Documenting the American South

The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway

Parkway Development and the Eastern Band of Cherokees, part 3 of 3

By Anne Mitchell Whisnant

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The Ridge Route Proposal

Indians Not To Vote On Scenic Parkway Plan

Indians Not To Vote On Scenic Parkway Plan (detail), October 15, 1937

North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Whatever the merits of the objections raised by Fred and Catherine Bauer against government intervention in Cherokee affairs, North Carolina state highway officials and Parkway supporters grew weary of hearing them. By mid-1937, with allies in Washington, they began to search for ways to circumvent the uncooperative Tribal Council. The Interior Department persuaded Congress to pass legislation that summer to allow a land exchange (contingent on turnover of the Soco Valley right-of-way) if the Cherokees voted for the swap in a general referendum to be held within sixty days. Fred Bauer's belief that the land exchange was "bait to trick Indians into voting for the Soco route" still influenced many Cherokee voters, however, and Chief Jarrett Blythe, fearing the compromise would be defeated, never called for the vote.[1]

Stymied by that inaction, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, Parkway engineer R. Getty Browning, and other Parkway planners tossed around ideas for routing alternatives throughout the fall of 1937 and into the following spring. Finally, in May of 1938, the planners abandoned the Soco Valley route and suggested that the Tribal Council approve a new "ridge route" across the reservation. To sweeten the pot, they offered to pay the Cherokees at least forty thousand dollars for the high, rocky, uncultivable land. Even more enticing for the Indians was the promise that if they accepted the ridge route, North Carolina would build a regular state highway, which the Indians had always preferred to the Parkway, through the Soco Valley.[2]

Chances for Tribal Council approval of the ridge route looked good, but again the Council rejected the new plan, perhaps because of misinformation spread by Fred Bauer.[3]

A few months later, in August, Bauer uncovered a deceptive plan by the Bureau of Indian Affairs agent (in collaboration with Chief Blythe and with the knowledge of Browning) to, he said, "secretly" secure Council approval of the ridge route without a formal meeting, thus neutralizing Bauer's influence. In letters to the governor and the Secretary of the Interior, Bauer labeled the tactics a "conspiracy to defraud the Cherokees of lands for [the] Parkway."[4]

But now, more than three years after the state had first approached the Cherokees, the tide was turning against Bauer as Secretary Ickes directed Interior Department legal counsel to investigate the prospects for a federal or state seizure of the Cherokee right-of-way. By the spring of 1939, officials had determined that Congressional action would be needed to authorize such a confiscation.[5]

Legislative War Declared

In the spring of 1939, North Carolina politicians, with the acquiescence of Interior Department officials, finally declared legislative war on the Indians. Congressman Zebulon Weaver of western North Carolina introduced the planned bill to give the Secretary of the Interior the authority to seize the right-of-way. The bill promised generous payment to the Indians for their land, and provided for the tribe to purchase additional land in the Great Smokies.[6]

Letter from F. B. Bauer to Francis O. Clarkson

Letter from F. B. Bauer to Francis O. Clarkson, June 14, 1939

Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In July, the House Committee on Public Lands convened hearings on the Weaver bill. A confused Cherokee council sent both Chief Jarrett Blythe and Fred Bauer to Washington as official representatives and defenders of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. There, Blythe spoke sympathetically of those among his constituency who did not want the Parkway, and he noted that everyone in the Band objected to the original Soco Valley route. He pronounced the compromise "ridge route" (the basis for the bill) fair to the Indians and advocated its adoption.[7]

Bauer, though, warned that the "cleverly drawn" confiscation bill would be "just one more stain upon the honor of the United States of America," and attacked the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for scheming to set up "a model soviet community with so-called cooperatives on this parkway," and to "landscape the Indians into the park entrance . . . for the entertainment of rubbernecked tourists." [8]

In the fall 1939 tribal elections, Cherokee voters had the opportunity to choose between Blythe and Bauer in the race for tribal chief. The Parkway issue was central to the campaign, with Blythe promising to implement the "ridge route" compromise – on the condition that North Carolina agree to build the promised state highway through the Soco Valley. Cherokee voters re-elected Blythe their Chief by an overwhelming margin (788 votes to Bauer's 161) and threw out two of Bauer's staunchest backers on the council. The BIA agent onsite rejoiced that at last the Cherokees had "really cleaned house."[9]

Under Blythe's leadership, the tribal council in February 1940 approved the ridge route right-of-way, provided that the pending bill specified the Parkway route, assured the $40,000 payment for the tribe's land, and required the state to build the regular highway through the Soco Valley. By the summer of 1940, Congress agreed to the compromise package, and after five years of haggling, the right-of-way matter was finally solved. State payment of the $40,000 and turnover of the deeds to the right-of-way followed in January of 1941. North Carolina moved quickly to construct the long-promised state highway (now U.S. 19), which was completed during World War II. The Cherokee Parkway sections opened in the 1950s, with Cherokee leaders participating in the dedications.[10]

The Politics of History and Cherokee Tourism Development

After his triumph over Fred Bauer, Jarrett Blythe served as principal chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokees for twenty-four years. He led the Eastern Band in pursuing a mixed tourism development strategy – anchored by the "Unto These Hills” outdoor drama – that combined private investment with government- and tribally financed enterprises.[11]

Indians Not To Vote On Scenic Parkway Plan

Unto These Hills, 1950s

Hugh Morton Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In spite of his supporters' success in forcing relocation of the Parkway, Bauer seemed later to think that his group had in many ways won the proverbial battle but lost the war. In his view, despite the change in the Parkway routing, the Eastern Cherokees had still been landscaped into the western North Carolina national parks. Much of the Cherokee tourist industry was, however, developed with private funds. Bauer seemed not to have anticipated that private entrepreneurs at Cherokee – with the cooperation of many Cherokee citizens and the tribal government – would play a large role in this cultural landscaping project, often trading on the very misrepresentations of Indian culture the Bauers had feared from programs sponsored by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).[12]

Tourist operations at Cherokee long traded on identification of the Cherokees as "Indians" – either as generalized Hollywood Indians in brightly colored, Plains-style "chiefing" outfits or more specifically as Cherokee Indians depicting eighteenth-century Cherokee life at the Oconaluftee Indian Village.

When they united behind Jarrett Blythe, compromised on the Parkway route, and tossed out Fred Bauer, the Eastern Band opted for a blend of tradition and modernization. Completely distrusting the federal government's ability to treat Indians fairly, and suspicious of federal control of the marketing of Cherokee culture, the Bauers thought that the best protection for Cherokee interests was a Cherokee-built and -controlled tourist industry based on a free-enterprise model and on full assimilation into mainstream white American values and lifestyles. Blythe, on the other hand, cooperated with federal officials, but opposed complete assimilation and emphasized Cherokee cultural and political distinctiveness in the tourist facilities he helped the tribe to build.

The five-year struggle at Cherokee illustrates the multifarious and knotty issues raised by both the Indian New Deal and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although they were roundly dismissed as cranks and eventually repudiated by their community, the Bauers – smart, feisty, and alert to some of the larger implications of the changes coming to their region during the New Deal – provided some of the most sophisticated and consistent critiques of both projects voiced from North Carolina in the 1930s. The advent of the Blue Ridge Parkway project in the Cherokee region in the 1930s added an additional layer of complexity to debates underway on the Cherokee reservation, and conversely, discussion of the Parkway in the Cherokee context raised some issues that were never as clearly articulated by other affected mountain residents.

In relation to the Indian New Deal, Parkway planners' attempt to take Cherokee lands must have seemed an alarming contradiction to the Indian Reorganization Act's stated intent of helping Indians restore their land base. Juxtaposition of these two projects heightened the fears of Cherokees already disposed to distrust the BIA. In addition, the Cherokees' awareness of federal efforts to revitalize and market their culture made them acutely sensitive to the potential for Park Service manipulation and distortion of that culture in Parkway exhibits, something 1930s Appalachian whites – themselves the objects of some analogous NPS cultural marketing – never collectively called into question.

The Cherokees’ unique legal relationship to their land also forced them to confront the proposed Parkway land turnover as a community, rather than as individual landowners, and their complicated political situation bought them time to consider all the project’s implications. Emboldened by their political autonomy, the Cherokees publicly voiced many of the same objections to the Parkway’s land requirements and restricted access that led other landowners to grumble privately. The Eastern Band put together the most coherent counter-argument offered in the 1930s to the assurances of business-oriented parkway boosters in Asheville that the road would be the saving panacea for western North Carolina's ills.

With a long-vested interest in a severely sagging tourism economy, the Asheville Parkway partisans could not objectively ponder the fact that the Parkway served their needs better than it did those on the Cherokee reservation, where land was scarcer and the state highway system was less well developed. In Cherokee, as in no other place in the North Carolina mountains, however, the Asheville-based parkway boosters, as well as the highway commission staffers and federal officials, had to face the possibility that the Parkway did not answer all mountain constituencies' needs.

View of Plott Balsom Range from Soco Bald

View of Plott Balsom Range from Soco Bald, July 1938

National Park Service, Blue Ridge Parkway

Interactive Maps

Examining the set of georeferenced historic Parkway maps (maps that have been aligned with a their geographic location and overlaid upon a Google Earth satellite image or current map) makes it easy to see the evolution of the events described above. The maps below are particularly instructive. You may view them individually here, or you may download all of them to Google Earth, where it is possible to layer them all upon each other, adjust the transparency of each, and turn them on or off as desired.

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1 House, Committee on Public Lands, House Report No. 3003 to accompany H.R. 12789; House, Committee on Public Lands, House Report No. 937 to accompany H.R. 5472; House, Committee on Public Lands, Establishing the Blue Ridge Parkway, 36-37; "Indians to Vote on Park Route," Raleigh News and Observer, 25 August 1937; EBCCM, 13 March 1937 meeting; Harold Ickes to Josephus Daniels, 8 October 1937, SHCRWD, Box 2, North Carolina State Archives; Finger, Cherokee Americans, 92-93; Bauer, Land of the North Carolina Cherokees, 42.

2 From SHCRWD, Box 3, NCSA: Browning to Daniels, 9 July 1938; RGB to William Zimmerman, Jr., 20 July 1938; Browning to Daniels, 9 July 1938. House, Committee on Public Lands, Establishing the Blue Ridge Parkway, 5-7, 48-49; Finger, Cherokee Americans, 94.

3 EBCCM, 1 June 1938 meeting; C. M. Blair to Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 2 June 1938, RG 75, Series 6, Box 10, NARA SE; Bauer, Land of the North Carolina Cherokees, 43; Finger, Cherokee Americans, 93.

4 In SHCRWD, Box 3, NCSA see: RGB to Josephus Daniels, 3 Aug. 1938; RGB to Clyde Blair, 2 Aug. 1938; and Frank M. Dunlap to Josephus Daniels, 18 August 1938; Fred Bauer to Harold L. Ickes, 3 September 1938; and Fred B. Bauer to Clyde R. Hoey, 6 September 1938. See also Bauer, Land of the North Carolina Cherokees, 43; [RGB], "Memorandum for File," 9 Aug. 1938, SHCRWD, Box 15, NCSA. In Land of the North Carolina Cherokees, 43, Bauer writes that the Asheville Citizen reported that the Council had approved the compromise. Certainly, the News and Observer did. See Robert E. Williams, "Parkway Route Given Approval," News and Observer, 2 Sept. 1938. Resolution presented to Cherokee councilmen [copy], 5 August 1938, SHCRWD, Box 3, NCSA; [RGB], "Memorandum for File," 9 August 1938, SHCRWD, Box 15, North Carolina State Archives.

5 Harold L. Ickes, Diaries, 1933-51, Microfilm Edition, 25 November 1938 entry, Ickes Papers, LC. From SHCRWD, Box 3, NCSA: Josephus Daniels to RGB, 20 July 1938; RGB to Josephus Daniels, 20 September 1938; RGB to Fred Weede, 7 January 1939. From CCF7B, Box 2734: A. E. Demaray to Oscar L. Chapman, 8 September 1938, RG 79; and Nathan R. Margold to Harold L. Ickes, 4 October 1938.

6 House, Committee on Public Lands, Establishing the Blue Ridge Parkway, 1-3; Finger, Cherokee Americans, 94. This was the first version of the bill. As eventually passed, the bill included a stipulation about the state highway to be built in the Soco Valley and a specific description of the ridge route, so there would be no possibility of further changes. For further discussion of the bill, see Harold D. Smith to Stephen Early, 7 June 1940, POF 5708, Box 18, FDRL.

7 EBCCM, 9 December 1938 meeting; Finger, Cherokee Americans, 94; House, Committee on Public Lands, Establishing the Blue Ridge Parkway, 45-50.

8 House, Committee on Public Lands, Establishing the Blue Ridge Parkway, 51-61, 66-79. Quotations are from 68.

9 Charles E. Ray, Jr. to Frank L. Dunlap, 13 April 1940, SHCRWD, Box 4, NCSA; EBCCM, 2 October 1939 meeting; Finger, Cherokee Americans, 94-96; C.M. Blair to William Zimmerman, Jr., 4 August 1939, RG 75, Series 6, Box 11, NARA SE; Senate, Subcommittee of the Committee on Indian Affairs, Survey of Conditions, 20858; Frank L. Dunlap to C.M. Blair, 15 September 1939, SHCRWD, Box 3, NCSA; C.M. Blair to Frank Dunlap, 14 September 1939, SHCRWD, Box 3, NCSA.

10 Dunlap to Blair, 15 September 1939, SHCRWD, Box 3, NCSA; U.S. Statutes at Large 54 (1941): 299-301; Frank L. Dunlap to Zebulon Weaver, 26 March 1940, SHCRWD, Box 4, NCSA; Frank L. Dunlap to Harold L. Ickes, 10 January 1941, RG 79, CCF7B, Box 2734, NARA II; EBCCM, 6 February 1940 meeting; Bauer, Land of the North Carolina Cherokees, 44. See map of North Carolina in Rand McNally Road Atlas of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, 1944, 66-67; and Finger, Cherokee Americans, 97. Materials on Parkway dedication ceremonies are in RG 1, Series 23, Box 12, BRPA.

11 Parris, "Retiring Cherokee Chief Jarrett Blythe Honored," Asheville Citizen, 4 October 1967; "Death Claims Noted Cherokee Leader, 90," Cherokee One Feather, 20 May 1977; Finger, Cherokee Americans, 112-17, 137-38; Bauer, Land of the North Carolina Cherokees, 54-55, 58; 184-85; Hill, "Cherokee Patterns," 505-09; Finger, "The Saga of Tsali." 12 Bauer, Land of the North Carolina Cherokees, 58; Finger Cherokee Americans, 184; Hill, "Cherokee Patterns," 505-09, 588-90.