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History No. 13: Rifle Making in the Great Smoky Mountains
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Rifle Making in the Great Smoky Mountains*

By Arthur I. Kendall, M. D., Professor Emeritus, Northwestern University Medical School.

Eastern Frontier Riflemen

OVER 170 years ago, in 1767, Daniel Boone and a few intrepid pioneers crossed the Appalachian barrier to the West and penetrated deeply into the country that now comprises parts of the States of Kentucky and Tennessee. They remained some months and returned with accounts of a country richly wooded, with pasture lands, flowing streams, and teeming with game.

Soon the first settlers came—Scotch-Irish, English, and a few Huguenots—to establish themselves in the back country across the Appalachian range. They traveled with horses, for there were no roads or navigable streams, and brought with them their few belongings—a saw and axe, an auger bit, a hunting knife, a few blankets and coverlets, pots and pans, a gourd of salt, and last, but not least, that remarkable weapon, the American rifle.

gentleman firing rifle
Firing a Smoky Mountain Squirrel Rifle

When they came to a suitable spot, they camped, erected their one- or two-room log cabins, cleared land, and set up their communities. They were butchers, bakers, candle dippers, dyers, spinners and weavers, blacksmiths, tanners, and huntsmen. They made their own soap from ashes and fats, dyes from the bark of trees, baskets of wythes split from oak trees, buckets and barrels, tanned their hides, and were self-sustaining except for steel, powder, and paper, although they had little use for the latter.

Soon they came in conflict with the Indians—the Creeks and Cherokees. The stealth, cunning, and ferocity of the savage, armed indifferently with weapons of the Stone Age—flint-tipped arrows, stone axes, and spears, together with a sprinkling of smooth-bore muskets—were pitted against the grim determination, resourcefulness, and courage of the pioneer armed with the rifled gun. The superior weapon of the settler more than offset the numerical superiority of the Indians, who were forced to give way. In this manner the country was settled.

Some of the pioneers stayed in the flat country. Gradually they established flourishing villages and schools and through contact with the outside world kept apace with the progress of events. Others remained isolated in the mountains where they built their log cabins in secluded and isolated valleys and coves cut off from commerce with the outside world. They retained their traditions, customs, and mode of living tenaciously; they are the progenitors of the mountain men of today.

The pioneer mountain men ordinarily were tall, gaunt, saturnine, somewhat indolent, but fully capable of sustained, severe activity. They were of strong will, adventurous, and highly individualistic, leaderless, resentful of discipline, but vigorous, sturdy, and thoroughly adaptable to the country in which they elected to make their homes. Even to this day the mountain people are stout individualists, independent in their thinking, and intensely loyal to their country. The introduction of schools, roads, and automobiles and the vast complexity of modern life have changed markedly their customs. They have passed in less than one generation from pre-Victorians, living in glorious simplicity, to the current age of speed. This pioneer stock, however, remains even today unmixed with foreign elements. They are, excepting the Indians, our purest-blooded Americans.

* This study was prepared and presented to the National Park Service by Dr. Kendall, a pioneer private investigator of the folkways of the inhabitants of the Great Smoky Mountains. He has had a lifelong interest in mountain rifle making, which he regards as an integral part of the early life in this region.

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Last Modified: Sat, Oct 20 2001 10:00:00 am PDT