Cumberland Plateau Culture & History

The Cumberland Plateau in general -- and especially this Big South Fork area of Upper Cumberland Plateau -- is a particularly important and fascinating part of the world.  It is today and always has been a wild place, literally.  The Nature Conservancy describes the area in this way:


"Stretching across eastern Tennessee from Alabama north into Kentucky, the Cumberland Plateau rises more than 1,000 feet above the Tennessee River Valley to a vast tableland of sandstone and shale dating as far back as 500 million years. Carved over time by flowing water, the plateau today is a labyrinth of rocky ridges and verdant ravines dropping steeply into gorges laced with waterfalls and caves, ferns and rhododendrons.


The Cumberland Plateau's rivers and streams sustain some of the country's greatest variety of fish and mollusk species, and ravines and deep hollows are among the richest wildflower areas in southern Appalachia. John Muir was one of the first naturalists to document the natural bounty of this, the world's longest expanse of hardwood-forested plateau. He memorialized his crossing of the Cumberland Plateau in the book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.

For thousands of years, the Cumberland Plateau remained a remote and rugged paradise. Infertile soil and rough terrain discouraged early settlement. Artifacts found in caves and rock shelters suggest Mississipian and later Cherokee hunters camped here but never established permanent dwellings. English, Scotch-Irish and German settlers staked their claims mostly in the valleys and ventured to the plateau only sporadically to mine coal and harvest timber."

Because of its incredible geology and diversity of flora and fauna, the area has been recently singled out for special recognition and conservation efforts by Friends of the Big South ForkWorld Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, The Natural Resources Defense Council, The Alliance for the Cumberlands and The Dogwood Alliance.  To see a compilation of articles about the natural and cultural research taking place in the Big South Fork NRRA, take a look at the Appalachian Highlands Science Journal.

Up until about 1800, the Cherokee and Shawnee hunted the plentiful deer, elk, buffalo and other game this area, and they traveled through it for purposes of trade and warfare. But they never settled on the plateau. 

From about 1770 until about 1820, Daniel Boone and other famous early explorers traveled long, lonely distances for many months at a time to hunt and trap throughout the plateau.  But the vast majority of these hunters and adventurers never settled on the plateau. 

Throughout the mid to late 1800’s, when wave after wave of settlers streamed over the Appalachian mountains to settle the "west", they streamed through the Cumberland Gap or floated down the shoals of Tennessee River, around or over the top of the plateau, on to more fertile river bottoms in Middle Tennessee, the bluegrass hills of Kentucky, and beyond.  Only a few families discovered and settled the narrow fertile valleys, or "coves", formed by the many tumbling creeks that drain the plateau.

In 1880, a wonderful bit of sophisticated European culture arrived on the local scene:  "British author and social reformer Thomas Hughes, famous for his classic Tom Brown’s Schooldays, dedicated the Rugby Colony [about 20 minutes by car from Hemlock Bluff cabin] amid great fanfare on October 5, 1880. He envisioned his new community as a place where those who wished could build a strong agricultural community through cooperative enterprise, while maintaining a cultured, Christian lifestyle, free of the rigid class distinctions that prevailed in Britain. The idea for the colony grew out of Hughes' concern for the younger sons of landed British families. Under the custom of primogeniture, the eldest son usually inherited everything, leaving the younger sons with only a few socially accepted occupations in England. In America, Hughes believed, these young men's energies and talents could be directed toward community building through agriculture." (Rugby website)

From the 1880’s to the 1940’s, the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company extracted most of the coal and old-growth forest from this area.  In order to do that, the company built railroads and mining towns.  Workers flooded in from all parts of the Eastern seaboard, especially Pennsylvania, and Europe.  But after the most commercially viable natural resources were extracted, Stearns and similar companies pulled out.  Most of the people moved out with them.

Immediately after the big coal and timber companies left, the families that remained in the area made their livings with a mixture of subsistence farming, hunting, timber cutting, rail road work and wage labor available to them from the few industrial enterprises in and around the nearby towns of Jamestown and Oneida.

From the 1950’s on, even as many locales left the area to find better jobs and prospects elsewhere, many stayed and worked hard to make a living and a life in what was still one of the least populated areas east of the Mississippi River.

After the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area (BSFNRRA) was established in 1972, outdoor recreation and cultural activities slowly began to play a larger role in the local economy. More and more whitewater enthusiasts ran the rapids in the Big South Fork River.  Backpackers, day hikers, rock climbers and nature photographers came in greater numbers every year.  Hunters and fishermen from all over the country began to discover the plentiful game and pristine wilderness that locals had enjoyed all along.  History lovers discovered that this was the home of WWI hero Alvin York, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Father of the United Nations Cordell Hull and the people of the eighteenth century utopian community called Rugby. And bluegrass music lovers enjoy the many music festivals and concerts dedicated to this home grown genre.

In the last ten to fifteen years, the Upper Cumberland area has grown in popularity and yet remains largely unsettled and certainly uncrowded.  Even with all the modern cabins sprinkled throughout, like ours, this place still remains one of the last great wilderness areas in America, especially east of the Mississippi River.

History and culture buffs will enjoy the following, especially Benita Howell's groundbreaking, detailed and thoroughly engaging study of of this particular area of the world just as the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area was established:

Howell, Benita J., Folklife Along the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2003.

Manning, Russ, The Historic Cumberland Plateau: An Explorer's Guide, Second Edition, Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.

Williams, John Alexander, Appalachia: A History, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Davis, Marge, Sportsmen United: the Story of the Tennessee Conservation League, Mt. Juliet, TN: Bench Top Books, 1997.