White Chief Of The Cherokee
By Lowell Kirk
The story of William Holland Thomas is much of the story of the Eastern Band of Cherokee from 1839, when he became Chief of Quallatown, until 1893 when he died. He was the only white man to ever serve as a Cherokee Chief. He was born in 1805 on Raccoon Creek about two miles from Waynesville, North Carolina. His Virginian father was accidentally drowned before his birth. At the age of twelve an Indian trader, Felix Walker, at a trading post on Soco Creek employed him. He quickly learned the Cherokee language as he bargained with them for ginseng and furs. Drowning Bear, chief of Quallatown, took a keen interest in the bright young man. When he learned that the boy had no father or brothers and sisters, he adopted Will as his son when Will was only thirteen. Will's best friend was an Indian boy who taught him the ancient customs, lore and religious rites. Will's employer went broke in the business and gave Will the remaining stock at the trading post and some old law books. Will studied the law books and developed a legal knowledge that later allowed him to become the legal representative for the Eastern Band of Cherokee.
When the Cherokee gave up the lands on the upper Little Tennessee River, Will settled his mother on a farm on the Oconaluftee River. His trade with the Cherokee prospered. By the time of the removal, Will owned five trading posts within the Cherokee Nation and was still studying law. During the Trail of Tears forced removal, Will Thomas was involved in the tracking down of Tsali. His motive, of course, was to help the Quallatown Cherokee to remain in North Carolina. Shortly after Tsali's execution, Thomas went to Washington to try to work out some legal arrangement to allow the Quallatown Cherokee to have a permanent settlement. When he returned home in l839, Chief Drowning Bear, over eighty years old, was dying. On his deathbed, Drowning Bear asked the Quallatown Cherokee to accept Will Thomas as their chief, which they did without question.
Thomas went to Washington to argue for many Cherokee claims against the government regarding annuity payments, individual allotments, preemption rights and loss of improvements. In l840 the government Indian Office appointed him to take a census of those Cherokee in the east and to act as the government's disbursing agent. Thomas used the money to begin the purchase of more than 50,000 acres of land for the Cherokee in his own name. The Indians were not allowed to own land in their name. He was strongly criticized for this, but this was the very action that resulted in the Eastern Band of Cherokee remaining in their beloved homeland.
In l842, the government was still attempting to remove all of the Cherokee to Oklahoma. James Robinson, a merchant from Franklin, North Carolina, was appointed as a special agent to persuade them to go. Under the terms of the New Echota treaty, each individual was to be paid $53.33 to remove. Robinson and his assistant, John Timson, began taking their own enrollment. Some Cherokee began to negotiate with them. But other Cherokee were returning from Oklahoma and the government's policy was to make them return to Oklahoma. The state of North Carolina still refused to confirm any claims to state citizenship to the Cherokee. The bulk of the Cherokee demanded their $53.33 without removing. By l844, the government had backed off, somewhat, on the removal issued. But Indians were still fighting for government payments. In l848 John C. Mullay, a clerk in the Indian office, began making his own census roll. It would be the most important one, for most later payment rolls were based upon it, Mullay traveled more than 300 miles by horseback from one isolated settlement to another in the rugged mountains. By l855, many Cherokee claimed they had been omitted, so the Mullay roll was expanded in that year. By the end of Mullay's second trip, he had l,5l7 Cherokee listed on it. By l855, the citizenship issue was still unresolved. Governor Thomas Bragg claimed that the Cherokee were not North Carolina citizens, as they did not "exercise the ordinary rights of citizens." But, they were allowed the "right" to pay taxes on the land they occupied!
An author by the name of Lanman visited the Eastern Band in l848. His following description gives an excellent picture of the life of the Eastern Band a decade after the removal:
"About three-fourths of the entire population can read in their own language, and though the majority of them understand English, a very few can speak the language. They practice, to a considerable extent, the science of agriculture, and have acquired such a knowledge of the mechanic arts as answers them for all ordinary purposes, for they manufacture their own clothing, their own ploughs, and other farming utensils, their own axes, and even their own guns. Their women are no longer treated as slaves, but as equals; the men labor in the fields and their wives are devoted entirely to household employment. They keep the same domestic animals that are kept by their white neighbors, and cultivate all the common grains of the country. They are probably as temperate as any other class of people on the face of the earth; honest is their business intercourse, moral in their thoughts, words, and deeds, and distinguished for their faithfulness in performing the duties of religion. They are chiefly Methodists and Baptists, and have regularly ordained ministers, who preach to them on every Sabbath, and they have also abandoned many of their more senseless superstitions. They have their own court and try their criminals themselves. They keep in order the public roads leading through their settlement. By a law of the state they have a right to vote, but seldom exercise that right, as they do not like the idea of being identified with any of the political parties. Excepting on festive days, they dress after the manner of the white man, but far more picturesquely. They live in small log houses of their own construction, and have everything they need or desire in the way of food. They are in fact, the happiest community that I have yet met with in this southern country.
Will Thomas continued to purchase land for them in his own name. By l860 a large block of land known as the Qualla Boundary had been purchased. One of the stories of how the name Qualla came to be applied to this land is worth telling. Will Thomas's wife was named Polly. As the Cherokee language did not use words that required the mouth to close, they called her Qualla. Throughout these years the North Carolina Cherokee maintained their traditionalist culture. That is why that by l887-90, when James Mooney lived with the Cherokee, he was able to preserve so many of their myths and ceremonies. Over half of Mooney's information came from an old medicine man by the name of Swimmer. When Swimmer died in l899, Mooney wrote, "for with him perished half the tradition of a people.
During the Civil war, more than 400 of the Eastern Band of Cherokee served in the Confederate forces, under the leadership of William Thomas. That was almost one-fourth of the entire Eastern Band's total population of about 2000. Thomas's Confederate Legion of Cherokee was enlisted at Quallatown, North Carolina on April 9, l862. Will Thomas was elected their captain. The Cherokee served mostly in East Tennessee with Major General Kirby Smith's army. Thomas marched his Legion down the Valley River and over the mountains by the Unicoi turnpike, through Coker Creek and Tellico Plains to Sweetwater, Tennessee. From there they rode the train to Knoxville, where they paraded down Gay Street. One of their first assignments was to proceed to Strawberry Plains where they were to guard the bridge over the Holston River from the pro Union bridge-burners. There the Cherokee warriors became bored and decided to play a game of stick ball. While they were playing stick ball, the bridge burners burned the bridge! The story of Will Thomas and the Cherokee Legion is well told in Vernon E. Crow's excellent book, Store In The Mountains.
After the Civil War, the U.S. Federal government had less sympathy for the Cherokee than it had prior to the war. The Cherokee had fought for the Confederacy. Added to that was the fact that open warfare had broken out between the Indians of the Great Plains and the U.S. Army. By l870, there was much division among the Cherokee in North Carolina. George Bushyhead had been named Principal Chief at the Cheoah Council in l868. Will Thomas believed that Bushyhead was a false prophet. Bushyhead believed that Thomas was using the Cherokee for his own selfish profit motives. However, through Bushyhead's efforts, Congress allowed suits to be brought in Federal courts on behalf of the Cherokee against former and present agents who had cheated them. This l870 law was the first time the government officially designated the Cherokee in North Carolina as the Eastern Band. The threat of dispossession loomed very large in l870. From l870 to l872 several hundred more Cherokee traveled to Oklahoma, trudging to Loudon, Tennessee, and then by rail. Many difficulties were incurred in this emigration, and when they arrived in Oklahoma, they were treated like second class citizens there. The government added to the divisiveness in North Carolina by recognizing John Ross as Principal Chief. Ross and others were accused of defrauding the Cherokee out of their payments. To make matters worse, Will Thomas, still legally owned the Cherokee land in North Carolina. But due to his indebtedness, a North Carolina sheriff by the name of Johnston had taken sheriffs' titles to the land. In long, drawn out litigation, the Cherokee right to the Qualla Boundary was upheld. But they still had to pay Thomas, who still had to pay Johnston, a large sum of money. Eventually most of the money from the government's l848 fund was used to clear up the matter of the various and complicated land deeds.
In l867 Will Thomas's health failed. The war ruined his finances, which were hopelessly entangled with the business of the Cherokee. However, in l876, the United States government finally granted the Cherokee land titles. In l882 the Supreme Court declared that the Eastern Band was a tribe, like any other. That put it outside the jurisdiction of North Carolina and under the exclusive authority of the Federal government. A roll taken by Joseph G. Hester in l884 listed 2,956 Cherokee; l,88l in North Carolina, 738 in Georgia, 213 in Tennessee and 7l in Alabama. Many Cherokee complained that there was a host of non-Indians included on the roll. Certainly there had been much intermingling with the whites. In March l889 the North Carolina legislature recognized the Eastern Band as a corporate body that could sue and be sued in property matters. In l892 the Federal government assumed the responsibility for Cherokee education. James Bllly the won a political battle with Nimrod Smith and was elected Chief in l89l.
In l867 Will Thomas's health failed. The war ruined his finances, which were hopelessly entangled with the business of the Cherokee. However, in l876, the United States government finally granted the Cherokee land titles. In l882 the Supreme Court declared that the Eastern Band was a tribe, like any other. That put it outside the jurisdiction of North Carolina and under the exclusive authority of the Federal government. A roll taken by Joseph G. Hester in l884 listed 2,956 Cherokee; l,88l in North Carolina, 738 in Georgia, 213 in Tennessee and 7l in Alabama. Many Cherokee complained that there was a host of non-Indians included on the roll. Certainly there had been much intermingling with the whites. In March l889 the North Carolina legislature recognized the Eastern Band as a corporate body that could sue and be sued in property matters. In l892 the Federal government assumed the responsibility for Cherokee education. James Billy won a political battle with Nimrod Smith and was elected Chief in l89l.
Will Thomas died May l0, l893. He was 88 years old. But without Will Thomas there would have been no Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. Their 57,000 acre Qualla Boundary, thanks to Will Thomas, is not a true reservation as are the other western Indian reservations. Their land is held in trust by the Federal government, as communally owned land. It is just a small dot on the map of the more than 56,000 square miles the Cherokee claimed when the first white men came to America. Except for Will Thomas, they would not have had that.
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