Appalachian Cultural Resources Workshop Papers
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Numerous historic homesites have been located during cultural resource surveys on the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests in western North Carolina. From survey data, historic research and limited test excavation, themes and contexts are being developed to better define, assess, and evaluate these sites. Historic site types on the Forests are described and categorized, relative to historic uses of the Forest environment. Directions for research, preservation, and interpretation are suggested.


The Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests contain more than one million (1,024,902) acres of the Southern Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina. Nearly nine percent (8.7 percent), 89,246 acres, has been surveyed. One thousand three hundred and five (1,305) prehistoric and historic archeological sites have been recorded in compliance-directed surveys. Approximately twelve percent of these sites are historic components. The vast majority of historic sites date to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If fifty years old, these sites meet National Register of Historic Places age criteria, and one hundred years of age gives them protective status under the Archeological Resources Protection Act. Most of these sites are recorded for compliance projects, and site significance (eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places) must be determined before proposed management activities proceed. Preservation of important sites must then be planned and protective measures implemented. Measures include avoidance, stabilization, restoration, site excavation, relocation, and/or public interpretation.

In order to complete assessments, historic contexts are needed to evaluate historic homesites and determine their relevance to ongoing-search problems. To develop contexts, one must be aware of the total range of historic resources and all historic exploitation and use of the Forest resources. To effectively interpret historic resources one must have at his or her disposal accurate contexts or themes. The historic resources of the Forests include a diverse and unusually rich range of artifacts and sites. These include historic cabins (Plate 1), trails, mines, logging camps, homesteads, mills, original highway and railroad grades, cemeteries, and historic Forest Service structures such as guard stations, lookout towers, camps, administrative centers, and Civilian Conservation Corps era campgrounds, roads, and buildings (Plate 2).

Plate 1. Historic cabin chimney, Grandfather Ranger District, Pisgah National Forest, McDowell County, N.C.

Plate 2. Yellow Mountain Fire Lookout, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Macon County, NC.

Throughout the Forests, there is evidence of exploitation of its resources in recent history. Old homeplaces, cleared fields, rock terraces, fruit trees, and cemeteries are common. Old railroad grades and roads are identifiable. Remnants of logging camps can be found in every District. Mica, soapstone, silver and gold mines are documented on the Forests along with common building stone quarries. The Cradle of Forestry on the Pisgah Ranger District exemplifies pre-Federal and early public agency involvement in managing the resources of the forests.


Traditionally, historic archeology focused on known, documented sites of historic importance such as early settlements, missions, forts and mansions. Nineteenth and twentieth century sites were largely ignored unless associated with specific historic events.

During the 1960s and 1970s, archeology underwent a series of changes in research directions. Historic archeology was evolving into a scientific discipline, with decreased emphasis on particularistic artifact-oriented studies and site restorations. Research directions changed to artifact quantification and pattern recognition studies aimed at recognizing more of the unwritten portion of historic archeology.

There was a concurrent emergence of Cultural Resource Management (CRM) Archaeology which caused archaeologists to study previously unexplored historic site types and problem areas. Relatively recent problem areas include the study of share cropper/tenant and farmer/slave occupations and their importance to economic development. The undocumented and poorly documented sites are studied with research emphasis on reconstructing unwritten day-to-day events. Industrial archeology has emerged, with recent investigations at mica mines. Archeology of historic Indian groups, such as the Cherokee, has become a popular subject area. This increased range of historic archeology problem areas has improved understanding of variety and the entire spectrum of historic archeology.


Understanding the history of the Forests and the total range of uses and exploitation is a prerequisite to identifying all types of historic resources and developing contexts with which to define them.

In the early sixteenth century, Spaniards came seeking gold in the Great Smokies. By the mid-1600s, the influence of European contact had begun in the area as explorers and traders moved into the mountains. Settlers arrived in the area in the late 1700s. When the first Europeans came, western North Carolina was a part of the Cherokee nation. Later, during the Removal period, a number of Cherokees were able to hide in the mountains and eventually obtained the lands comprising the present Cherokee reservation in western North Carolina. The 56,000-acre Qualla Boundary (Cherokee Indian Reservation) is located in the western counties of North Carolina.

The larger part of the reservation is contiguous; however, numerous outlying Indian land parcels are adjacent to and intermingled with Forest lands. Incentives for settlement included the Land Grants given to Revolutionary War Veterans. Resettlement of the Cherokee, the "Trail of Tears", took place in 1838, and Indian land soon became the property of the Whites.

For early settlers, farming became the main lifestyle. Livestock were grazed on the cleared land. Logging along the rivers allowed easy access to sawmills. A heavier demand for lumber and other wood products increased logging. Oxen, flumes, cable yarding equipment, and logging railways were used to move the timber, lumber, acid wood (tanbark), and firewood out of the Forests. The area was sparsely populated until the years following the Civil War, when western North Carolina was linked to the east by improved roads and completion of the railroad. Asheville grew as a regional center, and increased demand for lumber and wood products led to intensive logging of nearby areas in the 1880s. Logging was initially limited to areas along rivers and creeks, but when these areas were clearcut and depleted, operations moved into the higher, more remote sections of the forest.

George Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot to manage his holdings and restore the privately owned Pisgah Forest to its former grandeur. Pinchot later became head of the U. S. Department of Forestry and was replaced by Carl Schenck. Schenck established the Biltmore Forestry School in 1897, the first forestry school in America, at the site of the present Cradle of Forestry in America. The forestry school was disbanded in 1909 when George Vanderbilt removed his financial backing. Pinchot and Schenck began stabilizing the environment by building wicker fences to control erosion, replanting forests, and practicing selective cutting. In 1917, Edith Vanderbilt, widow of George Vanderbilt, sold 86,700 acres to the U.S. Forest Service. This tract of land was the basis for the Pisgah Ranger District. Many historic homes on acquired land tracts were razed by the Forest Service following purchase for safety reasons and to eliminate "squatters". These homesteads in the higher elevations of the forest date mainly to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The National Forests were established to protect lands on the headwaters of navigable streams from deforestation, fire, and erosion, so that streamflow could be protected. Forest Service management has produced a relatively stable physical environment in the present Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. In the past, terrain was substantially damaged by a combination of natural and cultural factors. This damage was especially intensive during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Prior to reforestation massive erosion of the uplands occurred, creeks and rivers were flooded and scoured by soil runoff and the damaging effects of splash dams. Splash dams produced artificial impoundments to raise the water level, which was then released causing timber to flow downstream to lumber yards. Wildfires were also rampant and, combined with the annual freeze/thaw cycle, damaged the surface integrity of both prehistoric and historic sites. Numerous logging roads and railroads were constructed, and because of the small percentage of level land in the mountains, they frequently impacted saddles, gaps, and flats which contained archeological sites. Although severe past disturbances are evident, intact archeological remains exist and can be recovered and preserved.


Archaeologists on the National Forests in North Carolina have recorded numerous historic components. Background research conducted prior to fieldwork includes Forest Service land acquisition files containing land ownership history which details land condition at the time of acquisition. The survey report frequently describes land improvements such as houses, dependencies and agricultural fields which can be relocated during survey. Surface reconnaissance, surface collection, and limited sub surface testing are conducted at historic sites to determine extent, contents, and functions.


Homesites are denoted by house remains. Attributes usually consist of one or more (intact or partial) chimneys, foundation stones or walls, and occasionally lumber and roofing material (Plate 3). A root cellar, well, or springhouse foundation, shrubbery, flower beds, and "homestead" trees are generally associated, as are the remains of one or more dependencies such as a smokehouse and carriage house or car shed. A road or trail is usually noticeable and may either be an overgrown roadbed or a road currently in use. Most houses were constructed of logs up to the period of the Civil War. Frame buildings increased as transportation routes improved and sawmills became more easily accessible.

Plate 3. Historic house foundation, French Broad County, North Carolina.


Many early settlers were farmers. Farmsteads range from small sharecropper or tenant farms to large upland plantations. The majority of farms were small, family-owned operations. These archeological sites include house and dependency remains (and associated artifacts) but also structures and artifacts that are primarily associated with farming activities. Ancillary structures include one or more of the following: barn with stables and storage compartments, animal pens and shelters (chicken yard, hog lot), and structures for product storage such as a corn house (double corn cribs), tobacco barn, or silo (Plate 4). [1] Remains of a lot fence (either board or woven wire) may be found enclosing the outbuildings. Field rock walls, rock piles, and terraces have been recorded in many areas providing evidence of past agriculture. The mountains were considered "open stock range" prior to 1885 when the "stock law" was passed. [2]

Plate 4. Chestnut smokehouse, French Broad Ranger District, Pisgah National Forest, Haywood Ranger District, Pisgah National Forest, Madison County, North Carolina.

Functions of individual structures may be difficult to determine at the survey level. Historic records and local informants provide insights. Relative size architectural complexity, artifact content, and structure "lot" orientation are additional techniques for inferring the function of individual structures. The number, size, and complexity of ancillary structures reflect the extent of the agricultural operation. Smaller farms such as sharecropper or tenant farms may only have a barn, while larger farms will have the range of dependencies described here and possibly additional house (domestic) remains that provided habitation space for slaves or hired hands. Although homesites and farmsteads are the most common kind of historic site in the mountain forests, many other activities are represented by physical remains.


Evidence of past logging operations is fairly common. Logging camps were constructed in various areas, but they were usually dismantled and moved following exhaustion of timber. Earlier sawmill sites contain rock-lined, rectangular depressions which held steam boilers, trenches for belts, ash piles, and remnants of slab and sawdust piles. These sites are near water sources. Later sawmill sites are relatively common and contain sawdust and slash piles, sawpits and discarded oil cans, jars, bottles, etc. The main information potential of sawmill sites is their location and evidence of logging activity in a given area. Some of the better preserved sawmill sites have been protected for interpretive purposes.


Mining operations are a common historic site type in the National Forests. Several mining areas have been attributed to sixteenth century Spanish explorations, although these accounts have not been substantiated. The majority of recorded sites reflect mica mining. These sites range in size from prospecting pits and trenches to extensive quarry areas. Mica has been used as insulation and in place of window glass. A variety of other minerals have been recovered from the mountains, including soapstone, talc, olivine, quartz, feldspar, silver, and gold. Occasionally, mine locations are recorded on U.S. Geological Survey maps. Most of the mines recorded represent poorly documented and undocumented small scale operations. However, several large mining areas encompassing an entire drainage of nearly five hundred to one thousand acres have been recorded.


Cemeteries are relatively common within the National Forest boundaries (Plate 5). A substantial range of variation is represented which presumably reflects both temporal and socioeconomic differences. Historic Cherokee burials have been recorded, and most are denoted by rock mounds over the graves. Individual graves are denoted by shallow (surrounded) rectangular depressions. Most graves are marked by head and/or foot stones which include quarried stone and field stone). Quarried stone markers generally have engraved inscriptions. Field stone grave markers generally lack inscriptions. Rock wall enclosures have been recorded for several sites (Plate 5). Most cemeteries are nuclear and extended family plots rather than church graveyards evidenced by their proximity to homesites and farmsteads.

Plate 5. Webb gravesite (1913), Highlands Ranger District, Nantahala National Forest, Macon County, N.C.


Numerous moonshine still sites have been recorded. Moonshine was produced by many settlers for both personal use and as an income source. Common attributes include hearth remnants made from stone or brick and evidence of fire in the form of ash or charcoal. Artifacts include containers (mainly canning jars and buckets) and various metal objects from still construction such as sheet metal, barrels, radiators, and copper tubing (Harmon 1980). [3] Many of the stills are located in coves or ravines that are not evident on U.S. Geological Survey maps.

Still locations are recorded and plotted but are given a site number only if there is artifactual evidence of fifty or more years of age.


Less common historic sites include water-powered mill locations (Plate 6). Mills were a common landscape feature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These mills were often multi-purpose with sawmills, grist mills, and blacksmith shops operating from the same power source. Mills were usually associated with small settlements or villages. Although there are former town and village locations within the Forests, most of these settlements were not included in public acquisitions. An exception is the Harmon Den area in the Pigeon River gorge, the location of a town that existed prior to Forest Service obtainment.

Plate 6. Stone structure at water-powered mill complex, McDowell County, NC.


The historical archeology of the mountainous Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests has been described. This discussion has been general because site data is primarily from survey-level investigations. Excavations have not been completed on historic sites. Those sites that have potential for yielding information to general research problems and which are also considered potentially eligible for the National Register are protected from further damage by preservation and exclusion from proposed terrain-disturbing projects. Not only significant sites are protected. Many historic sites and associated landscape features are effective interpretive opportunities. An old railroad bed now used as a hiking trail adds a new dimension to the user experience (Plate 6). A standing chimney with a small interpretive sign (Plate 7) adds to the use of an adjacent mountain bike trail along a logging road relocated to preserve the site. Historic buildings, Black Forest Lodges (Plates 8 and 9), have been moved to the Cradle of Forestry and are maintained along interpretive trails. It serves as an interpretive site with more than sixty thousand visitors per year. Historic archeological sites recorded during surveys in the surrounding area are studied with reference to the forestry school. The Yellow Mountain Fire Lookout, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is currently being documented. A Challenge Cost Share agreement with a private company is being used to restore the structure located along a well-used hiking trail on the Highlands Ranger District. Historic sites can be used to add a quality dimension to a visitor's experience, and to promote tourism; their use will foster greater public awareness and preservation of valuable resources. Historic resources are often the tie to the land that connects those publics interested or concerned about public land management. Understanding these ties, both by the publics and land managers can lead to more sound analyses and decisions being made. The historic resource can tell a true story of past land use and changes in condition over time.

Plate 7. Clawhammer chimney with interpretive sign along trail, Pisgah National Forest.

An increased understanding of historic site types and continued shared efforts to assess them using well-founded contexts will foster more meaningful research. Investigations are currently being conducted by Brett Riggs (University of Tennessee) on Citizen Cherokee homesites (1794-1838), several of which are located on the Forests. This study will aid our understanding of Cherokee adaptation, and identification of undocumented historic Cherokee sites.

The historical record of the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests is rich and varied. General trends and settlement patterns, from survey data and historic research, are evidence which should be productive for development of historic contexts. These contexts will better direct ongoing and future research and lead to more effective evaluation, interpretation, and preservation of historic resources (Plate 7, Plate 8, and Plate 9).

Plate 8. Cantrell Creek Lodge at Cradle of Forestry, Transylvania County, N.C.

Plate 9. Black Forest Lodge at the Cradle of Forestry.


Harmon, Michael A. "An Archeological Survey and Testing Program Along Six Mile Creek, Lexington, South Carolina," Research Manuscript Series 162, South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1980.

Harmon, Michael A. and Rodney J. Snedeker. "Cultural Resources of the Pisgah National Forest: Exploitation of the Forest Environment." Paper delivered at Southeastern Archeological Conference Meeting, Charleston, South Carolina, 1987.

Nesbitt, William C. "History of Early Settlement and Land Use On the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, Buncombe County, North Carolina." 1941 Manuscript. U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Forestry Service North Carolina, Asheville, North Carolina.

Olsen, J.C. "Mica Deposits of the Franklin-Sylva District, North Carolina." Geological Survey. Raleigh: U.S. Department of the Interior and N.C. Department of Conservation and Development, 1946.

Royce, C.C. "Map of the Former Territorial Limits of the Cherokee Nation of Indians." 1884. Reprint. Cherokee: the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, 1977.

Schenck, Carl A. The Birth of Forestry In America: Biltmore Forest School 1898-1913. Felton, CA: Big Trees Press, 1974.

Snedeker, Rodney J., Michael A. Harmon, and A. Lee Novick. "Draft Uwharrie National Forest Cultural Resources Overview, Montgomery, Randolph and Davidson Counties, North Carolina." 1987 Manuscript. United States Department of Agriculture, National Forestry Service North Carolina, Asheville, North Carolina.

USFS Land Acquisition Files, Supervisor's Office, Asheville. various dates.


1 William C. Nesbitt, "History of Early Settlement and Land Use on the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, Buncombe County, North Carolina," 1941 manuscript, USDA NFSNC, Asheville, 18-19.

2 Ibid., 74.

3 Michael A. Harmon and Rodney J. Snedeker, "Cultural Resources of the Pisgah National Forest: Exploitation of the Forest Environment" (Paper delivered at Southeastern Archeological Conference Meeting, Charleston, 1987).

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Last Updated: 30-Sep-2008