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Geologically, Cades Cove is a type of valley known as a "limestone window," created by erosion that removed the older Precambrian sandstone, exposing the younger Paleozoic limestone beneath. More weathering-resistant formations, such as the Cades sandstone which underlies Rich Mountain to the north and the Elkmont and Thunderhead sandstones which form the Smokies crest to the south surround the cove, leaving it relatively isolated within the Great Smokies. As with neighboring limestone windows such as Tuckaleechee to the north and Wear Cove to the east, the weathering of the limestone produced deep, fertile soil, making Cades Cove attractive to early farmers.
The majority of the rocks that make up Cades Cove are unaltered sedimentary rocks formed between 340 million and 570 million years ago during the Ordovician period. The Precambrian rocks that comprise the high ridges surrounding the cove are Ocoee Supergroup sandstones, formed approximately 1 billion years ago. The mountains themselves were formed between 200 million and 400 million years ago during the Appalachian orogeny, when the North American and African plates collided, thrusting the rock formations upward.
 Gregory's Cave
The fracturing and weathering of the limestone and sandstone in Cades Cove has led to the formation of several caves in the vicinity, the two largest of which are Gregorys Cave and Bull Cave.
The entrance to Gregory's Cave is approximately 10 feet (3.0 m) wide and 4 feet (1.2 m) high. The cave consists primarily of one large passage that averages 20 to 55 feet (17 m) wide and 15 feet (4.6 m) high. This passage is 435 feet (133 m) long and a side passage to the right (south) is developed about 300 feet (91 m) from the entrance. This side passage ends after about 100 feet (30 m). In the vicinity of this side passage are "Talley Marks" on the wall, which were typically left by saltpeter miners. The dirt on this side of the cave has been excavated and removed and pick marks are still visible in the dirt. Saltpeter mining occurred in this region from the late 18th century through the Civil War, so this mining activity must have occurred sometime between 1818, when settlers arrived in Cades Cove and 1865, the end of the Civil War.
Gregory's Cave is the only cave in the national park that was ever developed as a commercial cave. The cave was opened to the public in July 1925. After the Gregory property was bought for the national park in 1935, the Gregory family was given a "lifetime dowry" and the owner, J. J. Gregory's wife Elvira, was allowed to live there until she died on March 26, 1943. One of her sons was allowed to remain on the property until he harvested his crop in the fall of 1943. After 1943, the property was completely owned by the National Park Service.
Donald K. MacKay, a geologist with the National Park Service, reported that the Gregory family still showing the cave commercially as late as 1935. At that time the admission price was 50 cents for adults and children were admitted free.
During its history as a commercial cave, Gregory's Cave had walkways, which were made of wood in some places, and electric lights. Wesley Herman Gregory, son of J.
Gregory's Cave is now securely gated and entrance is by permit only from the National Park Service. Entrance is generally restricted to scientific researchers.
By 1797 (and probably much earlier), the Cherokee had established a settlement in Cades Cove known as "Tsiya'hi," or "Otter Place." This village, which may have been little more than a seasonal hunting camp, was located somewhere along the flats of Cove Creek.
Cades Cove was named after a Tsiya'hi leader known as Chief Kade. Little is known of Chief Kade, although his existence was verified by a European trader named Peter Snider (1776–1867), who settled nearby Tuckaleechee Cove. Abrams Creek, which flows through the cove, was named after another local chief, Abraham of Chilhowee. A now-discredited theory suggested that the cove was named after Abraham's wife, Kate.
The Treaty of Calhoun (1819) ended all Cherokee claims to the Smokies, and Tsiya'hi was abandoned shortly thereafter. The Cherokee would linger in the surrounding forests, however, occasionally attacking settlers until 1838 when they were removed to the Oklahoma Territory (see Trail of Tears