The Cumberland Gap

Amended from an article
Dr. Barry Vann

Nestled in the shadows of the Cumberland Mountain, Lincoln Memorial University shares a unique location with a world famous natural feature that serves as a boundary for Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.  The Cumberland Gap, made famous by its historic role in providing a western passage for early European pioneers, is actually a low place in the Cumberland Mountain, which forms the north wall of the Powell Valley.   The mountain pass was formed by geological processes over eons of time.   Deer, bear, and other animals were forced south by advancing sheets of ice during the last ice age (10,000 to 40,000 years ago).  They wore a trail through the pass as they searched for hunting and foraging lands.  For similar reasons, Cherokee and Shawnee hunters and warriors later followed the well-worn path through the mountain.  As western European societies emerged from the medieval times, population pressures coupled with political and religious conflicts and economic inequalities forced millions of their seed to seek a new and better life in America.  The Cumberland Gap, as a migratory path, and Lincoln Memorial University, as an illuminating institution of higher learning, continue to assist Americans of all ethnicities to open doors of opportunities and go across a multitude of barriers in their pursuit of a better life.
A towering outcrop called the Pinnacle has historically provided armies, bandits and hunters with an excellent vantage point to watch the intermittent flow of animals and people passing through the Cumberland Gap.  At 2440 feet above sea level, the rocky overlook is 800 feet above the Gap.   Cumberland Mountain is exceedingly steep, and because of many decades of heavy timber harvesting in the area, the soil became shallower as its denuded slope gave up its precious soil to the forces of gravity and running water.  Because early pioneers moving through the Gap were easy prey for bandits and vengeful natives, they were keen to clear the mountain of its refuge-providing, woody cover.  Today, however, the mountain is protected by the United States National Park Service.  Through changes in local land-use patterns and sound conservation measures used by the Park Service, the slopes are once again sheltered by a lush covering of oaks, hickories, and maples.

Cumberland Mountain is the southern-most of two parallel ridges that form the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky and Tennessee.  Pine Mountain forms the northern ridge.  The upland area was formed some 245 millions years ago as the North American plate collided with the African plate, causing a folding and faulting of the earth’s crust in eastern North America.   From the Pinnacle, it is easy to see the result of this collision.  The view to the south and east reveals a landscape that resembles a crumpled carpet or the rippling waves that spread forth from the place where a pebble fell into a tranquil pond.   There are ridges and valleys running in a northeast-southwest direction across the great valley of East Tennessee.

Before that collision, some 320 million years ago, there was another collision.  That time it was between the North American and European plates.  This impact forced the North American plate downward below sea level.  Much of the area known as southern Appalachia was under a shallow ocean.  Animals with calcium-rich shells died and fell to floor of the sea and over time, their crusty remains formed limestone rock.  Other sediments fell to the floor and hardened into shale and sandstone layers.  When the most recent plate collision occurred, those pliable rock layers were folded, and in some places cracked, creating the beautiful landscape we see today.  The pressure and heat resulting from the impact transformed the core of the mountains into dense, sturdy metamorphic rock.

e scholars have argued that the Cumberland Gap was formed by water flowing over the area during the era of plate collisions.  As the North American plate buckled under the immense pressure generated by tectonic forces, the Appalachian Mountains rose slowly.  It is argued that as the uplift occurred an existing river cut the gap into its present shape.  There is new theory that offers an explanation for the formation of the Cumberland Gap.  Barry Vann, who is a historical geographer at Lincoln Memorial University, agrees that running water played a role in shaping the gap, but he thinks a violent impact removed the bulk of the soil and rocky material that once filled the void in Cumberland Mountain.  There is little debate among scholars that the bowl-shaped depressed area located to the northwest of the gap was created by a meteorite impact.   The city of Middlesboro, Kentucky, sits in the crater today.  Vann argues that the expulsion of debris during the meteorite impact blew out part of the Cumberland Mountain leaving the gap in its wake.    Research, however, needs to be conducted to test Vann’s theory.

In addition to its interesting geological history, the Cumberland Gap area is a visually striking place.  It is also one of the most significant places in American migration history.  Early pioneers could have crossed Cumberland Mountain at Pennington Gap in Virginia, but because Pine Mountain did not offer a low place to traverse it near that location, settlers were forced to travel 40 miles on to the Cumberland Gap where an old, well-worn path stretched northward through a pass in Pine Mountain some fourteen miles away.  To accommodate migrating families in search of western lands, Daniel Boone and 38 Woodsmen employed by Richard Henderson’s Transylvania Company blazed the Wilderness Road along the route in 1775.   The next section tells us how and why the old path was formed.

Before hunters and gatherers from Asia came into North America during the Pleistocene some 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, wooly mammoths and other animals that would become extinct lived in the region and traveled to and fro through the Gap, leaving a well-marked trail.  Bison, black bears, beavers, deer and elk made good use of the regional flora and were plentiful when the Cherokee, Shawnee, and Europeans first came to the area.

The Cherokee came to southern Appalachia (western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia) from the northeast where other tribes spoke similar Iroquoian languages.   They came to the region in the middle of the fifteenth century and established a capitol at Chota in Monroe County, Tennessee.

The Shawnee, whose name means “southern people of the Algonquin”, were pushed out of their villages in New York and Pennsylvania by rival Iroquois in the late seventeenth century.  Like the Cherokee, the Shawnee built small towns on river banks and were good at farming low-lying, fertile fields.  The Cherokee and Shawnee were conflicting rivals, and, as such, the country north of the Cumberland Gap was described as a “dark and bloody ground”.   The Great Warriors’ path, which ran from the Cherokee capitol at Chota (located in Monroe County, Tennessee), extended north through the Cumberland Gap following meandering hollows filled with canes and thorns.   The path also crossed rapidly flowing creeks and rivers until reaching the rolling “blue grass” area north of the Kentucky River.  This region, like its subsequent state name, was Kentucky.  Over time, the two nations came to use Kentucky primarily as a hunting ground.  Most of the Shawnee who had an interest in Kentucky lived in towns located near the Ohio River in the north.  Shawnee settlements such as Mekoche, Piqua, Chillicothe, Kispoko and Hathawekela were independent, patrilineal villages.

The Cherokee and migrating herds of buffalo used the relatively low-lying Powell Valley as a route to the Gap and into Kentucky.  The trail that they wore into the landscape extended eastward through the Powell Valley of Virginia to Moccasin Gap, near modern-day Johnson City, Tennessee.  There a trail split off to the north through the Shenandoah Valley.  That trail was called the “Great Indian Warpath”.   To the south of Moccasin Gap, a trail cut through East Tennessee to Chota and other paths provided routes across the mountains of western North Carolina all the way to the piedmont, the lands of the Catawba nation.  The Powell Valley in Tennessee was also marked by foot paths worn down by natives and wild game alike.

As will be seen in the next section, those ancient paths were widened into roads by Europeans as they pushed both the Native people and the frontier westward.   Although the Cherokee had sold Kentucky to the Transylvania Company in 1775, some among them, Dragging Canoe in particular, resisted giving up their hunting grounds to the settlers.  Adding fuel to the looming conflicts, French emissaries made an alliance with the Shawnee, who of course, disputed the Cherokee claim of ownership of their long-contested hunting grounds in Kentucky.  Those disputes and the fighting that resulted from them added greatly to Dragging Canoe’s declaration to Daniel Boone on the day of the sale that the whites would find Kentucky to be found to a “dark and bloody ground”.   During those turbulent years, the descendants of colonial settlers in the Cumberland Gap area began seeing themselves not as British subjects but as part of a new nation of Americans, although much their belief system and ways of life had changed little since their grandparents boarded overcrowded ships in European harbors