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William Holland Thomas

William Holland Thomas (February 5, 1805May 10, 1893) was a Cherokee chief and an officer in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.

Becoming Cherokee at heart

William Holland Thomas was born to Temperance Calvert Thomas and Richard Thomas in a log house on Raccoon Creek about two miles (3 km) east of Mount Prospect, later called Waynesville, North Carolina. He was connected to the Calverts, the founders of Maryland, through his mother, the grand-niece of Lord Baltimore and to President Zachary Taylor on his father’s side. Thomas’ father drowned shortly before his birth. As a young teenager, Thomas was employed by US Congressman Felix Walker to clerk at a trading post in Qualla Town. Thomas signed a three-year contract in return for $100, board, and clothing. At the trading post he quickly became acquainted with the Cherokees, learned their language, and was befriended by Chief Yonaguska, who adopted Thomas into his band and gave him the Cherokee name “Will-udsi” or “Little Will.” Around 1820 Walker was forced to close his stores, and, since he was unable to pay Thomas, he gave him a set of law books. At the time there were no bar exams to pass, and anyone who read law was allowed to practice. Thomas soon became well-versed in frontier law and was asked by Yonaguska to become the Cherokees’ legal representative in 1831. By that time Thomas had opened his own trading post for the Qualla Town Cherokee, and he later opened several other trading posts in Western North Carolina.

Coming forth for his people

In 1835 when the Treaty of New Echota was being negotiated, Thomas had his first real opportunity to represent the Cherokees legally. Some Cherokees had received reservations of by an earlier treaty and no longer resided in what was considered the Cherokee Nation. Although, technically, the treaty should not apply to them, still the Qualla Cherokees were apprehensive. Seeking assurances, the “reservation” Cherokees and some others asked Thomas to represent them in Washington, D.C. There, Thomas was able to get acknowledgment of the right of a number of Cherokees to remain in North Carolina, and these Cherokees became the core of the present-day Eastern Band. In 1839, just before he died, Yonaguska persuaded the Cherokees to accept his adopted son as their chief. During the 1840s and 1850s Thomas was constantly trying to secure recognition of Cherokees as citizens of North Carolina. He also used Cherokee money, as well as his own, to purchase land for them in his name. Today his purchases constitute much of the Qualla Boundary, and the various sections (Paint Town, Bird Town, Yellow Hill, Big Cove and Wolf Town) were named by Thomas. In 1848, he was elected state senator, and he was re-elected every two years through 1860.

Hero & warrior in the South

When the Civil War broke out and Thomas realized that neutrality was impossible, he agreed to organize the Cherokee to serve in the Confederacy. The 400 men he recruited to form two Cherokee companies, along with six companies of whites, comprised the famous Thomas Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders, operating as an independent command directly under the Confederate Army's Department of East Tennessee. The Legion operated primarily in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, except for a short period when they were deployed to the Shenandoah Valley.

Thomas' Legion was North Carolina's sole legion and was never actually defeated by Union troops. In May 1865, Union soldiers controlled Waynesville and the rest of Western North Carolina. On May 6, 1865, Thomas' Legion fired "The Last Shot" of the Civil War east of the Mississippi River in White Sulphur Springs, North Carolina. It had the distinction of capturing a city (Waynesville) then voluntarily ceasing from hostilities. In fact, the Legion was actually forced to capture the city in order to surrender.

Colonel Thomas and his men controlled the mountains surrounding Waynesville, and during the night built hundreds of campfires so it would appear to Union troops that thousands of Indians and Confederates were camped there. To ensure the right effect, the Cherokees punctuated the nights with “chilling warhoops” and “hideous yells.” The following morning Thomas and about 20 Cherokees entered Waynesville to demand the Yankees’ surrender. On May 9, 1865, after a Union officer stated that Lee had surrendered a month earlier and a Yankee surrender to Thomas would only bring in more Union troops, Colonel Thomas reluctantly agreed to lay down his arms. The Civil War was over, but the last shots in North Carolina had been fired in Waynesville.

The aftermath

After the war, William Holland Thomas went home to his wife, Sarah Love Thomas, their three children, and those Cherokees who still looked to him as chief. He received a pardon from President Andrew Johnson in 1866 and hoped to reenter politics and business. Thomas's mental condition began to deteriorate, however. According to historians John Ehle (The Trail of Tears), Matthew D. Parker, and Vernon H. Crow (Storm in the Mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers), Thomas may have been suffering from what was later known as Alzheimer's disease. He soon found himself hopelessly in debt. Compounding his worries was the responsibility to care for his beloved Cherokee, who faced a devastating smallpox epidemic after the war. In March 1867, Thomas was declared insane and placed in a state institution in Raleigh, North Carolina. From then until the end of his life, Thomas lived in and out of mental hospitals. In 1887 Thomas assisted Smithsonian Institution ethnologist James Mooney when he went to western North Carolina to gather information on the Cherokee.

Legacy of a faithful servant

William Holland Thomas died in the state mental hospital in Morganton, North Carolina (Burke County, North Carolina) and was buried on a hilltop in Waynesville, North Carolina. 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 the Cherokee heritage.

Fictional accounts

Will Cooper, the main character in Charles Frazier's 2006 novel Thirteen Moons, is based in part on William Holland Thomas. In the Author's Note at the end of the novel, Frazier states that Will Cooper is not William Holland Thomas, "although they do share some DNA." Frazier also wrote the novel Cold Mountain, which won the 1997 National Book Award.

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