What Did Horace Kephart Do? A Look at His Impact on the Smokies

photos of horace kephart

Horace Kephart at a camp in the Great Smoky Mountains (public domain images)

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

He was an extraordinary gentleman in league with himself. 


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What did Horace Kephart do?

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 catalog 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.

Why did Kephart leave his job in St Louis?

The Kepharts stayed in St. Louis for a decade and had six kids. However, Horace reportedly 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. 

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. 

swain county courthouse downtown bryson city
Kephart lived on the western side of the Great Smoky Mountains, in an area near Bryson City, North Carolina (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Where did Horace Kephart live?

After leaving St. Louis, he settled in the Hazel Creek area of North Carolina, which would later become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s close to Fontana Dam near the state line.

Kephart was perplexed by the protective, insular nature of the Appalachian people. He was aghast to find out he was 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 called them “our backward kinsmen.”

Horace Kephart's Camping and Woodcraft Book
Kephart’s “Camping and Woodcraft” book (photo by Kimberly Grayson/TheSmokies.com)

What important book did Horace Kephart write?

Kephart wrote several articles in his life. But he turned his focus to the people of the mountains, writing a popular account, “Our Southern Highlanders”. He is also well-known for his outdoor guide “Camping and Woodcraft”.

Kephart wrote in the style of an academic. But he took issue with authors like Mary Noailles Murfree, whose work did more to solidify stereotypes than overcome them. 

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

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, bear hunts and feuds. 

He was criticized for focusing too much on the more sensational aspects of mountain life. Basically, it was 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, according to archives found at Western Carolina University.

Read Also: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Will Introduce Parking Fees in 2023

What happened to Horace Kephart?

Kephart passed away in an automobile accident in 1931.

What western North Carolina town do we most associate with Kephart?

Bryson City is where he was reportedly buried.

Also, just before his passing 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. It is on the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smokies region.

It’s the 7th highest peak in the state of Tennessee and the 22nd-highest in the eastern United States. However, it is dwarfed by its neighbors, Clingmans Dome and Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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

Read Also: The Mt. LeConte Hike: How Long Does It Take? Can a Beginner Do It?

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

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John Gullion

John Gullion, Managing Editor at the Citizen Tribune, is a freelance contributor for TheSmokies.com LLC – the parent company of TheSmokies.com and HeyOrlando.com.

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