How the Great Smoky Mountains Were Made

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How the Great Smoky Mountains Were Made

Objective: Identify Native American cultures and their influence on North Carolina.

North Carolina was home to about 30,000 Native Americans in 1500. They belonged to different groups and spoke diverse languages. Among the largest groups were the Hatteras, Chowan, Tuscarora, Catawaba, and Cherokees. As you can see from the map below, some lived along the coast, while others made their homes in the Piedmont or Mountain regions.


Today, scientists divide the many languages spoken by the Native Carolinians into three main groups: Algonquian, Siouan, and the Iroquoian. Algonquian speakers lived mainly along the coast north of the Cape Fear River. Siouan speakers lived along the Cape Fear River and in the Piedmont. Iroquoian speakers lived between the other two from the Coastal Plain to the mountains.

Each group had its own oral traditions, including sacred songs, stories, and myths. Much of what we know about North Carolinians like the Cherokees has come from what the people thought. Some stories told the origin and history of the people. Stories were passed down from generation to generation. They taught young people the beliefs and values of their culture.

First Contacts

Native American cultures, however, had no preparation for the changes brought by Europeans. Early contacts between Native Americans and Europeans were sometimes peaceful and sometimes violent. Early on, Native Americans supplies settlers with food and advice on growing corn and other crops. In turn, they were eager customers or Europeans trade goods, such as cloth, iron tools, and hunting knives. Native Americans taught the newcomers how to survive in the wilderness. Few Europeans had these skills because they had come from settled farming societies.

The arrival of Europeans had tragic results for the Native Americans in North Carolina. Many Native Americans died from diseases such as smallpox, typhus, and tuberculosis brought by Europeans. Because they had never had any contact with these diseases, they were affected more severely by them. In 1695, smallpox wiped out the Pamlico Indians. A later outbreak killed many Cherokees. Warfare took a large toll, too, as Native Americans tried to stop settlers from taking over the land. Many were killed. Others were forced to move west.

A Cherokee Legend

The Cherokees lived in the mountains of western North Carolina. Today, some members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee live on or near the Qualla Boundary reservation in western North Carolina. They preserve sacred songs, stories, and legends from the past. One Cherokee legend tells how the Great Smoky Mountains were made.

A Cherokee storyteller often began a tale by saying: “This is what the old me told me when I was a boy.”

At the time of the Great Flood on earth, the animals all lived above in Galunlati. But it was very crowded there, and they decided that they needed more room. So they called a meeting of all the animals. At the meeting, a deer remembered that his grandfather had told him about a big flood on earth that would destroy everything and make room for new life. He suggested that they go and explore earth to see if it might make a good home.

The little water-beetle was the first to offer to visit earth. But because of the Great Flood, the earth was very soft and wet. The beetle darted here and there across the water, but she could find no firm ground to rest. So she returned to Galunlati. Other insects and birds went to earth, but they could not find any firm ground either.

After quite a long time, a buzzard volunteered to go down to earth. By then, earth had dried out more. The Great Buzzard, the father of all buzzards, flew all over earth. By the time her reached Cherokee country, he was very tired. His wings began to flap and strike the ground. He reached down to get some mud to take back to the other animals in Galunlati. As he did so, his wings sank into the mud. He flapped hard to get free. Wherever his wings struck the earth, a valley formed. As he took off and rose above the earth, he shook off the mud that was drying on his wings. The mud fell back to earth forming mountains everywhere. And that is how the Great Smoky Mountains in Cherokee country came to be.

Analyzing Oral Traditions

Use the Cherokee legend and the map above to answer the questions below.

  1. To which language group does the Cherokee language belong?

  2. What role do the animals play in the story?

  3. How does the story show that they Cherokees felt close links to the natural world?

  4. How might the stories of the Hatteras, or Pamlico people differ from this one?

Critical Thinking

Appreciating Diversity- What can we learn about a culture from its myths and legends?


Connections with Language Arts- Write a song or legend to explain the origin of a natural feature of North Carolina.

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