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The first people to fall in love with it were the Cherokee Indians, who appreciated the fertile ground and teeming forests at the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers. Noting the haze to the blue skies above the mountains, they called it "Land of the Blue Smoke," a beloved name that evolved into the Smoky Mountains.
Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto passed through in 1540 in his (unsuccessful) search for gold. Languishing for years as open hunting ground and as the occasional site of intertribal Indian games, according to legend, the town got its start in 1784, when Col. Samuel Davidson used his soldier's land grant to move his family into the
Not long after he built his family's log cabin on an embankment of Christian Creek, Cherokee hunters lured him in the woods and killed him. His wife and their child escaped on foot to Davidson's Fort, named after Davidson's father General John Davidson, 16 miles away.
Raising a group of men, Davidson's twin brother Major William Davidson and brother-in-law Colonel Daniel Smith went to retrieve Samuel Davidson's body and avenge his murder. Months later, Major Davidson and his family returned to the area and settled at the mouth of Bee Tree Creek
One thousand people, not counting Cherokee, lived in the area, according to the 1790 Census. In 1797 the name of the county seat, by then a small village at the confluence of two old Indian trails, was changed from Morristown to Asheville, named after North Carolina Governor Samuel Ashe.
The town, now containing roughly 2,500 people, went largely unscathed during the Civil War, to which it contributed a sizeable number of Confederate recruits. In the Battle of Asheville, fought in April 1865 on the hills that comprise what is now the University of North Carolina Asheville campus, a contingent of Confederate reserves and recuperating soldiers repelled Union troops.
A railroad spur brought into Asheville from Salisbury, N.C. opened the area to commerce, initiating the beginnings of slow industrial growth and steady prosperity to those who could start and find work in manufacturing plants and storage facilities. It and other railway lines ferried in thousands of sick and infirm people attracted to Asheville's reputation as a sanatorium for tuberculosis and other ailments (in 1948, F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife Zelda, locked in her room and awaiting electroshock therapy, died in a fire at an Asheville hospital).
Capitalizing on its popularity as a medical and tourist destination, the city experienced phenomenal growth in the first two decades of the 20th century, a spurt alluded to in native son Thomas Wolfe's novel "Look Homeward, Angel." The rapid rise led to ruin, however, with the 1929 stock market crash. Unlike many municipalities, the city refused to default on its debt, paying it off over the course of five decades.
Because of the economic stagnation, downtown Asheville's buildings remained largely untouched, resulting in one of the nation's largest collection of Art Deco buildings (the city is said to be second only to Miami in its concentration of the Art Deco architectural style).
Because of its close proximity to hiking, biking and rafting in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains, a health-conscious generation embraced the city in the early 1980s, turning it – and its downtown rapidly filling with cafes, restaurants and galleries – into the glittering destination that it is today.