Swain County, North Carolina

Year Established

County Seat

Significance of County Name

Population (2020)


Bryson City

David Lowry Swain


Legislative Act Creating County

First Settled / By

County Evolution by Decade

Official County Website

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1799 - Settlers of Jackson and Macon Counties

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Historical Post Offices

American Revolution

American Civil War

Significant Education Events

Alphabetical / Date Started


Coming Later

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Airports in Swain County

Maps of Swain County

Books About Swain County

Genealogy Sources

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A History of Swain County

Bryson City Dam

Swain County was formed in 1871 from Jackson and Macon counties. It was named in honor of David Lowry Swain, former governor of North Carolina and president of the University of North Carolina. It in the western section of the state and is bounded by the state of Tennessee and Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Cherokee, and Graham counties in North Carolina. The present land area is 528.10 square miles and the 2010 population was 13,981.

The first court was ordered to be held at Cold Spring Meeting House. Special commissioners were named to select a site for the court house, provided all the commissioners could agree on a certain place. If they could not agree, the county commissioners were to submit the question of selecting a place to the voters. The county commissioners were to lay out a town by the name of Charleston which was to be the county seat. In 1889, Charleston was changed to Bryson City in honor of Colonel Thaddeus Dillard Bryson. Bryson City has been the county seat ever since.

European settlement began soon after the Cherokee Indian cession of 1798. These Europeans settled in the areas along the Oconaluftee and Tukaseegee Rivers. The Cherokees surrendered the remainder of the land in a treaty on February 27, 1819. In 1871, the North Carolina General Assembly passed an Act making Swain a North Carolina county, taking land from Jackson and Macon counties. It was named for David Lowry Swain a former governor of North Carolina and president of the University of North Carolina.

Swain County Court House - Bryson City, NC

Many years ago, the Cherokee people entered what is today called Swain County. It is believed that they came from Virginia. The name Cherokee was given to them by the Choctaws and meant "People of the Cave Country." The Cherokees called themselves the "Aniyyunwiya," which to them meant "Principle People." The immigration of the Cherokee into this area took several generations. They first settled in North Carolina around their primary town, called Cottawa, which was located in the area near present-day Bryson City.

It is very likely that the first contact between the Cherokee and the Europeans was when Hernando DeSoto explored this area in 1540. At that time, the Cherokee political center was located at New Echota, on the Little Tennessee River. They were a powerful tribe and not particularly adverse to war. This fact, in addition to the rugged mountainous terrain were the principle reasons that this area of North Carolina remained unexplored and unsettled by the whites until the late 1700s.

William Bartram, an adventurous and courageous botanist, was one of the first white men to see what is present-day Swain County. In 1775, he came across the Nantahala Range and down the Briertown Mountains.

An Act of the state legislature officially opened up western North Carolina to white settlers and the land around Bryson City was first explored for possible settlement just before the turn of the century. Missionaries, traders, and a few settlers soon followed. One of the earliest was Rev. Ulrich Keener, a methodist. He was followed by the Baptist and the Quakers, who came to preach and remained to settle the land.

A treaty between the United States and the Cherokee Indians, which was ratified by Congress on March 10, 1819, deeded the Big Bear Reservation to Chief Yonah, or Big Bear. The original grant to Big Bear consisted of a mile square area and contained all the level land on both sides of the river, now including Bryson City. An Indian village, called Younaahqua, or Big Bear Springs, was located on the present site of Bryson City.

On November 1, 1819, Big Bear was deeded the land, which he then sold to Darling Beck, a white man, for the promise of $50. Legend has it that Beck plied Big Bear with "firewater" and got his signature on a deed which exchanged the land for a promise of $50. About a year later, Big Bear, claiming that he had never been paid the $50, then deeded the same 640 acres to John B. Love for a wagon and a team of horses. Love immediately took possession of the property and Beck responded by filing a suit in the courts. The property was in litigation until the late 1830s, when Love became the recognized legal owner. By this time, Beck was deceased and the final suit was between Love and Beck's widow.

In 1841, Love sold the land to John Shuler for $2,500. Shuler increased his land holdings by trading with the Indians and also by purchasing land from the state of North Carolina. In the mid-1860s, Shuler sold a part of the land to a man named Cline and divided the remainder of his holdings among his heirs. After Cline's death, the property was deeded to the commissioners of Jackson County, of which the property was then a part. After the creation of Swain County, the commissioners divided this land into lots and sold them at auction. Thus began the village, first known as Charleston.

On February 24, 1871, the North Carolina Legislature ratified an Act entitled, An Act to Establish a New County by the name of Swain." This Act did not mention the man for whom the county was named, David Lowry Swain, a native of Buncombe County, a former governor, and president of the state University for many years. The new county was alloted 553 square miles and Charleston was selected as the county seat in June.

By this time, white settlers had located in the lowlands around the rivers and creeks, and a few brave-hearted souls had moved into coves far into the mountains. These settlers included no large landowners and very few men of wealth. Predominately, they were of Scottish, Scots-Irish, or English ancestry of the yeoman class.

Old Swain County Court House - Bryson City, NC

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