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Graham County is practically enclosed by rugged towering mountains on all sides. The western range of the Great Smoky Mountains separating Graham from Tennessee is called the Unicoi Mountains. The southern boundary is the Snowbird Mountains circling to Red Marble Gap, and then swinging northward to Cheoah Bald. The northern border is the Little Tennessee River inundated by Fontana Lake. The Cheoah range and the Yellow Creek Mountains traverse the northern part of the county completely boxing in Graham County on all sides with the exception of the rocky gorge of the Cheoah River below Lake Santeetlah where the Little Tennessee enters Tennessee. It is then indeed little wonder that this region was one of the last regions of Western North Carolina to be settled by the white men. Graham County, a part of the Cherokee treaty lands, was not opened to settlement until President Jackson ordered the removal of the Indians in 1838.
In 1838 there was not a road in Graham County except the old Indian trading paths. There is no record of travel by white man across the mountains of Western North Carolina prior to the famous pilgrimage of Daniel Boone in 1769. However, it is believed that Desoto in 1540 was the first white man to look upon the Great Smoky Mountains. It is possible that Boone and later pioneers followed these old Indian paths and other trails made first by deer, bear, and other game as they sought the easiest way to travel from one feeding area to another.
William Bartram, the first great botanist born in America, was one of the first white men to see the land, which was destined to be Graham County. Bartram roved the hills and woodlands collecting and setting down notes of the plant and animal life of this Appalachian area, all of which is recounted in detail in his classic work, The Travels of William Bartram. He established a rapport with the Indians probably unmatched except for Daniel Boone. His lovely descriptions have a poetic flavor, which only a master naturalist with his intense love of nature could have fathomed. According to Hiram C. Wilburn of Waynesville who traced William Bartram's 1776 trip through the mountains of Western North Carolina, Bartram came "about 6 or 7 miles down the Tallulah towards Robbinsville" where he spent the night of May 27, 1776. He decided at this point to postpone his search until another time. The reason for his discontinuing of his research in this area is unknown, but he apparently did not return again to this region.
It is probable that John and Robert Stratton followed one such trail when they crossed over from Monroe County, Tennessee, during the 1830's and settled on Stratton Bald in the Unicoi Mountains between Sassafras Ridge and Santeetlah Creek. John lived there for ten years and reportedly caught 19 panthers on old Laurel Top, making "panther bacon" of their shoulders and hams, thus earning the nickname "Bacon John." He arrived on Stratton Bald with nothing but his rifle, blanket, cooking utensils and ammunition but earned enough herding cattle, selling deer, bear hams, and hides to buy a fine farm in Tennessee.
Ironically, the Indian Removal itself brought about the first wagon road in Graham County. Soldiers under orders from General Winfield Scott moved into the area and erected Fort Montgomery on the Indians' ball ground. The area overlooking Robbinsville is the present location of the American Components plant and the 28 houses built by the Rural Development Authority. Fort Montgomery was constructed under direction of Dr. Dan F. Summey of Asheville for use in corralling the Indians in 1838 prior to removal to Oklahoma. A makeshift highway was built from Old Valley Town (Andrews) to Fort Montgomery near Robbinsville for use of the soldiers in evacuating the Indians.
Over this first wagon road came the first preacher, Reverend Joseph A. Wiggins, a distinguished Methodist Minister. The Rev. Joseph A. Wiggins, father of the late Walt Wiggins, was born on Alarka Creek in 1832, but moved to Graham County with his father Abraham in 1840. He found a few hardy white families. In the valleys, the Cherokees had their villages where they raised corn, barley, pumpkins, and ceremonial tobacco while they hunted wild game on the rugged mountain slopes. There were no mills except a few gristmills. Wheat was "packed" on horses by an Indian trail a distance of about thirty miles to a mill five miles from what is now Bryson City. Indian relics were plentiful at that time at the meadows on the head of Tallulah Creek. Mr. Wiggins married a daughter of George W. Hayes for whom the town of Hayesville was named. There was not a church in the county and only a few log houses. He began preaching in 1859, and served for four years as chaplain in the Confederate Army. Afterwards he rode circuits in Southwestern Virginia, East Tennessee and Western North Carolina remaining stationed in Graham County. His great-grandfather Garland Wiggins and his wife's great-grandfather Edward Hayes served in the Revolutionary War.
Early history records only a few families living in Graham County, known as Cheoah Valley at that time, prior to the arrival of the Wiggins family from Swain County:
Billy Crisp, who came from Haywood County and settled near where Mountain Creek flows into the Cheoah River and who later moved to the Stecoah Community. Billy Crisp was an ancestor of Joel L. Crisp who served four terms as State Senator around the turn of the century.
John Hyde settled near the old Ernest Cooper place on Highway 129 and put up the first gristmill in Cheoah Valley on a small stream named Hyde's Mill Creek. Isaac Rowen settled opposite the residence of John Hyde on the other side of the Tallulah River where is located more recently the farm of Rube Rogers who married the daughter of the pioneer settler. A little later the same year Thomas Cooper came from Haywood and settled on Frank's Creek.
Andrew Colvard reportedly lived on Long Hungry Branch during this early period. The branch got its name from the fact that a party of hunters once was detained there by high waters until their rations gave out and they were hungry for a long time. The Stewarts of Santeetlah came from Georgia and the Lovins from Ducktown, Tennessee.
Other early settlers were: James Colvard who came from Tennessee and set up on Tallulah; the Sherills from Haywood settled in eastern portions of the county; Baxter Campbell settled near the West shore on Tallulah; James Carver from Tennessee near the mouth of West Buffalo; John Ammons below Robbinsville; Doctor Enos Hooper for whom Hooper's Bald was named went to West Buffalo; William Colvin came from Buncombe in 1850 and lived on Cochran Creek; Harwoods and Dentons settled on Sweetwater. Other early families were: Carpenter, Rhea, Rose, Phillips, and Rice.
In the Yellow Creek section, the early families were: Birchfields, Williams, Sharps, Colvins, and Johnsons from Tennessee. There were also the Shulers from Jackson County, Garrisons from Kansas, Ditmores from McMinn County, Tennessee; and Isaac Carringer from the eastern part of the state.
In the Stecoah Section were the, Crisps, Taylors, Sawyers, Gunters, Deans, Cables, and Welchs. It was also about 1840 that a land grant was taken by Edward Delozier on what is now called Sawyer's Creek. In 1843 the Medlins moved from Macon County to Wolf Creek, a tributary of Panther Creek in the Stecoah section. Descendants of this family still own this original state land grant.
Some time between 1840-1843 Thomas Cooper and Col. William H. Thomas established a trading post on Rhea Hill on the present Robbinsville school site. This store, later remodeled and expanded by George Walker, was operated by Thomas Cooper and is believed to be the first store in this section. A little later Wiley King moved to this area and replaced Thomas in the enterprise, and the store became King-Cooper Store. The first post office was established in 1843, housed in the King-Cooper Store with Wiley King as the first postmaster. The post office was originally listed as Cheoah Valley, changed to Fort Montgomery in 1849, and still later in 1874 the name was changed to Robbinsville.