Smoky Mountain authors: The extraordinary life of Horace Kephart

Horace Kephart

Horace Kephart at a camp in the Great Smoky Mountains (public domain image, Our Southern Highlanders)

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Horace Kephart (1862-1931) could have been famous for many things. In fact, his life reads like a steampunk superhero story torn from the pages of a graphic novel. 

He was an extraordinary gentleman in league with himself. 

A Pennsylvania man raised in Iowa and exceedingly well educated, Kephart was a noted outdoorsman who studied under distinguished zoologist Alphaeus Hyatt. He made his original mark in the world as a librarian and catalogist.

Working at Cornell, he befriended the university’s first librarian, the independently wealthy Willard Fiske. 

Fiske moved to Italy in 1883 where he summoned Kephart to help him build and catalogue what became one of the world’s most impressive collections of Dante, Petrach and Icelandic history and literature at his home, Villa Forini, in the Eastern Quarter of Florence. 

He returned to America in 1886 working as an assistant librarian at Yale where he met and married Laura Mack of Ithaca, New York. He took the family west to St. Louis where he accepted the prestigious directorship of the St. Louis Mercantile Library Association.

The Kepharts stayed in St. Louis for a decade, having six kids, but Horace became increasingly disenchanted with city life. 

He spent much of his time in the wildernesses of Missouri and Arkansas, writing often about these excursions. 

When Laura and the six children returned to Ithaca, Horace did not accompany them. 

Smoky Mountains, North Carolina
Horace Kephart rolled out a topographical map, picked a remote spot, and moved there at the age of 42 (photo by Richard / stock.adobe.com)

Instead, he headed to the mountains of North Carolina

He rolled out a topographical map of the mountains of North Carolina, picked a remote spot and moved there in 1904 at the age of 42.

He immersed himself in nature and churned out writings and observations on living in the wilderness, woodcraft, hiking, cooking, firearms and camping. 

His organized mind for cataloging proved invaluable, and he was well recognized in his time as an authority. In fact, many of his guides remain popular and in use today. 

He also turned his focus to the people of the mountains, writing a popular account, Our Southern Highlanders.

Kephart writes in the style of an academic but takes issue with those, like Mary Noailles Murfree, whose work did more to solidify stereotypes than overcome them. 

Read Also: Meet the authors of the Smoky Mountains: Mary Noailles Murfree

“In any case,” he writes, “the Appalachian people remain in public estimation to-day … an uncouth and fierce race of men, inhabiting a wild mountain region little known.”

But Kephart falls victim to some of the same, though with less flowery language and an easier to read rendering of local dialects. He is perplexed by the protective, insular nature of the people. He’s aghast to find he is considered a foreigner, despite being firmly in all the most acceptable social classes of the day.

Even in the midst of recognizing that they are people of keen intelligence who apply their mental capabilities toward things the rest of the country doesn’t value, Kephart calls them “our backward kinsmen.”

Where did Horace Kephart’s inspiration come from?

Much of Kephart’s inspiration came from the people of Hazel Creek and the herdsmen who watched their flocks among the Highland Balds of the Western Smokies. Kephart devotes several chapters to the moonshine trade and things like bear hunts and feuds. 

He was criticized for focusing too much on the more sensational aspects of mountain life. Basically, the early 1900s version of clickbait. 

But he also observed the dialect, the insular nature of mountain communities and the connection of the Southern Appalachian dialect to its roots in the British Isles. 

Kephart’s legacy goes beyond merely chronicling the strange land in which he chose to spend his later years. He was a fierce advocate for the formation of the national park and the protection of the lands. 

How did Horace Kephart die?

Kephart died in an automobile accident in 1931.

Just before his death at the age of 68, the U.S. Geological Board named a peak within the park in his honor.

Mount Kephart, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border, exists in Sevier and Swain counties and is on the Appalachian Trail. It’s the 7th highest peak in the state of Tennessee and the 22nd highest in the eastern United States, but is dwarfed by its neighbors, Clingmans Dome and Mt. Le Conte. 

If you drive U.S. 441 from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, you’ll cross old Horace’s mountain. 

Have you read any of Kephart’s work? Let us know in the comments.

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