A short history of a remarkable place.
From prehistorical geological shifts that sculpted rivers and moved mountains to the celebration of Transylvania County as a world-class location for arts and adventure in recent decades, the history of this storied place is written across its landscape and woven into the rich tapestry of local culture.
As part of the Appalachian Mountain chain, Transylvania County’s high peaks and rolling ridges were first created by a shift of geological plates about 450 million years ago. These early mountains eroded down into almost a flat plain over subsequent geological eras only to be uplifted into their current topography during the Cenozoic era.
These events would create the valleys and peaks of the Appalachians and Blue Ridge. They would cause the New River and the French Broad to flow north instead of south. And they would leave Transylvania with over 200 waterfalls.
The earliest known inhabitants of these mountains were the Paleo-Indian hunter groups. Here in Transylvania County, archaeologists have discovered Kirk Points (7000-6000 BC) and Morrow Mountain (6000-4000 BC) artifacts. The transition into the Woodland culture is represented by the Savannah River artifacts (ca. 2000 BC). The Mississippian Mound-Builders entered around 1000 AD and were followed by the American Indian tribes we’re familiar with today. The last of these tribes were our neighbors, the Cherokee.
Cherokee legend says they’ve always been here, and the first man and woman—Kana’ti and Selu—lived at Pilot Knob in the Shining Rock Wilderness area. Historians will argue they did not arrive until ca. 1300 AD. As they migrated into our area, they found the Yuchi and Creek tribes already here.
The Yuchi lived mostly along the Tennessee and Savannah Rivers but may have been in the upper part of Transylvania. Tannassee is said to be a Yuchi word (originally Tansi) for “meeting place.” The Cherokee kept the place name but altered the definition to mean “place where the river bends.”
The Creek resided around the Tennessee River valley and the headwaters of the Tugaloo and Chattahoochie Rivers but had towns as close as today’s Henderson County. “Etowah” is the modern pronunciation of the Creek word “Etalwa,” which today means “tribal town,” but originally meant a major town that was the capital of a province. Again, the Cherokee kept the place name.
With the arrival of the Cherokee, intermittent warfare began, lasting through several centuries; waged for possession of these mountains. Eventually, the Cherokee were victorious and the other tribes were forced out.
The Cherokee call themselves Ani’ Yun’wiya: The Principal People. “Cherokee” is said to be a mispronounced Creek word “Chelokee,” which means “people of a different speech.” The Cherokee farmed and lived on the river bottomlands in upper South Carolina (Oconee, Seneca, Keowee, etc.) and in Jackson, Macon, and Swain Counties. The Tuckasegee River Basin towns reached as close as Tannassee Gap.
The Cherokee utilized the land in Transylvania as hunting and gathering grounds, setting up camps here for months at a time. One of the main attractions was the Rivercane which grew in Toxaway. They used it for baskets and blowguns. Another was the plentiful game. They hunted buffalo in East Fork and deer and elk in Cherryfield.
The Cherokee traveled by the Eastatoe Path. It started in the South Carolina lowlands and crossed the French Broad River near Rosman. It traveled through Cherryfield, through Brevard, and on to Davidson River. European trappers and long hunters found the trail and discovered the bounty of Transylvania. Pioneers began to settle. The path widened as trade between the Cherokee and the settlers became more common. The path became a road, utilized for access to the South Carolina markets. Even today, a part of Eastatoe Path is still in use and known as the Pickens Highway.
The first settlers arrived in the late 18th century. Their backgrounds were Scots-Irish, German, English, Welsh, Swiss, and French. Each brought the skills, beliefs, and traditions of their motherland with them. For the next hundred years, subsistence farming was a way of life. Much of what is now state and national forests were utilized as farmland. Cottage industries consisted of gristmills, blacksmiths, wagonmakers, gunsmiths, and general stores.
The first visitors to these mountains for summer respite arrived from Charleston in the 1850s. They established a summer colony near Dunn’s Rock, built the Episcopal Church, and left a legacy of fine homes that are architectural treasures.
These wealthy bankers and planters brought with them their own teachers, doctors, pastors, and servants. When winter approached, most returned to their low country plantations until the following summer. A few decided to make Transylvania their permanent home. The Charleston colony set the precedent for summer visitation, and people continue to visit Transylvania County for the enjoyment of nature and the arts, to attend summer camps, or to get away from city life and hot climates.
The arrival of the railroad in 1895 brought even greater accessibility to the mountains and created an economic boom. J. Frances Hayes organized the Toxaway Company and built the Franklin Hotel in Brevard, Lake Toxaway, and the renowned Toxaway Inn. Known as “America’s Switzerland,” the inn attracted such notables as the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers; Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, and many others.
In Brevard, John McMinn built the Aethelwold Hotel in 1904, and many fine homes were converted into boarding houses. By 1905, six trains a day were passing through Brevard, carrying Pullman cars from St. Louis, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Jacksonville, FL.
Captains of industry arrived. Joseph Silversteen, Louis Carr, and Carl Moltz all began logging operations in Transylvania County. The community of Jeptha was finally established as the town of Rosman in 1904 and became a boomtown for the logging and tanning industry. In 1917, Silversteen moved his family to Brevard and built Silvermont, because he wanted “a quiet place in the country.”
As the timber played out, the industry declined in Rosman but expanded in the rest of the county with the arrival of the Ecusta paper mill in 1939. Other big industries followed, such as Dupont and American Thread. After the turn of the 21st century, these plants closed, and today’s assets include Pisgah National Forest, Dupont State Forest, Gorges State Park, Brevard Music Center, Transylvania Arts Council, and more.
The history of Transylvania County reflects a community of resources. Each one born from a rich and fair land.
Transylvania County celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2011. More information about its first 150 years can be found here.
A number of celebrated writers have written evocative books about Transylvania County in particular and the Southern Appalachians in general. Here’s a brief reading list:
- The French Broad by Wilma Dykeman
- Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
- Cataloochee by Wayne Caldwell
- Oral History by Lee Smith
- May We All Remember Well, A Journal of the History and Cultures of Western North Carolina by Robert S. Brunk
- Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart