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Wednesday, 18 April 2007 00:00

Guyot’s Smokies

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Paul Fink and Myron H. Avery were two of the foremost explorers of the Southern Appalachians — especially the Great Smoky Mountains — during the first half of the 20th century. In a paper they coauthored for “Appalachia” magazine in 1936, Fink and Avery concluded that, “Arnold Guyot was, beyond question, the most thorough explorer who ever penetrated the Appalachian system.

Prior to the Civil War, he had traversed it throughout its northern terminus in New England to the southern end of the Blue Ridge in Georgia. Thus Guyot acquired an extensive knowledge of the Appalachian Mountains, such as has never been possessed by any other person and under conditions which can never again be duplicated. Guyot’s objective was to record the elevation of the various peaks of this range, and to develop a general, systematic geographic outline of the mountain systems of the eastern United States.” Guyot’s explorations of the northern Appalachians were published in various sources. But his explorations of the southern Appalachians, which took place from 1856 into 1860, were never published. Fortunately, however, they were preserved in a manuscript titled “Notes on the Geography of the Mountain District of Western North Carolina” and dated “Februrary 22, 1863” that Guyot forwarded to the offices of the Coast and Geodetic Survey.

This so-called “Guyot Manuscript” remained buried in official archives until 1929. It was not published until Myron H. Avery and Kenneth S. Boardman’s “Arnold Guyot’s ‘Notes on the Geography of the Mountainous District of Western North Carolina’” appeared in the “North Carolina Historical Review,” vol. 15 (July 1938). Of particular interest to readers of this column will be Guyot’s descriptions of the Great Smokies, a massive range that was, for the most part, placed under federal protection when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was founded in 1934. Before we take a look at those descriptions, let’s briefly review Guyot’s career.

Arnold Henry Guyot (1807-1884) was born in Boudevilliers, Switzerland. After graduating from the College of Neuchatel in that country, Guyot decided to pursue a doctoral degree in natural sciences. Following five years of study of physics, chemistry, and geology and the completion of his thesis, “The Natural Classification of Lakes,” he was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Berlin in 1835.

Guyot made excursions into the Alps to study glaciers, especially to test the theory that a significant portion of Europe had experienced an “Ice Age.” In 1838, he reported his discoveries about glacial formation, structure, and movement in a paper presented to the Geological Society of France.

Guyot left the political turmoil of Switzerland and immigrated to America in 1848. The following year, he gave the prestigious Lowell Institute Lectures in Boston. Their publication that same year as The Earth and Man quickly made him one of America’s most respected geographers. This volume sought to explain the relationship between people’s physical environment and their social, political, and moral development.

Guyot moved to Princeton University in 1854 to accept a chair in physical geography and geology, which he occupied for the next 30 years. He measured the heights of peaks from Maine to South Carolina and devised topographic maps of the Appalachian and Catskill mountains.

The biographical entry by Gary Scott Smith in “American National Biography Online” concludes with these observations: “Guyot’s investigations, maps, tables, textbooks, and articles significantly influenced the development of both American and international geography during the second half of the nineteenth century. His research and publications provided important data about many geological formations and stimulated other geographers to do their own fieldwork. His extensive meteorological observations contributed to the establishment in 1870 of the U.S. Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Bureau). A generous, energetic, devoutly religious man who enjoyed many close friendships, Guyot hiked and climbed mountains to obtain scientific information well beyond his seventieth birthday. He died in Princeton.”

Here are Guyot’s manuscript descriptions of the Great Smokies. His barometric measurements were remarkably accurate. I have indicated present-day measurements as given in William S. Powell’s The North Carolina Gazetteer (UNC Press, 1976) in brackets. Where required, present day place names are also added. Otherwise, the text of Guyot’s 1863 manuscript is unaltered.

“To the Southwest of the gorges through which the Big Pigeon [i.e., Pigeon River] escapes from the mountains, the chain rises rapidly in high pointed peaks and sharp ridges ... This is the beginning of the Smoky Mt. Chain proper, which by general elevation of both its peaks and its crest, by its perfect continuity, its great roughness and difficulty of approach, may be called the master chain of the Appalachian System.

“For over 50 miles it forms a high and almost impervious barrier between Tennessee and the inside basins of North Carolina. Only one tolerable road, or difficult mule path, in this whole distance is found to cross from the Great Valley of Tennessee into the interior basins of North Carolina—and the road reaches its summit, Road Gap [i.e., Indian Gap] as it is called, at an elevation of not less than 5,271 feet [i.e., 5,317 feet]. It connects Sevierville, Tenn., with Webster, Jackson County, North Carolina, through the vallies of Little Pigeon and Ocona Luftee, the last of which is the main Northern tributary of the Tuckaseegee.

“Between the gorges of the Big Pigeon and the Road Gap the top of these ridges are usually sharp and rocky, deeply indented, and winding considerably, covered with a dense growth of laurel and high trees, which makes travel over them extremely difficult and almost impractical. Neither the White Man nor the Indian hunter venture in the wilderness ... Beyond the Road Gap, the chain of the Smoky Mts. rises still higher, but the top of the ridge ceases to be so rugged and sharp and will allow an easy path. One has been cut for my visit by order of Mr. Clingman [i.e., Senator Thomas L. Clingman of North Carolina] from the Road Gap to the highest peak. About six miles South-west of the Gap is the culminating point of the Smoky Mts., Smoky Dome or Clingman’s Mt., 6,660 ft. [i.e., 6,642 feet] which is thus only some 50 feet lower than the highest summit of the Black Mts.

“From this point the chain gradually descends. The black verdure of the Balsam Firs which elsewhere crown the highest summits, gives way to the green foliage of the Beeches and Oaks. After a short turn to the west it sends a long and powerful ridge called the Forney Ridge to the Southwest, to the Little Tennessee. From the head of the Forney Ridge, the Big Stone Mt. [i.e., Silers Bald] 5,614 ft. [i.e., 5,620 feet] the main chain continues nearly due west, then curving gradually to the southwest terminates near the deep cut of the Tennessee [i.e., Little Tennessee River] in the Great Bald [i.e., Gregory Bald] 4,922 feet [i.e., 4,948 feet]—All this portion of the Smoky Mts., from Forney Ridge is used by the Tennesseeans for grazing cattle. Numerous paths, therefore, run up the Western slopes, and along the dividing ridge. But the Eastern slope is still a wilderness, little frequented.

“Here the Little Tennessee cuts that high chain by a deep winding chasm, in which no room is left for a road on its immediate banks, the mountains nearby rising to 3,000 feet above it, and upwards; the point where it leaves the mountains being scarcely 900 ft. above the level of the sea.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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