Kat Smutz describes how a white American came to lead a tribe of Cherokee Indians.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 resulted in the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole Indians were forced to relocate to lands further west, making 25 million acres of land available for settlement by whites.
The Cherokee Nation found a champion in a white son adopted by the tribe, a man named William Holland Thomas. Born February 5, 1805 in Haywood County, North Carolina, Thomas had lived close to the Cherokee as he grew up. He served as their agent for 25 years before the American Civil War.
When President Andrew Jackson pushed through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Thomas appealed the cause of the Cherokee and earned the right for an estimated 1,000 Cherokee to remain in western North Carolina. These became the present day Eastern Band, known also as the Oconaluftee.
Just before his death in April 1839, Cherokee chief Yonaguska (“Drowning Bear”) gathered his people and told them that he wished for his adopted son, “Little Will”, to succeed him. The tribe honored Yonaguska’s wishes, and Thomas became the only white man to stand as chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War, some speculated about which side the Cherokee would take. They lived in the South, but they did not own slaves. Neither did most of their highland neighbors. Thomas realized that there was another reason for the inhabitants of the mountains to fight. The Union army had taken possession of Eastern Tennessee and posed a threat to Western North Carolina. Bushwhackers posing as Home Guards were already terrorizing the area. With their in-depth knowledge of survival tactics in the region, the Native Americans and highlanders were the logical choice to defend their own homes.
In September 1862, William Holland Thomas organized his own regiment that became known as “Thomas’ Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders.” Common practice in the Confederate Army was to choose officers by election. The 1,125 men of the regiment elected Thomas as their colonel. The regiment mustered as many as 2,500 men during the war, which included 400 Cherokee of the Cherokee Battalion.
A man of many parts
During his lifetime, Thomas accomplished a great deal. He is credited as a businessman, planter and author; with building the first wagon road across the Smokies; serving as senator to the North Carolina Legislature; building railroads; and serving as an attorney for the Cherokee, as well as being their agent, chief and leader in time of war.
After the war, William Holland Thomas returned home with the hope of reentering politics. However, his mental state began to decline and in March 1867, he was declared insane. Some have speculated that Thomas was actually suffering from Alzheimer’s. He spent the rest of his life in and out of mental institutions until his death at Morganton, North Carolina on May 10, 1893.