The Appalachian Mountains

The Appalachian Mountains

Make no mistake about it: these are old mountains. The Appalachians were already old when the Rockies rose in the west. They were old when dinosaurs walked the planet, and older still when mammoths fled south from advancing glaciers in the great Ice Age.


These mountains are so old that we only have a fragment of them on this continent. Once, they were part of a great chain of mountains, taller than the Rockies that stretched from what is now Norway, through Scotland and down into the present Canada and the United States.

People are almost an after-thought here. The first humans arrived no earlier than 20,000 years ago, and they just passed through. Even by the time Columbus arrived, very few Indians called this region home.

The mountains were part of the no-man's-land created after the French and Indian War. The whole area was theoretically closed to settlers.

"Theoretically" is a good word, because the artificial boundary did little to slow the advance of the colonists. They went over the mountains seeking land and freedom. By the time of the Revolution, what is now upper east Tennessee had many small settlements and some daring souls had pressed on into Kentucky.

But almost no one had settled in the three counties (Ashe, Avery, and Watauga) that today make up what we call the High Country. In 1771, three hunters, David Helton, William Walling and William McLain, had built homes in what is now Helton in northern Ashe County. They and their families constituted the entire European population of the area.

Watauga was next to gain settlers, in the person of Samuel Hicks and his son-in-law John Holtsclaw. In 1780, they and their families settled in what is now Valle Crucis. Determined Tories, they came to the mountains to escape the persecution of their patriot neighbors.

Avery was the slowest to gain settlers. In 1825, there were 13 families in what would become that county. That was an average density of one family per 19 square miles.

The end of the Revolution brought a new wave of settlers to the mountains. The ancestors of many native families arrived during this period. Some came form the lowlands of the Carolinas, while others came from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York along the great wagon road that ran down the Shenandoah Valley. They brought with them the current skills of farmers, which can be summed up in one phrase: make it or do without.

Those times changed, however, and much sooner than most people think. By the time of the Civil War, there was quite a bit of diversity in the mountains. One family might have one branch with college educations living in town and another branch illiterate and very poor farmers.

As the 20th century began, that diversity became greater. The tourism industry was in full swing. A small village like Boone could produce North Carolina's most influential education reformer, Dr. B.B. Dougherty, founder of Appalachian State University. At the same time, some families kept to traditions and ways familiar to their ancestors a century before.

To experience the past, start with the Blue Ridge Parkway. It's free and offers a perspective on the natural history and beauty of our region. Looking from some overlooks – especially near the Linn Cove Viaduct – it's easy to imagine you've been transported back to the time of Daniel Boone and the first settlers.

The story of those settlers is told in several places. There's Hickory Ridge Homestead, a living history museum that is located next to Horn in the West in Boone. The outdoor drama, Horn in the West, tells of the early pioneers in the region.

The best overview of the area's history and culture is found at the Appalachian Cultural Museum, located in ASU's University Hall behind the Scotchman on Blowing Rock Road in Boone. This is an expertly assembled and explained collection that runs the gamut from prehistoric times to the present. The Appalachian Collection, housed in ASU's Belk Library, offers books, recordings, videos and other materials covering every aspect of the region.

Finally, be sure to watch as you travel our roads. You'll see it all: wilderness, log and old frame cabins, farms and towns, a whole panorama of our past and present for those who will take the time to look and enjoy.

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