||Will Thomas figures prominently in Cherokee history as one of the most important forces in the establishment of a Cherokee homeland on the Qualla Boundary. As the first and only white man to serve as a Cherokee chief, he was uniquely qualified to represent the Eastern Band at a time when Indians were forbidden to own land. Later, as a state senator, Thomas lobbied in Raleigh for Cherokee interests. He is described as “the best friend the Cherokees ever had” on a monument dedicated to him near the Qualla Boundary.
Becoming Cherokee at Heart:
William Holland Thomas was born February 5, 1805, in a log house on Raccoon Creek about two miles east of Mount Prospect, later called Waynesville, North Carolina. He was connected to the Calverts, the founders of Maryland, through his mother, 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 U.S. 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, and learned their language. He 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 Cherokees, 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 640 acres 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. Thomas’ men experienced their baptism of fire at the Battle of Deep Creek in 1864. Except for one other minor battle at Baptist Gap, the Cherokees served primarily as guards and rounded up deserters.However, Thomas and his Legion are credited with firing the last shots of the Civil War in North Carolina. In May of 1865, Union soldiers controlled Waynesville and the rest of Western North Carolina. Colonel Thomas and his men slipped into the mountains surrounding Waynesville by night and built hundreds of campfires so it would appear to Union troops that thousands of Indians and Confederates were camped there. To insure 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. After the Union officer pointed out 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.
Legacy of a Faithful Servant:
When Thomas died in May of 1893, he was buried on a hilltop in Waynesville and the Cherokee mourned his passing. Without his assistance and support the Cherokees might have failed to acquire and, later, to hold onto their land. Without him there might have been no Eastern Band of Cherokees. Undeniably, Colonel William Holland Thomas was “the best friend the Cherokees ever had.”