Cades Cove, a fertile elliptical valley surrounded on all sides by the Great Smoky Mountains, had already been long inhabited by the Cherokees, who called it Tsiyahi, or “otter place,” when John Oliver, his wife, and young child arrived there in the fall of 1818. By 1821 other neighbors had joined the Olivers from Carter County, and the expansion of farms, homes, and gardens proceeded rapidly in a pattern identical to frontier development throughout the United States. As early as 1827 a bloomery forge had been constructed in the cove; by the 1830s roads for marketing agricultural surplus connected the cove to Maryville and Knoxville. In the 1840s and 1850s new waves of immigrants from other states and many foreign countries entered the cove, enriching the community with their diverse talents. Although many migrants used the cove only as a temporary way station in their travel west, entrepreneurs like Daniel D. Foute and abolitionist, mineralogist, and physician Dr. Calvin Post surveyed the surrounding mountains for prospective gold and copper mines in a fever of capitalist activity. Because of its unique location, Cades Cove remained a community of farms surrounded by large stretches of mountain wilderness, an environment which provided plentiful opportunities for hunting deer and bear and fur trapping.
The Civil War brought bitter division to the largely Unionist community. Outlaw guerrilla bands from North Carolina periodically raided the cove, stripping the area of food and other valuables. The postwar period brought regression–fewer new families moved into the cove; most remaining families were interrelated through an extended kinship structure. By 1900 some degree of prosperity had returned, and during the next two decades cove farmers became caught up in the progressive agricultural movement manifested throughout the rest of the country. During the 1920s, when farm prices slumped, bitter divisions erupted within the community over moonshining, and many cove citizens sought new jobs in other parts of the country.
For those who remained, however, the final challenge to their life as a community came with the movement to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Initially promised that they would be left unmolested in their homes, many cove residents felt betrayed by subsequent inclusion of the entire cove within the boundaries of the new park. Cades Cove's leading citizen, John W. Oliver, grandson of the original settler, led a lonely and protracted court battle against eminent domain, but lost finally after appealing his case three times before the Tennessee Supreme Court. The birth of what would become the most popular national park in the East thus marked the death of this historic community.