William Thomas

Part two of two

With so much that defines present-day Jackson County and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians shaped by William Holland Thomas (Feb. 5, 1805-May 10, 1893), it is somewhat surprising that his unusual role in the Civil War as the commander of Thomas’ Legion is often seen as his defining achievement.

Part 1 examined Thomas’ singular importance in the development of Jackson County’s pioneer economy and his leading role in the negotiations that allowed the Quallatown (or Oconaluftee) Cherokee to escape removal and remain in Western North Carolina. This week’s report will focus on Thomas as a force for secession, his participation in the Civil War, and his descent into madness in the postwar years.

Here’s a brief summary of Thomas’ life until the formation of Jackson County, based in large part on the entry written by Gordon McKinney for the “Dictionary of North Carolina Biography,” edited by William S. Powell and published by the University of North Carolina Press. Born near Waynesville shortly after his father drowned, Thomas was raised by his mother, Temperance Calvert Thomas. He started working at age 13 in a store owned by Congressman Felix Walker in Cherokee territory and by 1823 opened his own store in Quallatown.

He prospered, both due to his innate business acumen and his knowledge of the Cherokee language, and by the late 1820s owned three stores and large tracts of land in the western part of the state. Thomas became a good friend of Yonaguska, a local Cherokee chief who adopted him and gave him the name Wil-Usdi (Little Will) because of his small size. While continuing his business interests, Thomas began to study law and act as the attorney for the North Carolina Cherokee.

Because of his business enterprises, assistance to the Cherokee and his large landholdings, Thomas was an influential figure in Western North Carolina. He served continuously in the North Carolina state senate from 1849 to 1861, playing a key part in the 1851 creation of Jackson County from portions of Haywood and Macon.

“These same years were a time of change in his personal life. He increasingly neglected his business interests and became ‘land poor’ and deeply in debt; in 1857, at age 52, he married Sarah Jane Burney Love, the daughter of a wealthy Haywood County man. Their three children – William H., Jr. (b. 1858), James R. (b. 1860), and Sarah L. (b. 1862) – soon gave him even greater personal responsibilities,” according to McKinney, who also wrote the chapter on local politics for “The History of Jackson County.”

During the 1850s lead-up to the Civil War, people in Jackson County took little interest in the sectional conflicts raging elsewhere, McKinney writes in “The History of Jackson County,” adding that most local residents of both parties apparently supported the institution of slavery and resented what they saw as “northern efforts” to abolish it. However, the election of Abraham Lincoln and the secession of neighboring South Carolina forced Jackson County citizens to pay attention and choose sides.

Thomas led the local fight for secession, speaking out in favor of southern independence. A February 1861 statewide vote on whether to call a convention to consider secession resulted in a slim victory for the unionists, but, while other mountain counties were against the convention, Jackson County voters, led by Thomas, “overwhelmingly called for a convention and secession by a 435 to 83 count.”

According to McKinney, most North Carolinians switched to active support of the newly formed Confederacy after the bombardment of Fort Sumter. “Thomas was particularly active in this period, speaking to a public meeting in Webster, and being elected to the state secession convention where he voted to take North Carolina out of the Union,” McKinney writes.

Thomas sought a seat in the Confederate Congress in 1862 but was defeated. Lacking the opportunity for a political career in the Confederacy, he turned his attention to the war itself, using his influence with the Cherokee to persuade them to support the Confederate cause and enlisting Cherokee soldiers. He joined the Confederate army in April 1862 and became captain of a company that included many Cherokee.

Thomas was soon promoted to colonel and placed in command of a regiment that included several companies of Cherokee, McKinney writes. “This force, known as Thomas’ Legion, served as the major line of defense between the Federal presence in eastern Tennessee and Confederate North Carolina. Thomas was one of the last Confederates to surrender, along with General James G. Martin, in Waynesville on 10 May 1865.”

According to NCpedia, a North Carolina Government and Heritage Library website, Confederate General James Green Martin surrendered the Army of Western North Carolina at Waynesville nearly a month after Appomattox, following a skirmish at White Sulphur Springs between Thomas’ Legion and Union troops under Lieutenant Colonel William C. Bartlett.

In their book “Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief,” E. Stanly Godbold and Mattie U. Russell describe Thomas and his troops at the surrender:

“Colonel Thomas presented quite a spectacle when he walked into Waynesville on May 7,1865, surrounded by his Indian bodyguards. He was dressed exactly as they, stripped to the waist, painted and feathered in the style of a warrior ready for battle. He was half a foot shorter than most of his guards.

“Considering his peculiar history as both a white man and a Cherokee Indian, such a form of dress probably seemed natural for him. His unusual appearance, however, and his boisterous demands on his captor, raised anew the issue of his mental stability.”

Matthew M. Brown and Michael W. Coffey, authors of “Vol. XVI, Thomas’ Legion,” in “North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865: A Roster,” published in 2008 by the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, write that “Perhaps more so than other units, Thomas’ Legion bore the distinctive stamp of its founder,” but later note its relative insignificance: “In the years after the war, Thomas’ Legion gained a legendary reputation in the mountains far beyond what it actually accomplished.”

One Civil War incident, fought in Jackson County and termed the Battle of Deep Creek, demonstrates the loyalty the Cherokee troops had to Thomas, their colonel and chief. (The site of the skirmish, which took place on Feb. 2, 1864, is now in Swain County, created in 1871 from portions of Jackson and Macon.)

A federal cavalry detachment from East Tennessee, the Fourteenth Illinois, led by Major Francis Davidson, left Knoxville and surprised Thomas’ Legion, which was camped along the Tuckaseigee River at the mouth of Deep Creek. Accounts of the outcome of the battle vary. According to Noel Fisher’s book, “The Civil War in the Smokies,” Davidson “boastfully and implausibly” claimed to have captured 22 Cherokee and 32 white troops while killing another 200, explaining the high casualty rate by saying that after one of his officers was wounded, his men took no more prisoners.

Davidson took the Cherokee captives to Knoxville, where they were supposedly offered $5,000 in gold if they would kill Thomas. The Cherokee agreed and were released; however, most returned to Thomas, told him what had happened, and continued to fight for the Confederacy.

Thomas offered a far different version of the battle, saying he had inflicted 12 casualties on the Union forces while suffering the loss of only five men killed and wounded.

Far from being a high point in Thomas’ career, the Civil War was the beginning of the end for the once successful businessman and politician. He was old (57) for a soldier and would have preferred to continue his career as a politician and entrepreneur. Thomas had many ideas about military strategy and how the troops he commanded should be deployed, but he was typically ignored by higher-ranking officers. His political enemies attacked as well, and Thomas was twice court-martialed, once in connection with the capture of Gov. Zeb Vance’s brother, but never tried.

“For Thomas himself, the tale ended in tragedy. He was forced to resign his chieftainship of the Eastern Band of Cherokees and was reluctantly sued by them in an effort to disentangle the lands he had bought on their behalf from his creditors’ claims against him. Plagued by a tremendous amount of debt and mental instability, he died in an institution in Morganton in 1893. Despite this sad ending to Thomas’ life, the history of Thomas’ Legion remains one of the more fascinating and unusual chapters in North Carolina’s Civil War participation,” write Brown and Coffey.

McKinney also describes Thomas’ post-war personal and financial difficulties. “The demands of the conflict led to a physical and emotional collapse. In March 1867 Thomas was declared insane and confined to the state asylum in Raleigh.

“His businesses failed and creditors began to dismantle his empire; for example, the sheriff of Cherokee County sold off more than 115,000 acres of Thomas’ land in 1869 alone. Even the Cherokee had to go to court to secure control of their land from his creditors.”

Despite being confined to mental institutions during his final decades, Thomas experienced occasional periods of mental stability, including the years between 1867 and his wife’s death in 1874, when she cared for him at home. He was committed to the state mental institution in Raleigh less than a week after Sarah’s death.

In 1883, Thomas was transferred from Raleigh to the new Western Insane Asylum at Morganton; it was from there that the former white chief left another mark on history. James Mooney, an ethnologist from the Smithsonian Institution, arrived in Western North Carolina in 1887 to research and collect information about the Cherokee.

He heard about their famous white chief and, after learning he was in Morganton, decided to interview Thomas. Mooney’s first attempt was unsuccessful, but when he returned the next year, he found Thomas “alert and eager to talk,” according to “Confederate Colonel.” Thomas told Mooney about his life among the Cherokees, from his adoption by Yonaguska to his 1867 resignation as chief. He described the Cherokees in the Civil War, Indian medical remedies, and the troubles the Eastern Band had in getting their money from the government.

When Mooney published his book, the classic “Myths of the Cherokee,” in 1900, “it contained information that he had acquired from their old white chief,” write Godbold and Russell. “Thus, in his last years, Thomas contributed, however inaccurately, to the preservation of their stories and history.”

Thomas died in the mental hospital in Morganton and is buried in Waynesville’s city cemetery.

William H. Thomas’ impact on Western North Carolina is so significant that his life is commemorated by two historical markers, one in Jackson County and another in Swain.

The first, located a half mile east of the Whittier exit on U.S. 74, is about a quarter-mile from his former Stekoa farm, attempts to summarize his whole career: “William H. Thomas/ White chief and agent of N.C. Cherokee. Secured reservation for them. Confederate colonel. State senator. Home, ‘Stekoih Fields,’ stood 1/4 mi. S.”

The second, which stands at the intersection of U.S. 441 and U.S. 19 in Cherokee, focuses more on his Civil War exploits: “Thomas’s Legion/ William H. Thomas led Confederate ‘Legion of Indians & Mountaineers.’ Cherokee companies raised nearby in 1862.”

Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.