Few areas in the United States symbolize the American pioneer spirit more than Cumberland Gap. Crossing the gap meant encountering America's first western frontier and symbolically severing European ties. Between 1760 and 1850 more than 300,000 people walked, rode, or were carried over the Appalachian Mountains through Cumberland Gap.
Formed by a stream and enlarged by wind and weather, the Cumberland Gap, named by surveyor Thomas Walker for his English patron, the Duke of Cumberland, son of George II of England, is fifteen hundred feet above sea level. Various types of sediments including shells, shale, limestone, and gravel surround the area and attest to the great earth disturbances that formed the gap.
Settlers followed a trail over the gap initially used by Native Americans, who had enlarged it from an animal trace. They were entering a prized hunting ground, coveted by the Shawnees to the north and Cherokees to the south. The French and Indian War, followed by the American Revolution, briefly halted white settlement. But with the restoration of peace, the flow of hunters, settlers, and land speculators through Cumberland Gap was resumed. Perhaps the most famous traveler was Daniel Boone, who agreed to take settlers north into Kentucky after first making several hunting trips through the gap.
By 1800 the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia claimed the area through the Cumberland Gap. After 1840 a weekly stage carried freight, mail, and passengers and gave the area a prosperous commercial appearance. During the Civil War, the gap changed hands four times as the North and South fought for control of this strategic gateway. Initially considered part of Kentucky, and therefore under Union control, the first troops to occupy the Cumberland Gap were Confederate forces under the command of Brigadier General Felix K. Zollicoffer. Union commander Brigadier General George W. Morgan took the “American Gibraltar” on June 18, 1862. Morgan did not remain at the gap, however, and Confederates reoccupied the area immediately. After a year of inactivity, Union forces reappeared, and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside demanded and received unconditional surrender. The gap was not seriously threatened again during the remainder of the war.
New South developer Alexander Arthur promoted a railroad through the mountains near the gap and by 1888 had completed the first tunnel from Cumberland Gap to Middlesboro, Kentucky. After resolving boundary disputes, the three states that bordered the gap sponsored an “Object Lesson Road” through the historic pass. This federally funded road encouraged business travel, and a macadamized road soon followed. Automobiles, trains, salesmen, and tourists continued to pour through the gap.
Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 30, 1922, several business leaders from Middlesboro, Kentucky, proposed the establishment of Lincoln National Park. Local residents, as well as representatives from the surrounding three state governments, were in favor of the idea. In 1938 representatives of the National Park Service agreed to support a park, provided the lands would be donated to the United States. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, established to celebrate the passing of the first barrier to the West, received congressional approval in 1940. Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia bought the land and deeded it to the federal government in July 1955. Formal dedication of the 20,184-acre park occurred July 4, 1959.
Numerous trails, camping and picnic areas, a visitor center, and museum offer visitors the opportunity to explore the historic Cumberland Gap. From the Pinnacle Overlook, visitors enjoy a view of the Great Smoky Mountains eighty miles away and the Cumberland Gap itself, nine hundred feet below. The completion of twin tunnels through the mountains in 1996 and the restoration of the Cumberland Gap to its 1750 appearance provide an opportunity for visitors to experience part of the journey described by Daniel Boone as he led settlers into the wilderness.
William W. Luckett, “Cumberland Gap National Historical Park,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 23 (1964): 303-20