Old-time mountain hogs were essential livestock
Hog Holler, Hog Branch, Hog Camp Branch, Hog Cane Branch, Hog-eye Branch, Hogback Gap, Hogback Holler, Hogback Knob, Hogback Ridge, Hogback Township, and Hogback Valley in addition to six sites in Western North Carolina named Hogback Mountain. Proof enough, if anyone required it, that hogs have been an essential part of the mountain landscape.
In Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians (2000), Donald Edward Davis describes the history of hogs in the southern mountains. I have summarized Davis’ findings and added points here and there.
First there was Columbus, who brought hogs to Cuba in 1493. Then there was Hernando De Soto, that swashbuckling marauder, who brought 13 sows from Columbus’ original Cuban stock into the Tampa Bay area of Florida in 1539. By the time De Soto and his men arrived in the general area of the Smokies the following year, he was driving more than 300 swine across difficult terrain from one Indian village to next. This may seem to be an extraordinary precaution against not having pork to eat in a strange land, but it’s true.
Davis surmises that some of De Soto’s hogs probably escaped, but he also suspects that most were killed off by wolves, mountain lions, and Indians. Instead of a few hogs escaping from De Soto and becoming the feral population of the mountains, as some maintain, Davis thinks most were derived subsequently from Spanish colonies to the south.
Traders coming up the Indian Path from Charleston and Savannah had established themselves and their animals, including hogs and cattle, in every major Cherokee village. The older Cherokee men and women didn’t approve of eating hog meat, but the younger members of the tribe thought it was just fine. Davis reports that, in time, most Cherokees preferred pork over beef.
The early white settlers brought their own hogs. A prosperous farmstead in the 19th century might have displayed a log home, barn, blacksmith shop, springhouse, root cellar, corn crib, and chicken house. In all likelihood there would also have been a hog pen and a smoke house.
Ed Trout’s Historic Buldings of the Smokies (1995) provides details regarding hog pens and smoke houses. The hogs ranged the woods communally most of the time so that their owners had to pay them little or no mind. In order to recognize which hog belonged to which owner, each animal received distinctive ear marks — that is, various combinations of slits, notches, and holes cut into their ears while young.
Rounding them up was part of the fun. Hog calling was a practical skill that some turned into an art form. Hog callings at Old Timers’ Day celebrations today are but a remnant of what once was a necessary skill.
Hogs were enticed into an awaiting pen in various ways — the most expedient being to run a trail of corn up to and inside the opening. But Mark Hannah of Cataloochee Valley told Trout about another more sophisticated method.
“First, you catch a sow,” Hannah instructed, no doubt with a wink. After placing her in a pen with holes in the sides, he would return to it and find piglets in there with mother hog. “We would close the holes in the pen and have them all caught up ready to mark their ears.”
Once inside the small pens, a hog was “topped off” with corn or chestnuts. Not being able to move, it fattened up readily. Trout quotes one Cades Cove farmer who claimed to have “fattened his hogs ‘till their eyes swole shut and they couldn’t stand up.”
Trout says that the hogs were “hit in the head with a hammer and bled” before being scalded, skinned and cut up. These killings usually took place in the fall (preferably “when the moon was waxing”) so that the meat wouldn’t spoil during the processing and curing. Hams, shoulders, side meat, and other delectable hog parts were hung in the smoke house for curing. A well-furnished smoke house would supply a family with meat for a year. It was such an important building it was often the only one on the farmstead with a lock.
And then there is the ongoing debate among veteran hog connoisseurs as to whether the left ham or the right ham of a hog is the more tender and juicy. I’m a left ham proponent — a preference based upon scientific observation. Watch carefully and you’ll observe that nine out of 10 hogs will lie down to rest on their right sides. This makes that side more fibrous and tough. Always ask the butcher at your local supermarket for pork cut from the left ham.