Part one of two
By Lynn Hotaling
“The early political history of Jackson County centers around the career of one man – William Holland Thomas,” according to “The History of Jackson County.” Thomas was a key player in the creation of Jackson County in 1851, and before that was a merchant who did much to build the local economy during the 1820s and 1830s.
According to local historian George Frizzell, the diversity of Thomas’ interests and activities, as well as the drama at times associated with his life, makes it difficult to summarize the “breadth of his achievements.” Because his role in Eastern Band affairs and his military career in the Civil War receive the most attention today, his political career and his business enterprises are often overlooked. Also overshadowed are his advocacy for a railroad into Western North Carolina, his Stekoa farm and home near Whittier, and his involvement as a regional land speculator, Frizzell says.
To describe such an influential life requires more words than a single newspaper report allows. This first part will focus on Thomas’ life prior to the 1851 formation of Jackson County, with the next installment examining his political role in the lead-up to the Civil War, his military exploits, and the sad turn of his final years.
Thomas, whose life story was fictionalized by Charles Frazier in his 2006 novel “Thirteen Moons,” was born in rural Haywood County, in 1805, the son of Richard and Temperance Thomas. Richard Thomas died before his son was born; Temperance Thomas soon moved with her son to what would become Jackson County. At age 13, William Thomas began working as an apprentice in a store near Quallatown; within five years he had opened his own store. Thomas learned the Cherokee language and became a close friend of Cherokee Chief Yonaguska, who later “adopted” Thomas, giving him the name Wil-Usdi (Little Will) because of his small size. Thomas taught himself law, using a set of law books given to him as payment for a debt, and became the tribe’s attorney in 1831. He was named Cherokee chief in 1839.
Authors E. Stanly Godbold and Mattie U. Russell write about Thomas’ business career in their 1990 book “Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William Holland Thomas,” published by the University of Tennessee Press.
“At seventeen, William Thomas launched an independent business career that was compatible with the dual cultures in which he lived,” they write. “His store at Quallatown served both Indians and whites. The need for merchandise to stock his shelves whetted his interests in trade, transportation, politics and the law. He became a typical frontier American businessman. A versatile jack of many trades, he boosted the economic potential of his region ... He did not need any specialized skills that he could not readily acquire from reading, observing and experience.”
He opened his Quallatown store in 1822, and it was the first of seven stores he acquired during the next 15 years. According to “Confederate Colonel,” Thomas’ mother sold property to finance the enterprise. Located where the road through Soco Gap to Waynesville crossed the road from Sevierville, Tenn., Thomas’ first store was near the confluence of Soco Creek and the Oconaluftee River.
Thomas’ second store was apparently located in the Lovesfield area near what was then known as the Scotts Creek Post Office (Thomas was its first postmaster). Sometime before 1832, Thomas contracted with William Welch and James R. Love to operate their existing store, then bought Welch’s share in 1833 and Love’s part in 1834.
He continued to maintain a household with his mother, and by 1839 they had established a permanent home in the Barkers Creek area. “As William made the transition from an orphan clerk into an independent attorney, store owner, and creditor, his increasing prosperity was reflected in a search for a better farm and house. They finally settled on a farm on the south side of the Tuckasegee River,” Godbold and Russell write, adding that Thomas named their farm Stekoa Fields, or Stekoa Old Fields, because it included the site of the Stekoa Indian village destroyed during the American Revolution. The farm was in the area surrendered by the Indians in 1819 and was initially owned by Abraham, Wesley and Scroop Enloe. By the mid-1830s the Enloes owed Thomas $3,400; he took the 1,000-acre farm as payment. He built a five-room log house on a ridge high enough above the river to avoid flooding and eventually expanded the farm to both sides of the river.
As his wealth increased, Thomas began investing in more and more land.
“Buying land for himself and for the Cherokees was one of Thomas’ major endeavors,” write Godbold and Russell. “The amount of land he finally came to own personally is not known, but it was in excess of 150,000 acres. In 1840 he paid the heirs of William Cathcart $1,200 for 33,000 acres, and in 1841 he paid $7,500 for 55,000 acres adjoining Quallatown. He bought 35,000 acres in Tennessee and 25,000 more in North Carolina, both at low cost. He added more and more acres until the beginning of the Civil War ... Much of the property was rough, isolated, or unusable, but Thomas became one of the largest landowners in Western North Carolina.”
“The History of Jackson County,” in a chapter titled “The Pioneer Experience,” describes Thomas’ stores and their importance.
“It is a misconception to think that the early nineteenth century mountain communities of Western North Carolina were backward and isolated from any meaningful communication with the outside world. The business activities of William Holland Thomas from the 1820s prove the inaccuracy of that impression,” write chapter authors Tyler Blethen and Curtis Wood. “Thomas offered groceries, hardware, cotton and wool cloth, yarn, shoes, liquor, drugs, bonnets, silk goods and a wide range of books including Bibles, histories, biographies, textbooks, almanacs, dictionaries and books on etiquette.” Blethen and Wood also note that Thomas’ business activities give “a good picture of the commercial economy of the Jackson region between 1818 and the 1850s.” That chapter provides information on goods sold and traded in Thomas’ stores, both with whites and Cherokees, noting that butter was an important commodity. “Cattle driven to market in Augusta were another source of profits” and “Ginseng grew in importance as a trade item, with 4,300 pounds of it shipped out of Quallatown in 1834.”
Thomas was in his early 30s when the Cherokee Nation was targeted for removal, an effort that ultimately resulted in the Trail of Tears. The Treaty of New Echota in 1835 called for all Cherokee to be moved west. However, many North Carolina Cherokees, who came to be known as the “Qualla” (or “Oconaluftee” or “Lufty”) Indians lived on land that was not part of that treaty’s land cession. Those individuals asked Thomas to help them negotiate with the U.S. government, and he won permission for them to remain in Qualla, where they became the core of the Eastern Band.
“Despite state and federal ambivalence, the Oconaluftee Indians’ situation remained precarious. Thomas repeatedly warned them not to antagonize whites by harboring fugitives who fled into the area from the Cherokee Nation. Thomas’ strategy was to cooperate with the army and maintain the distinction between the Oconaluftee and Nation Indians,” writes local historian George Frizzell in “The History of Jackson County.” After escaping removal, “the Eastern Cherokees now tried to reorder their lives and adjust to the growing white population which surrounded them. Into the 1850s Thomas purchased large tracts of land in what is now Jackson and Swain counties for the Indians, using what cash they had available in addition to funds he borrowed. Title to these lands was held in his name until the Cherokees could reimburse him, or until, as Thomas hoped, he could persuade the federal government to pay the Eastern Cherokees’ claims to part of the funds stipulated in the removal treaty,” Frizzell writes. Today his purchases constitute much of the Qualla Boundary, including the communities of Painttown, Birdtown, Yellowhill, Big Cove and Wolfetown.
Thomas was a well-to-do man of his time, and, as such, he bought and sold slaves, becoming one of the largest slave owners in the region. According to “Confederate Colonel,” he bought more than he sold, and treated his slaves better than most. “Thomas had some feeling for his slaves as human beings. Once he bought seven slaves, accepting the condition that their family would stay together. There are very few records of his selling slaves, and apparently he did not seek to make a profit in the slave trade.”
“The History of Jackson County” also addresses Thomas as a slave holder. Referring to the bottom land in the Scotts Creek and Tuckasegee River valleys, where “commercial agriculture was possible,” McKinney writes that “social and economic divisions” were more pronounced, with slave-owning families being at the “top” of society. “Although they were fewer than five percent of the white families in the county, they were dominant locally,” according to McKinney’s chapter “Society and Social Groups,” and “William H. Thomas was a classic example of this type of individual ... Like virtually every inhabitant in the region he was a farmer, but unlike most of the others, the labor on his farm was done by slave labor ... His status as the leading figure in the county was confirmed by his constant reelection to the state senate throughout the 1850s.”
Saying that a political career for someone as talented and influential as Thomas was “inevitable,” the “Confederate Colonel” authors note that the Democratic Party wanted to nominate Thomas for the state Senate in 1840 but couldn’t because he didn’t get back from a trip to Washington, D.C., in time to accept the nomination. He was elected to that post in 1848 and remained a member of the state Legislature until 1862.
Thomas, who had called for the creation of a new county comprising portions of Haywood and Macon in 1846, was a state senator by the time such legislation was introduced. “His role in the creation of the new county was undoubtedly crucial,” writes Gordon McKinney in “The History of Jackson County,” adding that “both Thomas and the Democratic majority in the Legislature constructed county lines intended to benefit their party.” In summary, McKinney writes that “Thomas was a powerful local politician and one of the leading spokesmen for the Democratic party in the highland region. His personal popularity was so great that he won all but nine of the votes cast in the 1854 legislative election.”
With the Civil War came more fame and prestige for Thomas, though it all came crashing down during the next three decades. Thomas died in 1893 in what was then termed an insane asylum.
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.