Who knew there was so much history in the Smoky Mountains?
Of course the Cherokee people have inhabited the Smoky Mountains for centuries, but I was pleasantly surprised at some of the other interesting historical sites I came across as well.
It’s amazing to have the opportunity to look back at the culture of the hardy, adventurous people who settled in those mountains before the United States was born.
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.
Stumbling Across History in the Smoky Mountains
I’ve visited a lot of mills all over the East Coast, but I didn’t really expect to find an old mill in the middle of the Smoky Mountains.
In fact, I wasn’t even looking for historical sites in the Smoky Mountains at the time, but when I saw a sign for Mingus Mill, I slammed on the brakes and turned around to investigate.
I’m glad I did, because Mingus Mill has some unique characteristics that make it unlike any other mills I’ve visited.
For one, it’s located in a remote area of the Smoky Mountains and is now within the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Nestled along the banks of the Mingus Creek, the mill was built on a crossroads—in a mountainous, out-of-the way area where there still aren’t that many roads even today.
Mingus Mill’s History in the Smoky Mountains
Built in 1886, the beautiful mill stands at its original location, a piece of living history in the Smoky Mountains that can still be visited and enjoyed today.
According to literature from the mill, families who lived along the mountain ridges and valleys tended to their crops and livestock through the week, and then traveled many miles to the mill on Saturday.
They brought their corn to be processed—a main staple back then—but they also brought other goods and skills to barter with others in the line.
The mill was the “grocery store” and meeting place of its time. It not hard to imagine wagon after wagon lined up waiting for their turn, and getting caught up on local gossip.
Visiting This Historical Site In The Smoky Mountains
Today, Mingus Mill provides a rare opportunity for visitors to get a glimpse of what life was like when this part of the country was just beginning to be settled.
Staffed by knowledgeable caretakers April through October, the local historians share information about the mill, life in the mountains and general history in the Smoky Mountains.
Cookbooks, lye soap, wheat flour, and corn meal can be purchased during the open hours so that you can really get a taste of history in the Smoky Mountains.
The Early History of Mingus Mill
Amazingly enough, Mingus Mill was built in just three months for a cost of $600. (And yet it still stands and still functions as a mill)!
Dr. John Mingus contracted with Sion Thomas Early to build the structure. His initials, “STE,” can still be seen, cut into the front gable just under the eaves.
The mill remained in the Mingus-Floyd family hands until they sold it to the National Park Service in 1930. The lumber used to build Mingus Mill was harvested locally at nearby Smokemont, which is now a campground.
At one point in time this little sliver of history in the Smoky Mountains was a booming timber camp.
Another Historical Site In The Smoky Mountains
Another interesting piece of history I discovered in the Smoky Mountains is a slave cemetery near Mingus Mill.
The Mingus and Enloe families were some of the first pioneers to settle in the Oconaluftee river valley in the late 1700s, which is why the cemetery is recognized by the National Park Service as the Enloe Slave Graveyard.
If you want to visit this historical site in the Smoky Mountains, go to the far end of the parking lot at Mingus Mill. You’ll see a gate that is the trailhead from the Mingus Creek Trail.
A worn path to the right of the gate wanders about 75 feet up a small hill to the secluded cemetery.
There are no names or dates, or even headstones. Just rocks that mark the head and feet of the graves.
If you happen to visit and see a coin on the grave placed upside down, the Park Service asks that you leave it alone. This is a common tradition in slave cemeteries (and others as well).
West African slaves believed the underworld is upside down of our world and connected by water. These coins are also left behind to: “pay the ferry man to safely get the departed soul to the afterlife,” a common theme in Greek mythology as well.
Other Cemeteries In The Smoky Mountains
The slave graveyard isn’t the only nearby cemetery. The Mingus Creek Cemetery, also known as the Watson Cemetery, is two more miles up Mingus Creek Trail. There are 13 marked graves in this cemetery, but only one has a legible inscription: Polly Mathis (1888-1934).
Dr. Mingus is buried nearby at the Mingus-Floyd Cemetery. This can be reached by driving north from the Mingus Mill entrance and parking on the very first gravel pull-off that you come to on the right. Walk along the road a few yards until you are even with a speed limit sign on the opposite side of the road.
Just past that sign, you will see the old road to the cemetery angling off to the left and marked by two large stones. It’s a short walk to reach this cemetery. When the old road turns back to the right, you will be able to see the first gravestones.
The Visitor Center In The Smoky Mountains
There are lots of trails and sites that display the history in the Smoky Mountains, so make sure you stop at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the Cherokee entrance to the park.
While the beautiful views are a major draw, don’t forget to take some time to learn about the history in the Smoky Mountains. There are plenty of museums and historical sites that will give you a better understanding of what life was like in this region centuries ago.
If you want to go off the beaten path, there are also plenty of unmarked trails that will lead you to forgotten settlements and ancient ruins. So, next time you visit the Smoky Mountains, be sure to add “learning about history” to your list of things to do!
By the way, if you like visiting old cemeteries, there are 13 of them between the Visitor Center and the Smokemont campground!
A drive through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a perfect combination of natural beauty, history, and adventure and makes a fantastic weekend getaway.
How Did The Smoky Mountains Get Their Name?
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll answer this question with a photo.
This was taken on a clear, spring day, yet the Smoky Mountains look… well, smoky.