Mount Jefferson lies along the drainage divide between the north and south forks of the New River—one of the oldest rivers in North America and in the world. This drainage system had an important influence on the size and shape of the mountain.
Mount Jefferson and its nearby peaks are remnants of a once lofty, mountainous region that existed throughout much of the western part of the state. Weathering and the erosive action of streams throughout millions of years wore away the softer, less resistant rocks. More resistant rocks, including the amphibolite and metagraywacke of Mount Jefferson, were slower to erode. These and other rocks comprise the peaks standing above their surrounding plateau.
Though there is no evidence of permanent Native American settlements in the Ashe County area, game was plentiful and both the Cherokees and the Shawnees claimed it as a hunting ground. The first settlers in the area were from Virginia. Few North Carolinians, other than adventurous individuals like Daniel Boone, had ventured westward beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Before the revolution, Mount Jefferson was known as Panther Mountain, perhaps because of a legend that tells of a panther that attacked and killed a child there. Area residents gave the mountain other names until 1952 when Mount Jefferson received its official name. The mountain's name was chosen in honor of Thomas Jefferson and his father, Peter, who owned land in the area and surveyed the nearby North Carolina-Virginia border in 1749. Around the time of the Civil War, legend holds that the "caves" beneath Mount Jefferson's ledges served as hideouts for escaped slaves traveling to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
It wasn't until the 1930s that people took an interest in creating widespread access to the mountain. Mount Jefferson State Park had its beginnings when the Works Progress Administration constructed a road of little more than two miles to the summit of Mount Jefferson. In 1939, local officials wanted to have the road improved, but the state could not provide funds for a private road. Thus, two prominent local citizens donated 26 acres of land for a public park and thereby attained the road improvements.
In 1941, efforts to have the local park accepted as a state park failed, and in 1952 the area became a state forest wayside park. Continued efforts to attain state park status were unsuccessful as standards adopted in 1955 required that a state park contain a minimum of 400 acres. Undaunted by continuous obstacles, local citizens obtained a 300-acre donation and succeeded in raising funds to buy an additional 164 acres for the park. As a result of their determination, Mount Jefferson became a state park in October 1956.