Meet the Managers: Cultural Resources
In this issue, meet the managers of Cultural Resources. The area where Great Smoky Mountains National Park is now has a rich prehistoric, historic, and ongoing culture. It is the park’s job to preserve and share the stories of changing human life on this land.
For thousands of years prior to European settlement, these smoky mountains were the home of people who fished the swift rivers, hunted on high grassy meadows, and gathered food in forested coves. These people—the Tsalagi or Aniyvwiyai, as they called themselves, or the Cherokee, as they are known now—mark their place of origin as a valley tucked between the river and the shrugging shoulders of hills outside Bryson City.
In the 1800s, settlers of European descent began displacing the Cherokee, culminating in the 1838 Trail of Tears, a grueling, forced journey that forced most Cherokee to relocate—on foot—to reservations in Oklahoma and Arkansas. The few remaining Cherokee gathered in what became the town of Cherokee, North Carolina, the community at what is now the south entrance to the park. The settlers of European descent farmed in the valleys and long coves throughout the rest of the Smoky Mountains.
Although the people have moved, many traces of their lives remain in these mountains. Walk through the woods and you may see old millstones, mossy lines of old stone walls, or daffodils bursting yellow at someone’s long-gone doorstep. You may not see what lies under the ground: sherds of pottery, chips from stone tools, and even evidence of posts from centuries-old Cherokee houses. All of these cultural resources—seen and unseen—need our protection, because they represent a lifestyle long past.
Each cultural resource that the park protects has “cultural significance,” which means, in a nutshell, that the resource is over 50 years old (usually), is sacred or part of ongoing culture, represents an important event, was made by an important person, represents an important time, or was made with important materials. The science of cultural management becomes an art when managers use their discerning and experienced eye to decide what is significant and what is not.
Under the Sugarlands Visitor Center are some of the keys to the park’s past. This time, we’re not talking about artifacts buried underground, but rather park archives in the Sugarlands basement. In climate-controlled, dry rooms are hundreds of drawers holding a wealth of Smoky Mountain culture: letters, photographs, newspaper articles, proclamations, and oral histories telling the story of the park’s people and places.
To see (and hold) 3-D pieces of the Smokies history, you’d have to travel farther afield. Most of the large physical artifacts—household goods representing Southern Appalachian lifestyles, for example, and fragments of prehistoric pottery—are housed in Oak Ridge, TN at the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and Technical Information, or OSTI for short. Eventually, the park hopes to bring all of the collections at these two sites together as research and education tools.
The new curator of these cultural archives is John McDade, who has worked in several museums, and most recently at Acadia National Park in Maine before coming to the Great Smoky Mountains. Being a curator in a park as large and culturally rich as the Smokies is a huge job, so John is already busy improving safe, archival storage systems, sorting historic materials, and preparing for new exhibits that will be in the Visitor Center the park is building at its southern Oconaluftee entrance.
Photo courtesy of the Great Smoky Mountains Association, publisher.
An ethnographic resource is one held in the minds, memories, and customs of people who live in an area. In the Smokies, examples of ethnographic resources include Cherokee ceremonies, the stories that European settlers of these mountains tell, and the customs that many local families still have of visiting their relatives’ gravesites in the park each year.
To find more books such as the one pictured here about Smoky Mountain culture and stories, visit the Great Smoky Mountains Association website.
Drive on any road or delve into the woods at any point in the park and you are likely to come across a historic structure. In some cases, you may actually be driving on or walking over the structures in question, because they include not only old houses, churches, and other buildings but also fence rows, bridges, tunnels, drinking fountains, and even some of our sturdy stone restrooms. Cultural Resources manager Dianne Flaugh oversees the protection of these buildings, as well as cultural landscapes (read more about this in the next section: Historic Landscapes).
Any structure built over 50 years ago is a candidate for preservation as a historic structure, although many do not qualify because they are not—as described on the main page—“significant” in terms of the style in which they were built, who build them, or why they were built in that place. Some of the best-known historic areas in the park are Elkmont and Cades Cove. Railroads used to bring wealthy families from Knoxville and Asheville to the mountain towns of Elkmont in Tennessee, and Smokemont in North Carolina. There families could forget the heat of the city by soaking in streams under the lattice of thick rhododendron branches. Many of the summer homes that these families built remain in Elkmont, and were occupied into the 1980s. Some are listed on the National Register as part of the Elkmont Historic District. When family leases ended, the park took over their management,which presented many challenges including long-term maintenance and upkeep. After consulting with the Tennessee State Historic Preservation Officer, cultural resource managers developed a long-term plan that preserves some homes while allowing for the removal of others. A core area of homes at Elkmont near the Appalachian Clubhouse will be restored and preserved, along with a two other homes that help to tell the story of Elkmont and the park.
In Cades Cove, dozens of families used to own farms, mills, and orchards. They built cabins, churches, bridges, and schools, several of which still stand today. Millions of visitors each year drive the Cades Cove loop and stop at these cultural sites to relax on cabin steps, watch a mill wheel grinding grits, and stroll through shady churchyards.
Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Newfound Gap Road, Elkmont, and Twin Creeks. What do these park locations have in common? They represent historic landscapes, or areas of land that we recognize as vital to understanding the past in this park. Take Newfound Gap. It has great natural resource value because it represents a high-elevation spruce-fir forest, and many of the plants and animals there are relics from the Ice Age, living things that we find in Canada, Maine, and here. It also has tremendous cultural value: in the 1830s Davenport mapped the state line by walking across it, and on September 2, 1934, then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt drove up to it in a grand presidential parade and dedicated these lands as a new park. Roosevelt had, the year before, sent thousands of young men to our mountains’ flanks to build many of our rock walls and arching bridges over our roaring rivers. Newfound Gap represents all of those events in human—and park history—and it is therefore a prized cultural landscape, used daily by eager visitors and park rangers alike.
Less visible than many of the historic sites are remnants of life before—and sometimes overlapping with—the earliest European settlement in these mountains. Archaeology is the study of past human behavior through the materials people leave behind and, potentially, through the remains of people themselves. Sometimes historic documents provide information about the past, but often these records are written by those in power or those able to read and write. Oftentimes, the only way to learn about people for whom no written record exists or in which the written record is sparse is through the field of archaeology. Archeologists refer to the period of written records—generally after the 16th century—as historic, and the period of time prior to written records (and the 16th century) as prehistoric. That means archeologists look for clues as far back as thousands of years ago and as recently as the past century.
Erik Kreusch is the full-time archeologist in the Smokies, and Heath Bailey is the archeological technician. Work goes on year-round, although much of it happens with the help of a seasonal field crew in the spring, summer, and fall. The archeologists hike the park’s trails to survey areas where park management or park users might disturb cultural resources. For example, when fire managers plan a prescribed burn in Cades Cove, archeologists survey the area to make sure the burn won’t harm any prehistoric or historic resources. Heath Bailey is in charge of digging shovel tests in areas they have learned are likely places to find cultural artifacts.
In the search for traces of human activity, archeologists often find things that people discarded: a broken pot or a bone with the meat removed. Most people would refer to this as trash. To the archeologist, however, this is scientific data. The archeologist can recognize patterns in the placement of these items or in the frequency of their occurrence and build a picture of what life was like in the past.
Archeologists can also tell who people traded with, what types of houses they built, what types of food they ate, what and how they hunted, and how their society was structured. Finally, archeologists can use clues about how artifacts are layered in the ground, which can tell them when people lived in certain areas, and what happened in the time since they left.
You can learn more about an archeological excavation in the park by watching the podcast in the NPS Profile: Uncovering the past.