William Holland Thomas, whose unusual life story was fictionalized by Charles Frazier in his 2006 novel Thirteen Moons, was born in 1805 in Haywood County, the son of Richard and Temperance Thomas. Shortly after the death of his father in 1818, Thomas began working as an apprentice in a store owned by Felix Walker near Qualla Town. Within five years, at age eighteen, Thomas opened his own store in the town. By 1828, Thomas operated three stores in Haywood County and owned several large tracts of land.
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As a result of his business operations, Thomas learned the Cherokee language and became close friends of Yonaguska, principal chief of the Cherokee who remained under white rule after the land cessions of the Treaty of 1819. As a result, the Cherokee adopted Thomas and gave him the name Wil-Usdi (Little Will) because of his small size. Shortly thereafter, he began studying law, eventually becoming the tribe’s attorney in 1831.
The Treaty of New Echota in 1835 called for all Cherokee to be moved west. However, many of the North Carolina Cherokee lived on land provided to them in an earlier treaty that was not part of the Cherokee land cession. The individuals asked Thomas to represent them in negotiations with the United States government. In Washington, D. C., Thomas successfully received permission for those tribal members to remain in North Carolina. They became the core of the Eastern Band living at the Cherokee Reservation. Thomas also played a role in negotiations with Tsali and his family, and was present at Tsali’s funeral in 1841.
In 1839, Yonaguka persuaded his tribe to appoint William Thomas chief. For the next two decades, Thomas acted as an advocate for Cherokee rights stating, “The Indians are as much entitled to their rights as I am to mine.” He also purchased 50,000 acres in his own name (North Carolina law prohibited Native Americans from buying land) and then gave it to the Cherokee. Today his purchases constitute much of the Qualla Boundary and includes the communities of Paint Town, Bird Town, Yellow Hill, Big Cove and Wolf Town.
Thomas was elected to the state senate in 1848, and served six terms. He headed the Committee on Internal Improvements, and used his influence to organize several plank road projects in western North Carolina. However, by the 1850s failed business investments resulted in Thomas being deeply in debt.
The Civil War provided new opportunities for Thomas. In May 1861, he served as a representative for Haywood County, and voted for secession at the state convention. He persuaded the Eastern Band to support the Confederacy, and in April 1862 entered the Confederate army, commanding two companies of Cherokee soldiers. Shortly thereafter, they were ordered to eastern Tennessee. In September the unit took part in a skirmish at Baptist Gap, Tennessee, in which Lieutenant John Astooga Stoga, considered “the perfect specimen of Indian manhood,” was killed. In response the Cherokees scalped several of the Union dead. By 1863, Thomas commanded Thomas’s Legion, a unit that consisted of two battalions of both white and Cherokee soldiers. His legion saw active service in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. In addition, they fought extensively in the Shenandoah Valley during the summer and fall of 1864. Having sustained terrible losses in the Shenandoah Campaign, the Legion was ordered back to North Carolina to recruit. By April 1865, nearly 1,000 men comprised the unit, including 400 Cherokee. These men participated in one of the last skirmishes of the war at Waynesville before surrendering along with General James G. Martin on May 10, 1865.
After the war, Thomas’s personal life began to collapse. He was declared insane in March 1867 and confined to the state asylum in Raleigh. His businesses collapsed, and creditors began taking his land. In 1869, the Cherokee County sheriff sold 115,000 acres of Thomas’s land at public auction. For the next thirty years, Thomas lived in and out of mental hospitals. In 1887, he aided Smithsonian Institute researcher James Mooney in gathering information about the Cherokee. Six years later, Thomas died in an insane asylum in Morganton. He was survived by his wife and three children. He is remembered today in the outdoor drama Unto These Hills and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian displays the battle flag of Thomas's Legion as part of Cherokee heritage.
Matthew W. Brown and Michael W. Coffey, eds., North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865: A Roster, XVI (2008)
Vernon H. Crow, Storm in the Mountains: Thomas’ Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers (1982)
Walter Clark, ed., Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina, III (1901)
E. Stanly Godbold Jr. and Mattie U. Russell, Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William Holland Thomas (1990)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, VI, 25—sketch by Gordon B. McKinney
Duane H. King, ed., The Cherokee: A Troubled History (1979)
William S. Powell, Encyclopedia of North Carolina History (2006)
William H. Thomas Papers, Manuscript Department, Duke University Library, Durham