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The Walker Family of the Great Smoky Mountains: Inspiration for a New Historical Novel

September 26, 2023


Deep in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee sits an old, weathered cabin that was once home to the Walker family. I first saw the ancient-looking, two-room dwelling in the fall of 2018 when my husband and I headed to the mountains to enjoy the fall foliage. We’d heard about the “Walker Sisters” cabin and set out on a mile-and-a-half hike through the woods to find it. When we finally made it to the clearing and beheld the timeworn home, I knew I had to set a book there someday. That book, I’m pleased to say, is my new release, Appalachian Song.

A cozy home in Little Greenbrier

John Walker and Margaret Jane King became engaged in 1860. Yet before the couple could marry, the Civil War broke out. Despite Tennessee’s secession, John fought for the Union Army and was even captured and held prisoner. Thankfully, he survived and returned home. John married Margaret, whose family came from Little Greenbrier, an area near present-day Gatlinburg. Margaret’s family lived in a split-log cabin built in the 1840s, and it’s believed that John, Margaret, and their quickly growing family moved into it after Father King passed away. In 1877, John added a kitchen, sleeping loft, and porch.

Through the years, Margaret gave birth to eleven children—seven girls and four boys. The boys grew up and left home, but only one sister—Sarah Caroline—married. The other six sisters remained “spinsters” and lived out their lives in their childhood mountain home.

When John passed away in 1921, his six unmarried daughters along with his youngest son, Giles, inherited the property. One of the sisters died ten years later, and Giles deeded his share over to his remaining sisters. The five remaining Walker sisters were known as hardworking mountain women. Instead of looking to modern-day conveniences, they did all the farm work themselves, including tending livestock as well as a huge garden. They raised sheep and washed, carded, spun, and wove the wool into clothing. They also kept an herb garden for mountain remedies, including horseradish, boneset, and peppermint for healing teas. One of the sisters was quoted saying, “Our land produces everything we need except sugar, soda, coffee, and salt.”

The National Park changes everything

The Walker sisters’ simple, quiet life, however, was threatened when the US Government created the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Tennessee and North Carolina were given permission by Congress to raise money to purchase nearly a half million acres for the park, most of which was privately owned. Refusing to leave their 122-acre mountain home, the Walker sisters held out until 1940. Once the park was officially dedicated, the sisters agreed to sell their property for $4,750 with the stipulation that they be allowed to live in their home until their deaths. Unable to farm or hunt, the sisters were forced to find a new lifestyle to survive. People from all over the country flocked to the park and visited what became known as Five Sisters Cove. The sisters welcomed the curious newcomers and sold handmade items to tourists. They were even featured in the Saturday Evening Post in April 1946, showcasing their mountain lifestyle to the rest of the country.

By 1951, only two sisters remained on the homestead. Greeting tourists became too much for the elderly women, and they asked the park superintendent to remove the “Visitors Welcome” sign. The last sister passed away in 1966 and the home became an historic landmark in the park.

A novel inspired by the Walker Sisters

Although Appalachian Song is not based on the lives of the Walker Sisters, their story served as inspiration as I created the Jenkins sisters. Like many mountain women, including Margaret Jane Walker, Bertie Jenkins serves her community as a midwife. Out of all the mothers she’s tended, none affects her more than the young teenager who shows up on her doorstep, injured, afraid, and expecting, one warm June day in 1943. As Bertie and her sisters tenderly nurture Songbird back to health, the bond between the childless midwife and the motherless teen grows strong. But soon Songbird is forced to make a heartbreaking decision that will tear this little family apart.

With adoption and the theme of “I choose you” at the heart of Appalachian Song, combined with the fascinating history of the Walker Sisters, I believe readers will enjoy this peek at life in the mountains of Appalachia.