Wednesday, February 6, 2013

William Holland Thomas: White Son; Cherokee Chief

White Son The Cherokee Nation found a champion in a white son adopted by the tribe, a man named William Holland Thomas.  Born February 5, 1805 in Haywood County, North Carolina, Thomas had lived close to the Cherokee as he grew up.  He served as their agent for 25 years before the American Civil War.

When President Andrew Jackson pushed through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Thomas appealed the cause of the Cherokee and earned the right for an estimated 1,000 Cherokee to remain in western North Carolina.  These became the present day Eastern Band, known also as the Oconaluftee.

Drowning Bear
Just before his death in April 1839, Cherokee chief Yonaguska (“Drowning Bear”) gathered his people and told them that he wished for his adopted son, “Little Will”, to succeed him.  The tribe honored Yonaguska’s wishes, and Thomas became the only white man to stand as chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.
Kat Smutz

William Holland Thomas never knew his father, was raised by a single mother in a lowly mountain home, lacked any formal education, but is one of the most prominent figures in Western North Carolina’s history.

Will Thomas was the commanding colonel of North Carolina's sole American Civil War legion (Thomas' Legion) and is the only white man to serve as a Cherokee chief. He is cousin to President Zachary Taylor and also cousin to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It is widely believed that without Thomas’s intervention there would not be an Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and, to this day, the Eastern Band bestows honor and gratitude to their great white chief. With the assistance of Thomas' Legion, the Union forces never subjugated Western North Carolina. Mr. Thomas owned more land than any fellow citizen in Western North Carolina's history and his holdings were even greater than the Vanderbilts.

William Holland Thomas was born on February 5, 1805, in Haywood County, North Carolina, and, unfortunately, his father had died in an accident in the fall of 1804. His parents were born in England, and his mother, Temperance Calvert, was born in New Castle on the Tyne (presently Newcastle upon Tyne), England. Will spelled his mother's maiden name Colvard, since Colvard is, however, a common spelling for Calvert, with many Colvards and Calverts being related.

The reason for the misspelling is phonetics. Temperance Calvert is the grand-niece of Lord Baltimore, the Founder of Maryland, and through her Strother lineage Temperance was cousin to Zachary Taylor, the twelfth President of the United States. Confederate President Jefferson Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of President Taylor. Taylor's son was dashing Confederate General Richard Taylor, hence, brother-in-law to Davis. General Nathan Bedford Forrest commented that if the South had more soldiers like General Taylor "we would have licked the Yankees long ago!"

Will's father, Richard Thomas, was of Welsh descent. During the American Revolution, Richard fought the British at Kings Mountain, and, while serving in the 11th Virginia Regiment, Richard Thomas was captured by the British and was a Prisoner of War from August 1, 1776, to September 1, 1777. He either escaped or was released and rejoined the 11th Virginia Regiment and continued fighting the British. Like many Revolutionary War veterans, Richard Thomas accepted a North Carolina Land Grant in Western North Carolina.

During his youth, Will excelled in biblical studies and mathematics, and, while employed at a local trading post, a Cherokee co-worker taught Will the Cherokee language. William was eventually adopted by the Cherokees, and he learned their customs as well as how to write in Cherokee. He also learned their legends, history, and culture. Furthermore, at the age of 16, Will initiated his first business (store) and perfected his organizational, leadership, and managerial skills. With a volume of law books, Thomas also became a self-taught and persuasive lawyer; acquired knowledge that would prove critical to the Cherokees' survival.

Cherokee Chief Yonaguska (Drowning Bear) referred to Will as Wil-Usdi or "Little Will." Yonaguska was considered the most prominent Chief among the Eastern Cherokees and he also referred to Little Will as his son. Years later, someone read a few chapters of the "Gospel according to Matthew" to  Yonaguska. After hearing the scriptures, the Chief replied, "It is a strange that the white people are not any better after having this so long." William and Chief Yonaguska were strong advocates of the Temperance Society, and the Cherokees eventually signed a pledge stating that they would abstain from spirits (alcohol). Any Indian that partook in alcoholic consumption was subject to a fine or whipping. Many Indians were Christians, they attended the Methodist Church, and the largest concentration of Cherokee Christians resided along the Valley River and near Murphy. Their Christian worship resembled modern-day Pentecostalism and was celebrated with "dancing and shouting,"  recorded William Stringfield.

Chief, Intercessor, Advisor, Agent, and Lawyer


For nearly five decades Will Thomas played a crucial role in Cherokee affairs.

During the 1835 Treaty of New Echota negotiations, Indian Agent Thomas was in Washington* and he successfully lobbied for the right of a number of Cherokees to remain in North Carolina. These Indians are the present-day Eastern Band; they were also called Oconaluftee, Lufty and Qualla Indians. His lobbying in Washington had secured the preservation of the Eastern Cherokees from the forced march west or "Trail of Tears" in 1838, which the Lufty refer to as Nunahi-Duna-Dlo-Hilu-I or Trail Where They Cried. Consequently, during the forced removal, William provided safe haven for over 1000 Cherokees. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Thomas's intervention is currently reflected with over 10,000 Cherokees residing in Western North Carolina. It is widely believed that without his intervention there would not be an Eastern Band.

*Although David (Davy) Crockett allied himself with General Andrew Jackson against the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the Tennessee Congressman strongly and openly opposed President Jackson's (7th President 1829-1837) Indian removal policies, which ultimately cost Crockett his political career. Consequently, Crockett relocated to Texas and died in the Battle of the Alamo.

During 1839-1840, Will was in Washington fighting for the claims and rights of the Cherokees. It was also in 1839 when Chief Yonaguska appointed his adopted son Will as Cherokee Chief. Yonaguska  believed Will was the best choice and that Thomas also held the Cherokees' best interests at heart.  Thomas loved the Cherokees, they were his family, and even when the Confederacy was doomed in 1864, Colonel Thomas pleaded with South Carolina officials to immediately send food and clothing  (basic necessities) to the Western North Carolina Cherokees, lest they starve (O.R. Series 1, 53, pp. 313-314**). Thomas's land purchases constitute much of the Qualla Boundary, and Paint Town, Bird Town, Yellow Hill, Big Cove and Wolf Town were also named by Thomas. Near the Qualla Boundary a monument dedicated to Thomas reflects that he was "the best friend the Cherokees ever had."

**Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; hereinafter cited as O.R.


In the late winter of 1839, while Thomas was in Washington, Yonaguska died. Thomas learned about it in April. Before his death, the old chief had summoned the men in his band to form a circle around his pallet in the Soco Council House. They accepted his recommendation that Little Will be allowed to succeed him. 

Yonaguska then advised them to abstain from drinking liquor and never to move west. William Holland Thomas became Chief of the Oconaluftee Indians. He was the only white man to hold that office. E. Stanly Godbolt, Jr. and Mattie U. Russell, Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William Holland Thomas, 40-8.

Entrepreneur and Husband

Will was also a businessman and his extensive travel experiences promoted his profound vision for lucrative southern turnpikes and railroads. He spent numerous years lobbying wealthy business owners, banks, and the state senate to support constructing the transcontinental railroad, only to see his plans and dreams derailed prior to the Civil War. He often stated to his wife that his dream was to build a transcontinental railroad, because he also believed it was necessary for the South's survival. Many sources declare that William Thomas owned vast amounts of real-estate. His holdings included over 150,000 acres, with thousands of acres allocated for the welfare of the Cherokees. Although a very wealthy man, his selflessness and profound generosity kept him in debt and on the constant brink of bankruptcy. For months and sometimes years, many Indians purchased goods on credit at Thomas's stores. However, although the Cherokees were hard workers, employment in the region was scarce. As a consequence many were unable to compensate Thomas, but even when Will didn't receive payment he continued to meet the Indians' needs.

He didn't display much affection for the so-called fancy city women because he believed they were too worldly and self-centered. Senator Thomas found solace in smoking cigars, fishing, and occasionally attending the theatre. Eventually, at the age of 51, the bachelor William had a romantic relationship with the shy, 24 year old, Sarah Jane Burney Love. Their marriage bond reflects that they married on June 30, 1857, at Sarah's home in Haywood County, with Reverend Banister Turner officiating.

Sarah, affectionately referred to as "Sallie," was the daughter of William's long time friend and former business partner James Robert Love. She was also the granddaughter of the Revolutionary War hero Colonel Robert Love, the founder of Waynesville, North Carolina. Sarah's father, James Robert Love, was also a prosperous businessman, vast land owner, and a respected lawyer in North Carolina. The Loves resided in White Sulphur Springs, near Waynesville, and they equaled the status of Chief Thomas. William and Sarah begat three children: William H. Thomas, Jr. (1858-1898), James Robert Thomas (1860-1936), and Sallie Love Thomas (1862-1954), and many of their descendents currently reside in Western North Carolina. (Also see: Cherokees Adopt William Holland Thomas's Descendants)

Thomas L. Clingman wrote to his close friend Thomas: "As to the dark eyed girl do not hesitate to go totally forward. I hope to get to your wedding soon." E. Stanly Godbolt, Jr. and Mattie U. Russell, Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William Holland Thomas, 79-4.

Thomas Lanier Clingman was a prominent United States Senator representing North Carolina and he also commanded the 25th North Carolina Infantry Regiment and Clingman's Brigade. Colonel Thomas Lanier Clingman, later promoted to brigadier-general, was an ardent lawyer and one of the most outspoken politicians of his era. His proslavery and states' rights positions climaxed with his quote to Congress: "Do us justice and we stand with you; attempt to trample on us and we separate." General Robert E. Lee's trust and esteem for General Clingman were vividly reflected when General Lee ordered Clingman to defend Richmond, Virginia. Later, at Lee's request, General Clingman and his "Bonnie Blue Boys" greatly assisted in routing the Union forces at the Battle of Cold Harbor. General Ulysses S. Grant was a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican-American War, and he wrote of Cold Harbor, "I regret this assault more than any one I ever ordered." General Grant was elected the Eighteenth President of the United States.

North Carolina Senator (1848-1861) and Confederate Colonel (1862-1865)

Thomas displayed a rare ability because he earned the respect and loyalty of the Cherokee and Western North Carolinian. As an adopted Cherokee, Cherokee agent, and Cherokee chief, Thomas earned the confidence of the Cherokee; as a North Carolina state senator, Thomas gained the vote and trust of the Western North Carolinian; as a self-taught lawyer, Thomas even convinced Washington to exempt 1000 Cherokees from the Trail of Tears.

Will, a North Carolina State Senator from Jackson County, was also one of the largest slave owners in Western North Carolina. Jackson County, ironically, was named in honor of President Andrew Jackson; he had signed the Cherokees' forced removal policy. According to archives and census records, Thomas owned less than 50 slaves (Jackson County, North Carolina, 1860 Slave Census) before their emancipation in 1865. Many of the slaves were his friends and he even entrusted one slave to conduct commerce and business transactions on his behalf.

William Thomas was not a Fire-Eater, he initially opposed secession, and during the war a $5,000 bounty was offered to anyone that would assassinate the Confederate Chief. While reconnoitering Union positions in Chattanooga, Thomas captured a vidette and he wrote to his wife on June 25, 1862 and stated, "The Indians say as I took the first prisoner each of them must take one to be even."

Thomas strongly believed in defensive guerrilla warfare and, since the Union army typically outnumbered the Confederate army by more than two-to-one, Thomas wisely opposed the traditional Napoleonic Linear Tactics. 

William Holland Thomas to his wife, January 1, 1861

North Carolina cannot remain much longer stationary; she must write her destiny either under the flag of Mr. Lincoln and aid to coerce the south or unite with the south to resist and defend their rights.

John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War, 46-7.

Thomas Clingman to William H. Thomas, January 9, 1861

The obvious policy and purpose of the Black Republicans is to keep the South unprepared and divided until they can get into power, and then their intention is unmistakable — to use all the power of the government to compel the South to submit to their domination, to the extent even of abolishing slavery, should civil war afford them a tolerable pretext. If, however, North Carolina, Virginia and the border States will act at once, they may, by preserving a united South, avert the evils of civil war. John C. Inscoe, Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina, 225.

 William H. Thomas to his wife, June 17, 1861

The mountains of Western North Carolina would be the center of the Confederacy; we shall then have one of the most prosperous countries in the world. It will become connected with every part of the South by railroad. It will then become the center of manufacturing for the Southern market. The place where the southern people will spend their money, educate their children and very probably make laws for the nation. John C. Inscoe, Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina, 228.

Alpha Male and Type "A"

During the Civil War, William Thomas was court-martialed three times.

Regarding Thomas's court-martials, President Davis wrote that they were "disingenuous and destructive to the Confederate cause."

Will Thomas's Civil War Strategy was the basis for his court-martials. In the summer of 1863, while assigned to Brig. Gen. Alfred Eugene "Old Mudwall" Jackson's command, Colonel Thomas was arrested and awaiting court-martial. Colonel Thomas' Legion had been reorganized into Jackson's Brigade, and Jackson's Brigade consisted of Thomas' Legion only (O.R., 1, 29, pt. II, p. 812 and O.R., 1,  33, p. 1137). Was it a legion or a brigade? This confusing and conflicting command structure was highly contested, so General Jackson had Thomas arrested in June of 1863 and charged with "disobedience of orders." Thomas was sent to Knoxville, Tennessee, awaiting trial, but Union General Ambrose E. Burnside's East Tennessee invasion intervened and, as a consequence, Thomas' Legion was reassigned thus defusing the situation.

Another court-martial was to occur on February 23, 1864, because of the capture of General Robert B. Vance, brother to North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance. Leaving Colonel Thomas at Gatlinburg, General Vance proceeded to Sevierville, Tenn., and was captured because he failed to post pickets and not as a result of Colonel Thomas disobeying orders. General Vance remained in a Federal prison until the war ended and even conceded that his capture was a misunderstanding of orders. However, regarding the capture of Vance, Colonel John B. Palmer  stated that Lt. Colonel James L. Henry, and not Thomas, should be court-martialed (O.R., 1, 32, pt. 1, p. 76). James Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War, believed Vance was partially responsible for his own capture. Regarding Vance's capture, Jefferson Davis wrote that "no action is practicable which seems proper" (O.R., 32, 1, p. 77). And, on behalf of Thomas, President Jefferson Davis intervened, the charges were dismissed, and no trial was held.

Furthermore, prior to the war, the Vances were bitter rivals of Senator Thomas and they even held opposite views on the ad valorem tax and senate railroad bills which promoted their bitter rivalry. According to official records and reports, Thomas was not responsible for Robert Vance's capture. However, ignoring official reports, Zebulon believed Thomas was culpable and used his brother's capture as an opportunity to punish his rival. Zebulon Vance initially commanded the valiant 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment which suffered the greatest loss of any regiment during the Civil War. Zebulon was North Carolina's Governor (1862-1865 and 1876-1878) and also served in the United States Senate  (1879-1894).

On May 11, 1864, Colonel Thomas was charged with receiving deserters from the 65th North Carolina Regiment between September 1863 and April 1864. However, on this occasion General Jackson was relieved of his command and sent to the Army of Tennessee. Again, there was no court-martial. In October of 1864 the trial resumed and Colonel Thomas was found guilty of all charges. This court-martial combined a prior court-martial with four additional charges. As with prior charges, Colonel Thomas appealed to his dear friend, President Jefferson Davis. Mr. Davis once more reversed the charges and Colonel Thomas was exonerated.

In 1865 William Holland Thomas signed the "Oath of Loyalty to the United States." However, with a prewar taxable property value exceeding $20,000, a 'Presidential Pardon' was also required. President Andrew Johnson, a friend of Will Thomas for twenty-five years, granted the pardon. The seventeenth President and North Carolina born Andrew Johnson granted Will his pardon in the middle of 1866.

The Golden Years?

At the end of the Civil War and advanced in years, William Holland Thomas was emotionally, financially, and physically destroyed (also see William Holland Thomas: Insanity and Syphilis?).

Initially, in 1867, he was admitted to the North Carolina Insane Asylum at Raleigh and diagnosed with Dementia. Subsequently, on May 12, 1883, Thomas was admitted to the Western North Carolina Insane Asylum at Morganton (currently Broughton Hospital, it catered to western North Carolina, and is approximately 200 miles west of Raleigh). Whether he volunteered or was forced to enter the asylum, he spent most of his latter years at the asylum or under close supervision. There were times when he was placed on what is commonly referred to as house-arrest in his home near Whittier, North Carolina.

Ironically, while Mr. Thomas was a state senator a bill was placed on his desk; it was a proposal to create and fund Broughton Hospital.

On October 1, 1874, Will's mother Temperance died at the age of 100. His darling wife Sallie died at the age of 45 on May 15, 1877. Within one week of Sallie's passing, William was committed to the "Asylum" where he spent his remaining years. Further irony plagued the Colonel, he petitioned the Governor of North Carolina for his release. Unfortunately, once again, Zebulon Vance was Governor of North Carolina.At the age of eighty-eight the great Cherokee Chief, Little Will, went to his final resting place at 2:30 A.M. on May 10, 1893 (28 years earlier, on May 10, 1865, Union troops captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis near Irwinville, Georgia). Two hundred years after Little Will's birth, the Tar Heel State continues to honor and celebrate the beloved Chief with Senate Joint Resolution 1171.

The Union forces never subjugated Western North Carolina, and, to this day, the Eastern Band bestows honor and gratitude to their great white chief. My ancestors were friends with William Holland Thomas and several served in Thomas' Legion of Indians and Highlanders.

Recommended Reading: Storm in the Mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers
Related Reading:
William Holland Thomas Papers
William Holland Thomas's Cherokee Bodyguard or Lifeguard
William Holland Thomas: Insanity and Syphilis?
William Holland Thomas [Museum of the Cherokee Indian]
William Holland Thomas [N.C. Museum of History]
William Holland Thomas [Official Eastern Band of Cherokee]
William Holland Thomas [Hunter Library, Western Carolina University]
William Holland Thomas: Senate Joint Resolution 1171
Cherokees Adopt William Holland Thomas's Descendants
Letter written by William Holland Thomas
General Alfred Eugene Jackson
Lt. Colonel William Stringfield Papers
Lt. Colonel James R. Love II
Lt. Colonel William C. Walker
Lt. Colonel James A. McKamy
Captain Stephen Whitaker Papers
Captain James W. Terrell Papers
Several Rare Western North Carolina Civil War Papers
Jefferson Davis Expresses Confidence in Thomas' Legion

Are You Cherokee? [Included: Qualifications and 1924 Baker Roll]
William Holland Thomas, Sarah Love Thomas, and Lt. Colonel William Stringfield (Graves)
Temperance Calvert Thomas (Grave)
Lt. Colonel William W. Stringfield (Narrative, Papers, and Grave)
Lt. Colonel William C. Walker (Narrative and Grave)
Captain Willis Parker (Narrative and Grave)
Captain Garner N. Loudermilk (Narrative and Grave)

Digital Library of Georgia; Museum of the Cherokee Indian; Official Website of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation (; Vernon H. Crow, Storm in the Mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers; Vernon H. Crow, The Justness of Our Cause; Duke University; University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill); University of Tennessee (Knoxville); North Carolina Division of Archives and History; National Archives and Records Administration; Library of Congress; State Library of North Carolina; North Carolina Museum of History; Tennessee State Library and Archives; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; The Thomas Legion Papers: (; Western Carolina University; North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources; E. Stanly Godbolt, Jr. and Mattie U. Russell, Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William Holland Thomas; The Civil War Diary of William W. Stringfield, Johnson City, TN: East Tennessee Historical Society Publications; John R. Finger, The Eastern Band of Cherokees; Paul A. Thomsen, Rebel Chief: The Motley Life of Colonel William Holland Thomas C.S.A.; Christopher M. Watford, The Civil War in North Carolina: Soldiers' and Civilians' Letters and Diaries, 1861-1865, Volume 2: The Mountains; John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War; D. H. Hill, Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865; Weymouth T. Jordan and Louis H. Manarin, North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865; Walter Clark, Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-1865; National Park Service, American Civil War; The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Rice University; William R. Trotter, Bushwhackers: The Civil War in North Carolinas, The Mountains; John C. Inscoe, Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina; Sean Michael O'Brien, Mountain Partisans: Guerrilla Warfare in the Southern Appalachians, 1861-1865; Noel C. Fisher, War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869; The Sylva Herald; Smoky Mountain News; Jackson County Genealogy Society; Cashiers Historical Society; Macon County Historical Society & Museum; American Neurological Association; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Victoria Casey McDonald, A Pictorial History: The African-Americans of Jackson County; General Assembly of North Carolina, Session 2005;;;;

© 2005, 2006, 2007 Matthew D. Parker. All Rights Reserved.
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