The land, which consisted of some 12-miles of crude roadway, was supposedly owned by U.S. Supreme Court Judge Edward T. Sanford at the time. Tolls were 35 cents per wagon and 25 cents for a man on horseback. Walkers passed through for nothing.

According to Dee Hill's younger brother Green Hill, few people traveled the road and most of them walked. He recalled a number of men carrying a coffin over the road headed upriver to Bushnel in North Carolina. The coffin with a 14-year-old girl was suspended by rope from a stout pole with four men supporting it on their shoulders. Alcoa finally tore down the Toll Booth house circa 1916 after a public road was built during construction of Cheoah Dam. An historical marker marked the location for a number of years. KNS, August 12, 1962, pg 17. (1920 Census, Civil District 11, District 27, Blount Co, Green B. HILL, age 47, Farmer/Cotton Mill; wife Nannie 41)

In 1908 there was a boundary dispute between North Carolina and Tennessee on the line from Deal's Gap to Joe Brown Highway. Engineer Dana Blackburn Burns, a noted surveyor at the age of 31, surveyed the land on foot. The 58 miles was a desolate wilderness from beginning to end.

Circa 1913 a town was actually born on the Dragon. Calderwood, formerly the Howard farm property, was created as living quarters for employees constructing the Cheoah Dam in 1917, Calderwood Dam in 1930, and those workers who maintained the systems. A railway ran from Knoxville, through Calderwood, and followed the Little Tennessee River all the way to Tapoco in North Carolina. Equipment, supplies and workers were transported on this line. Calderwood was also used by Alcoa Aluminum, aka Tapoco, Inc., as a corporate retreat for their executives. There was even a golf course accessed by ferry across the Little Tennessee River. Today’s Tapoco Lodge was also built by Alcoa for their executives. The entire dam and reservoir system provided electric power to Alcoa’s large aluminum processing plant north of Maryville, Tennessee later to become the town of Alcoa.


By 1923 discussions were underway between Tennessee and North Carolina officials about constructing a highway connecting Knoxville, Maryville and Bryson City. The primary emphasis was to shorten the route from northern cities to Florida. At the time there were no roads crossing the mountains between Newport and Chattanooga Tennessee, a distance of 125 miles.

Two alternatives were studied at the time. One considered was from Maryville, through Cades Cove and crossing the Unaka Mountains at Ekanetelle Gap at an elevation of 3,900 feet. The other, which was several miles longer, followed the path of current day US 129 from Maryville, Calderwood and Deals Gap then passing through Tapoco and Robbinsville. This route crossed much lower elevations up to 2,100 feet. An alternate route would connect Bryson City and Deals Gap directly, current day NC 28.

Bryson City officials played an important role in helping Knoxville interested parties make a decision. A portion of the planned alternate route from Bryson City to Deals Gap had been constructed and monies were available for completion.

An interesting three-day trip was arranged for the Knoxville delegation to explore the proposed route and the existing improvements. The May 1924 exploratory committee was quite an adventure in itself. The group motored to Sevierville where people expressed their support for completing the highway. The party spent the night in Gatlinburg before leaving at 6:30 in morning in Ford automobiles for a two-mile ride on the existing roadway. Then most of the men mounted seventeen horses and mules for the twelve-mile trail ride to the state line. Nine members of the group preferred to walk. They arrived at Lufty Gap, today near Newfound Gap and US 441, at noon where they met a contingent of fourteen people from North Carolina who provided a meal of fried mountain trout. A number of the Tennessee group returned to Gatlinburg. From the State line the rest of the journey was on foot through Cherokee and ended at Bryson City. The group was feted by the North Carolinians and provided free boarding and meals along with gifts of cigars and cigarettes.

The next day the group returned to Knoxville by way of Deals Gap. The route included automobiles to Judson, then a passenger train to Bushnell, and then on flatcars on a lumber train to Fontana. After lunch a steamboat carried the group eight miles to Tapoco Dam. A motor launch was then taken through the boom of the dam. After a tour of the dam the party proceeded to Calderwood by railway motor car. It was the seventh method of transport for the party.

This map appeared in the February 8, 1925 issue of the Knoxville Journal. The Knoxville Automobile Club favored the route through Cades Cove and Ekenetelle Gap, but North Carolina advised this route was too difficult on the North Carolina side and preferred the Deals Gap plan. By June of 1925 contracts had been let to construct the highway number 72 to Deals Gap and connect to the existing  roadway to Bryson City