Archived Mountain Voices

Not a lot known about Bryson City’s namesake

Not a lot known about Bryson City’s namesake

Two well known sites in Swain County were named for Col. Thaddeus Dillard Bryson, a significant figure in Western North Carolina during the second half of the nineteenth century.         

One is, of course, Bryson City. And the other is the Bryson Place, now Backcountry Campsite (No. 57) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park situated six miles north of the gated trailhead in the Deep Creek Campground. Here then are some notes regarding Col. Bryson as well as his namesakes.

Some early background is provided in the biographical sketch captioned “The Bryson Family” written by Edwin C. Bryson for “The Heritage of Swain County” volume:

“Colonel Bryson, who was born February 13th , 1829. He grew up on a farm near Webster in Jackson County. Little is recorded of his early life other than that as a young man he became interested in politics and represented Jackson County in the North Carolina General Assembly. His service record shows that he was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel of the 86th Regiment of Militia, Feb. 20th, 1854, Captain of the Volunteer Company of Jackson Guards, June 28th, 1861, and Colonel in the 20th North Carolina Infantry of the Confederate Army, September 7th, 1861. He married Mary Charlotte Greenlee of McDowell County, North Carolina.

 “Just when Col. Bryson moved to the Charleston Community, which at that time was a part of Jackson County, is not known to this writer. It is of record that in September 1868, he acquired a large tract of land on the north side of the Tuckaseegee River … which is now part of the town of Bryson City … Col. Bryson decided to settle on this tract where he built a large eight-room house … [He ] became the first person to represent Swain County in the North Carolina General Assembly in 1871.”

In her still very informative Swain County: Early History and Educational Development (1965), Lillian F. Thomasson noted that Col. Bryson was a farmer, like most everyone else back then, and that he “operated a merchant mill, grinding meal and corn, at the mouth of Deep Creek. Behind the mill he had a sash-saw which was used by the public on a self-serve bass. One did his sawing and paid in cash or a portion of the lumber just as toll was taken for the grinding of corn.”             

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(Unfamiliar with the term “sash saw,” I googled it and found this  explanation at the online “A Sash Sawmill Glossary” web site: “The general name for a sawmill … named for the fact that a single straight saw blade is held inside a wood sash (or frame) that is driven up and down by the mill. The saw is said to be hung, or stretched, in the sash frame. The term was not needed prior to the advent and then widespread use of circular and band saws in the middle of the 19th century and later.”) 

Swain County was organized by an act of the state government in 1871. Charleston, the first name for the county seat, proved unsatisfactory. Mail was being misdirected to the city on the South Carolina coast. Renaming it would rectify that situation. And it would provide an opportunity to honor Thaddeus Dillard Bryson, one of the town’s primary benefactors. Two years after Charleston was incorporated in 1887, a new charter was granted and in 1889 the name was changed to Bryson City, the year before his death. He was laid to rest in the Bryson City Cemetery overlooking the town bearing his name..  

According to Ken Wise in his Hiking Trails in the Great Smokies — which is as much history book as it is guide book — Col. Bryson had in 1878 purchased 1,000 acres of land in the Deep Creek watershed for 42 cents an acre. On land that has for going on 140 or so years been referred to simply as “The Bryson Place,” he built a cabin used as a hunting lodge.

Wise noted that this cabin was “later replaced [or augmented] by a forty by thirty-five foot log hunting lodge that remained in use for almost half a century until it was razed by the Park Service sometime in the 1940s.”

As such, it served legions of Great Smokies hunters and fishermen (including the indefatigable hunter Sam Hunnicutt and the renowned fly fisherman Mark Cathey) as both rendezvous and base camp.  

Today the Bryson Place is remembered primarily for its association with Horace Kephart, who lived there for awhile in the spring of 1910 with the Bob Barnett family before making the Cooper House in Bryson City his permanent residence. He returned virtually every summer to get away from it all, evaluate outdoor-related items and write. 

The Bryson Place is cited frequently in the expanded two-volume edition of Camping and Woodcraft (1916-1917). And many of the crucial scenes in the posthumous novel Smoky Mountain Magic are set in “the last place up Deep Creek.” A bronze plaque (see if you can find it) was placed there in 1931 by the Horace Kephart Troop, Boy Scouts of America to commemorate his long-standing association with the place.

(George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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