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The Oconaluftee River

Oconaluftee is the name of a river valley in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolinamarker, located in the Southeastern United States. Formerly the site of a Cherokee village and Appalachian community, the valley's bottomland is now home to the main entrance to the North Carolina section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Parkmarker.

The Oconaluftee area parallels the Oconaluftee River as its basin gradually broadens from Smokemont in the north to the Qualla Boundary at its southern tip. The Qualla Boundary, commonly known as Cherokee, North Carolinamarker, comprises the bulk of a federal trust that acts a reservation for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. The national park lands in Oconaluftee are home to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Mingus Mill, and the Mountain Farm Museum. Much of the area is part of the Oconaluftee Archaeological District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Deep Creek Valley, part of the Oconaluftee watershed

Near Newfound Gapmarker, several small creeks converge to form Beech Flats Prong. This stream flows south along the southern base of Mount Kephartmarker, dropping 2,000 feet (600 m) over before merging with Kephart Prong, Kanati Fork, and Smith Branch to form the Oconaluftee River. The Oconaluftee continues southward, cutting a valley between the Richland Mountain massif to the east and the Thomas Ridge massif to west. The confluence of the Oconaluftee River and Bradley Fork at Smokemont strengthens the river considerably, with the valley broadening as a result. Near the park boundary, a large and relatively flat bottomland has been created by the river's junction with Raven Fork, which flows down from the northeast. Past Cherokee, the river turns west en route to its mouth along the Tuckasegee River, near Bryson Citymarker.

The rock formation underlying the area around the Oconaluftee-Raven Fork junction contains some of the oldest exposed rocks in the Eastern United States. This formation, which is comprised primarily of an Early Precambrian basement rock known as granite gneiss, was formed over a billion years ago from the gradual accumulation of marine sediment and igneous rocks.

The Oconaluftee valley's upper elevations are underlain by a Late Precambrian metamorphic rock of the Ocoee Supergroup, which is the dominant rock class in the Great Smokies. These rocks were formed from ocean sediments nearly 400 million years ago, and were thrust upward during the Appalachian orogeny, when the North American and African plates collided.

The Greenbrier Fault, which crosses the Oconaluftee River between Tow String Creek and Mingus Creek, divides the basement formation from the Late Precambrian formation. Exposures of both rock formations can be seen along U.S. Route 441 between Newfound Gap and Cherokee.


Early history

The Cherokee considered the waters of the Oconaluftee sacred. Dora Woodruff Cope, who lived in the Oconaluftee valley near Smokemont around 1900, recalled a legend her Cherokee neighbors told her:

...part of the river was called Ya'nu-u'nata wasti'yi, "Where the bears wash." It was a deeper part of the river, where all the animals came to wash and heal their wounds when they had been hurt by hunters. No white person had ever seen this place because evil had blinded us to its existence. The animals knew how to find it, and diving into it meant instant healing.

The term "Oconaluftee" comes from the Cherokee term egwanulti, which means "by the river," and appears in the journals of John Bartram in 1775. Where along the river this village was located is unknown, although anthropologist James Mooney believed it to be situated near modern Birdtown, between Cherokee and Bryson City. Archaeological evidence, however, has identified a Cherokee settlement along the Oconaluftee north of the Qualla Boundary, just inside the present-day national park. While the Cherokee roamed the Smokies far and wide, this is the only known permanent Cherokee settlement within the park boundaries. This village was probably destroyed in 1776 by the army of General Griffith Rutherford during the American Revolution.


Enloe Barn at the Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum

See also Cherokee, North Carolinamarker

John Jacob Mingus (ca. 1774-1852), who arrived in Oconaluftee in the 1790s, was the first Euro-American settler in the valley and the first within the boundaries of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Mingus purchased the land from Felix Walker, a land speculator and later North Carolina Congressman. While Mingus roamed from county to county in the Southern Appalachias, his descendants would remain in the area until the arrival of the park.

Mingus was followed by Abraham Enloe (1770–1840), who settled downstream from the Mingus plot. Due to Enloe's resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, many locals believed he was the president's father. Later Euro-American arrivals included Isaac Bradley (1772–1855), whose family settled in the vicinity of the stream that now bears their name, and Aden Carver (1844-1945), who lived near Smokemont.

In 1831, Enloe entered into a partnership with William Holland Thomas (1805–1893) to form the Oconaluftee Turnpike Company. The company widened the Indian Gap Trail from Oconaluftee to the crest of the Smokies, allowing wagon access to saltpeter mines on Mount Le Contemarker. The road's first tollkeeper, Robert Collins, would later guide Arnold Guyot on surveying expeditions across the crest of the Smokies. Mount Collinsmarker, between Clingmans Domemarker and Newfound Gap, is named for him.

Thomas, the son of caucasian parents who was adopted by Cherokee peace chief Yonaguska, took control of Cherokee business affairs in the 1830s. His land purchases for the tribe included the Qualla Boundary, which became the backbone of the federal trust for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. After the 1835 Treaty of New Echota ordered the Cherokees' removal from all eastern lands, Thomas went to Washington and successfully argued that since the Oconaluftee Cherokees were North Carolina citizens, the treaty didn't apply to them. In 1868, the Eastern Band was recognized as a separate tribe.


In the late 19th-century, innovations in the band saw and logging railroad led to a logging boom in Southern Appalachia. With base camps at Smokemont, the Three M Lumber Company and later the Champion Fibre Company cut much of the Oconaluftee valley before its tract was bought out by the Great Smoky Mountains Park Commission in the 1930s. In 1925, a massive forest fire quickly swept across the dried brush left over from the extensive logging, scorching much of the southern slopes of the Smokies.

After the establishment of the national park, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp was set up at Smokemont to construct roads and trails in the area. In 1937, the CCC restored Mingus Mill, a large turbine-driven gristmill on Mingus Creek. In the 1950s, several log structures were moved to an area adjacent to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to form the Mountain Farm Museum, which provides an exhibition of pioneer life in Appalachia.

Present day

Bradley Fork at Smokemont

Along with the historic sites in the vicinity of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, the park service maintains a large campground at the former logging camp of Smokemont. The small mountain hamlet of Tow String is sandwiched between the national park and Qualla Boundary, just above Oconaluftee. The southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkwaymarker is at the valley's southern tip, near the river's confluence with Raven Fork.

A leg of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail connects Oconaluftee with the Appalachian Trail near the summit of Clingmans Dome. The Bradley Fork Trail follows Bradley Fork north from Smokemont to the Cabin Flats area between Hughes Ridge and Richland Mountain. From here, the Dry Sluice Gap Trail continues north to the crest of the Smokies, emerging near Charlies Bunionmarker.

In 1982, the Oconaluftee area was added to the National Register of Historic Places as the Oconaluftee Archaeological District.

Mingus Mill

Mingus Mill and flume

Mingus Mill was built in 1886 by Sevier County, Tennesseemarker millwright Sion Thomas Early for John Mingus, a son of John Jacob Mingus. Early completed the mill in three months for a cost of $600. The mill operated at wholesale and retail levels until the park service purchased the property in 1934. The mill was restored in 1937, but closed again during World War II. In 1968, the mill was again reopened.

Water diverted from Mingus Creek via a sluice (canal) and a wooden flume turns two turbines which provide power to the mill. An iron shaft connects the turbines to grindstones on the first floor and a wheat cleaner and bolting chest on the second floor (the latter two via a series of pulleys). Wheat or corn is first transported by bucket belt to the wheat cleaner, which is essentially a fan which clears the grain of dirt and excess material, and then drops it back to the first floor. The cleaned grain is then fed into the grindstones, which break it down into flour (or cornmeal). The flour is then transported back to the second floor and fed into the bolting chest, which uses bolts of progressively coarse cloth to separate the flour into different grades.

While the mill's turbine is not as photogenic as the overshot wheels that power mills such as the Cable Mill at Cades Covemarker, it was more efficient and required less water power to operate. The turbine generated approximately turning at 400 rpm.

Aden Carver, who arrived in Oconaluftee in the mid-1800s, helped Early build the mill in 1886. When the mill was restored in 1937, Carver, then in his 90's, aided in its restoration.

The Mountain Farm Museum

Mountain Farm Museum

Adjacent to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the Mountain Farm Museum. The museum is a collection of several log buildings from various places around the park, the purpose of which is to depict a typical mountain farm in pioneer Appalachia. Gardens are planted during the spring and summer, and barn fowl roam the premises. Since most of the structures were not moved from their original locations intact, they are not eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The park service maintains them by the same standards, however.

Structures at the Mountain Farm Museum:

John Davis Cabin, built in 1900. This cabin was originally located on Indian Creek several miles to the west above Bryson City. John Davis moved to the area in 1885 to free-range his livestock. The cabin was constructed with matched chestnut logs joined with dove-tail notches.

The John Davis Cabin

Enloe Barn, built around 1880 by Abraham Enloe's grandson, Joseph, who owned the land where the museum is now located. The Enloes sold their farm to the Floyd family in 1917. This relatively large barn housed livestock in its lower stalls and grain and fodder in its lofts. This is the only structure that was originally located in Oconaluftee, being moved only from its native spot. The roof consists of over 16,000 hand-split shingles.

Messer Applehouse, built by Will Messer of Cataloocheemarker, a valley located within the park on the other side of Cataloochee Mountain to the east. At its original location, the applehouse was partially underground to help insulate it from the summer heat and winter cold.

The meathouse, located just behind the cabin, was moved to the site from Cataloochee. To cure meat (usually pork) and give it flavor, a small fire was built just inside the meathouse, exposing the meat to several hours of smoke.

The Baxter/Jenkins Chickenhouse, built by Willis Baxter in the late 1800s, was originally located at the base of Maddron Bald between Greenbriermarker and Cosby, Tennesseemarker. Baxter's cabin is still located at its original site. Chickenhouses were used to protect chickens from carnivorous animals.

Messer's Applehouse

The blacksmith shop was built around 1900 and moved to the site from Cades Cove.

The springhouse, moved from Cataloochee, was used by farmers for refrigeration.

Two corn cribs, built around 1900, were moved from Thomas Divide, just north of Bryson City. Corn crib roofs were often raised to place the recently-cut corn crop inside. A large pitchfork was used to remove the corn via the small square doors when it was time to take the corn to the mill.

Other buildings include a hog pen, a sorghum press and still (used to draw sorghum from cane and boil it into syrup), an ash hopper (water was filtered through the ashes to extract its lye, which was then mixed with hog lard to make soap), a woodshed, and native fencing.

Oconaluftee Indian Village

Operated by the Cherokee Historical Association on the slopes of Rattlesnake Mountain on the reservation, this outdoor museum is a replica of a typical Cherokee village from the mid-1700s. (Full article)


  1. Harry Moore, A Roadside Guide to the Geology of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988), 45, 101.
  2. Harry Moore, A Roadside Guide to the Geology of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988), 23-27.
  3. Harry Moore, A Roadside Guide to the Geology of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988), 32.
  4. Harry Moore, A Roadside Guide to the Geology of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988), 98-101.
  5. Florence Cope Bush, Dorie: Woman of the Mountains (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), 18.
  6. James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee (Nashville: Charles Elder, 1972), 517.
  7. James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee (Nashville: Charles Elder, 1972), 517.
  8. Carson Brewer, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Portland, Ore: Graphic Arts Center Publishing, 1993), 18.
  9. James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee (Nashville: Charles Elder, 1972), 49.
  10. Daniel Pierce, The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000), 9.
  11. Florence Cope Bush, Dorie: Woman of the Mountains (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), 18.
  12. Michael Frome, Strangers In High Places: The Story of the Great Smoky Mountains (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994), 107.
  13. Vicki Rozema, Footsteps of the Cherokees (Winston-Salem: John F. Blair Publisher, 1995), 58–60.
  14. Michal Strutin, History Hikes of the Smokies (Gatlinburg: Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2003), 125, 325.
  15. Information in this section obtained from interpretive signs provided by the National Park Service at the Mingus Mill site, July 2007.
  16. Unless otherwise noted, information in this section obtained from: Tom Robbins, Mountain Farm Museum Self-Guided Tour (Gatlinburg: Great Smoky Mountains Association, date not given).
  17. Ed Trout, Historic Buildings of the Smokies (Gatlinburg: Great Smoky Mountains Association, 1995), 12.
  18. George Ellison, " Mountain Farm Museum Celebrates 50th Anniversary." Smoky Mountain News, 21 May 2003. Retrieved: 18 August 2007.
  19. Ed Trout, Historic Buildings of the Smokies (Gatlinburg: Great Smoky Mountains Association, 1995), 47.
  20. Michal Strutin, History Hikes of the Smokies (Gatlinburg: Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2003), 264-266.

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