The Real-Life Kissing Cousins of Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains

The Oliver Family (foreground) the oliver cabin (background)

Nearly half the residents in Cades Cove in the 1850s can be traced back to two families: The Olivers and the Shields (public domain)

Nearly half the residents in Cades Cove in the 1850s can be traced back to two families: The Olivers and the Shields

As someone who has lived in and around the mountains of East Tennessee, I’ve heard all the insults. They’re particularly rampant on social media – especially if you frequent certain SEC football message boards. Mouth breeders or kissing cousins. Oh, you’re from Tennessee, you must have married your sister. That’s the go-to stereotype for people who learned everything they know about the mountain people from popular culture depictions. 

It’s all rubbish, of course. Just a product of the ignorant, trying to use their limited faculties to demean and injure. But there where Europeans settled the mountains is the place we find the nugget upon which generations of insults were born. In many ways, mountain communities were like isolated islands. For instance, visits from the outside were rare. So, over the early generations, the family trees of several mountain families got – shall we say – tangled. 

Even with a rapidly growing community in the middle 1800s, Cades Cove remained mostly isolated. With families frequently having eight to 10 kids, the opportunity for the roots of family trees to intertwine was frequent. Family names like Oliver, Shields, Burchfield, Tipton and Gregory appear often throughout the history of the Cove. Over the years, popular culture learned and played up these common occurrences to create the stereotypes we face today. 

Nancy Ann Oliver (3rd from left, backrow), John W. Oliver (beside Nancy Ann), Willie Oliver (2nd from right, back row), William Howell Oliver (John W. Oliver's father, seated, front row), Elizabeth Jane Oliver (John W. Oliver's mother. Seated, front row), Gregory Oliver (babe in arms, front row)
John W. Oliver and family circa the early 1900s (public domain)

The Olivers and the Shields

Private John Oliver brought his wife Lurena and their young daughter Polly from Carter County to what we know now as Cades’ Cove in 1818. A veteran of the War of 1812, Oliver was lured to the area – somewhat appropriately – by a man named Josua Jobe. Jobe – also from Carter County – had arrived in the Cove in 1816 and began to clear land. The Cove at the time was largely thick forests and swampland. The Cherokee used it for hunting grounds and named it after the river otters they found there. 

That first winter, the Oliver family endured a myriad of trials for which Oliver bitterly blamed Jobe. The family barely survived even with the help of the Cherokee who’d lived and hunted the Cove for generations upon generations. But the Oliver family did survive. And they also multiplied. Boy, did they multiply. John and Lurena had eight more kids, following Polly. 

“By the 1850 census, there were 671 people and 132 families. Of that population – according to my very rough count – about 60 were either direct descendants of John Oliver or Robert Shields.”

– John Gullion, Contributor,

With the Oliver family’s survival, more families came. William “Fighting Billy” Tipton helped speed up the process. After Calhoun’s Treaty removed all Cherokee land rights in the Smokies, Tipton bought huge tracts of land in the Cove. He didn’t move to the Cove himself. However, he sold parcels to his sons and other families.

The Shields family – Robert, Margaret, and six of their eventual 10 kids – arrived in the Cove in 1820, at least according to Shields’ eighth son – George Washington Shields – is listed as being born in the Cove in 1828. 

Other families arrived as well and quickly a pair of churches – one Methodist and one Baptist – were built. Soon there was a post office, a forge and a mill. By the 1850 census, there were 671 people and 132 families. Of that population – according to my very rough count – about 60 were either direct descendants of John Oliver or Robert Shields. 

The John Oliver Cabin
The pool for courting was limited by isolation in early settler communities like Cades Cove. Pictured: The John Oliver cabin (photo by Alaina O’Neal/

Real-life kissing cousins

So here we are back at the beginning. The pool from which to draw potential mates was relatively small. Of course, Cades Cove wasn’t completely isolated. But getting in and out took quite a bit of doing. It’s not like you could run over to Maryville to do your courting. 

To illustrate, three of John Oliver’s children married three of Robert Shields’ children. Meet Henry Frederick “Fed” Shields – the fourth of Robert Shields’ children. He married Polly Oliver – the first child of John and Lurena (original settlers of the Cove). Together they had 13 (THIRTEEN!) children, all of whom lived to adulthood. Two of Polly and Fed’s children married a Gregory and two of their children married a Walker. You can see how in a tiny community; things get tetchy real quick.

Now, let’s look at one of their children. Say hello to Matilda. Matilda married Ebenezer Alexander Gregory – who was roughly five years her junior. They had a single child before Alex abandoned the family and lit out for a new life in Texas. Matilda remarried Henry Whitehead – a widower with three daughters who moved to the Cove. 

OK hold on now. This is the generation where things get wild. Their first stepdaughter, Mary Jane, married a Burchfield. A couple of clicks on the Find-A-Grave website reveals Russell Burchfield is the great-grandson of Russell Gregory – Ebenezer Alexander Gregory’s grandfather. The second stepdaughter married Elder John Oliver, the son of Elder William Oliver and the grandson of Elijah Oliver, who was Matilda’s uncle. Finally, the third stepsister, Susan Mariah, married George Walter Gregory. GWG’s father was James Elias Gregory, son of Walter Gregory and grandson of Russell Gregory.   

Primitive Baptist Church and Sign Cades Cove
There were plenty of weddings amongst the residents of the Cove (photo by Alaina O’Neal/

Yes, it gets even weirder

Can it get any weirder? Well, yes, it can. Let’s meet Walter Gregory’s wife Rutha OLIVER Gregory Burchfield. Born in 1833, Rutha was the eighth of John and Lurena Oliver. She married Walter in 1852 and they had four children before his death from the measles while serving in the Union Army in 1862. Rutha remarried to Nathaniel “Nathan” B. Burchfield in 1872. I believe Nathan’s father was Robert Burchfield who sired – according to – 19 children before he died in 1860. Find-A-Grave only has 8. Is Nathan related to Russell, who married Matilda’s stepdaughter? I haven’t been able to lock that down yet, but it does seem likely.

Can you travel your roots back to the Cove? Let us know in the comments below.

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