Swain County (1871)

A mountain county formed from Macon and Jackson counties, Swain County was established in 1871. Named after David Lowry Swain, an influential governor of North Carolina, the region has always been inhabited by the Cherokee. Although the government removed most of the Cherokee from the region in 1838 and led them on the notorious Trail of Tears, several tribe members remained in the area. After years of petitioning the federal government, the Cherokee formed the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the tribe resides in the Qualla Boundary, a large tract of land that encompasses nearly 50,000 acres.

A county devoted to its rich Indian heritage, Swain is home to the town of Cherokee that is located in the midst of the Qualla Boundary. Numerous members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee live in the Qualla Boundary, and most have remained close to the Cherokee tradition. Cherokee craftsmen, protected and promoted by the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, maintain their popularity as basket weavers and potters. In addition, numerous tribesmen have kept the storytelling tradition alive in the region that has also helped stay the Cherokee language.

Several cultural institutions commemorate the Cherokee’s ancestors and the Indian culture of Swain County. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Cherokee Cyclorama Wax Museum, the Cherokee Heritage Museum, and the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual attract visitors interested in Cherokee culture. In addition, the Kituwah Indian Mound illustrates the Cherokee settlement on the Tuskasegee River and Unto These Hills, a popular play performed in Cherokee, details the Cherokee experience during the Trail of Tears. Some important year-round events include the Fourth of July Freedom Fest, the Bryson City Chili Cookoff, the Bryson City Riverfest, and the Cherokee Blue Grass Festival.

In addition to the festivals in Swain County, the replicated Oconaluftee Indian Village is located in the region. Opened in August of 1952, the village is located on a small tract of land near the Mountainside Theater, and its purpose is to illustrate eighteenth century Indian life. Tourists from around North Carolina travel to watch Cherokee tribe members perform rituals and craft reproductions in the Oconaluftee Village.

Swain’s two most distinct traits include the Qualla Boundary and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Other land characteristics include Swain County’s intricate lakes and tributaries that outdoor enthusiasts enjoy year round. Boaters and fishermen spend time on the Fontana Lake. It was created during the New Deal Era after construction of the Fontana Dam. In addition, the Tuckasegee, Oconaluftee, and Little Tennessee Rivers are located in the county, and tourists raft these rivers during the warm months.

Several renowned citizens were born in Swain County. Yonaguska, or “Drowning Bear,” served as the Oconaluftee Cherokee’s chief in the 1800s. Yonaguska persuaded his tribe and other Cherokee affiliates to stay in North Carolina, despite the encroaching settlement of the white man. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee were descendants of Yonaguska’s tribe. Nimrod J. Smith (1837-1891) helped establish the Eastern Band of Cherokee, and his dream in making the tribe into a body politic came about on March 11, 1889. Ellen B. Winston (1903-1984) served as N.C. Board of Public Welfare commissioner from 1944 until 1963, and she became the first federal commissioner of the North Carolina counterpart.

Tourism has developed into Swain County’s primary industry, but during the past, agriculture remained the top income producer for the area. Forest products along with tobacco, boxwoods, Christmas trees, and livestock were the main crops grown by Swain County farmers. In addition to crops, the mining industry remains strong in the region, as minerals such as pegmatite, feldspar, pyrite, quartz, and magnetite are mined in Swain yearly. Tourism began to climb when the Indian Gaming Act passed the North Carolina legislature in 1988. The act led to the creation of Harrah’s Cherokee Great Smoky Mountains Casino and other gaming establishments in Swain County. Since the gaming industry has been in the county, the economy has been impacted in a positive way. Restaurants, hotels, and other service-based businesses have provided residents with various jobs, and Cherokee members now have access to a better quality of life such as greater education and health care improvements.

Located on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, Swain County has several communities within its boundaries. Bryson City, the county seat, was established in 1887 as Charleston, but the name was later changed to honor the founder of the town, Captain Thaddeus D. Bryson. Cherokee, Ela, Wesser, Birdtown, Lauada, Nantahala, and Almond are other towns within the county.


“Swain County; Cherokee Indians; Oconaluftee Indian Village.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).

“Yonaguska; Nimrod Smith; Ellen B. Winston.” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website. A Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.  (accessed November 18, 2011).