The story of Gatlinburg is more colorful than Smoky Mountains leaves in the fall. Take one growing settlement, add a disliked newcomer, mix in a feud, and you’ve got the origins of the Gatlinburg name.
To understand how the town of White Oak Flats turned into Gatlinburg, step back in time before anyone named Gatlin had ever set foot here. In 1807, widowed Martha Ogle and her family built the area’s first cabin. Ogle descendants soon thrived in what was called White Oak Flats, named for the abundant white oak trees covering the valley.
Other families arrived to settle here and in about 1854, so did Radford Gatlin. And Gatlin was nobody’s idea of a city’s founding father–then or now.
Meet Radford Gatlin
Gatlin held grudges and wielded lawsuits as weapons. Gatlin tried to lay claim to 5,000 acres of land grant land–despite the fact the land already had settlers living on it. To the consternation of an already established church, Gatlin set up his own church, only to be tossed out by his congregation because of his contentious ways. He tried to get the area’s main road redirected, inflaming his already simmering feud with the Ogles. He sued and sued again, often targeting Ogle's interests.
In 1856, Gatlin opened a general store. His was the second store in White Oak Flats. You can guess who owned the first store. That’s right: The Ogles.
Now we come to the Gatlinburg name. Back then, post offices often were placed inside existing businesses, rather than in their own, separate buildings. Gatlin landed the contract to get a post office inside his store. While there’s no official history of how the town’s name changed, once Gatlin controlled a post office, the mailing address of White Oak Flats somehow became “Gatlinburg.”
By 1859, Gatlin was gone. Smokies communities tended toward anti-slavery sentiments and hoped to remain neutral in the Civil War that was looming. Gatlin’s vocal pro-Confederate beliefs made him more of a pariah than even his lawsuits and feuds had.
Some stories say that his pro-secession stance was the final straw and locals asked Gatlin to leave town. That might be putting it nicely. Whether Gatlin departed willingly or not, he left behind his name on the town he’d swaggered into and skittered out of.
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