William Holland Thomas
William Holland Thomas was a white southerner, born of a lesser-privileged family in the mountains of Haywood County, North Carolina. His mother alone raised William Holland Thomas, her husband having drowned while on a business trip during the pregnancy.[i] i
Growing up without a father, William Holland Thomas was heavily influenced by local men of the Cherokee tribes, who eventually adopted him into their clan. Thomas would not however become estranged to white sensibilities, as his mother did not let him completely ingratiate himself in Cherokee culture. Because of this, William Holland Thomas grew to be familiar with both cultures, learned to read and write English and Cherokee, he grew up with the Cherokee legend of the Great Buzzard, as well as the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Thomas would soon find that his intercultural understanding would prove to be a most lucrative trait.
William Holland Thomas began his career as a store manager, but as time went on he expanded his business and he acquired a variety of skills and employments. He did work as a farmer, became a practitioner of law, worked as a prospector, he did some work in politics, and he even acted as an intermediate for the Cherokee and Lufty Indians during government’s attempt to relocate the Indian tribes.
Eventually Thomas’s business expanded beyond the State of North Carolina and his political career propelled into the State Legislature and brought him close to the District of Colombia. It is there that William Holland Thomas became a great advocate of Cherokee Indian interests and a prominent voice for the rural west of North Carolina.
In part of gratitude for his service to the Cherokee Indians, the old chief of the Oconaluftee tribe, who had known Thomas since he was very young, recommended Thomas as the new chief. And so it was that the men of the Oconaluftee tribe accepted the recommendation and William Holland Thomas became Chief William Thomas, the only white man to be chief of that tribe.
On the matter of slavery, William Holland Thomas was one of the largest slave holding men in his region, though the region of Northwestern North Carolina had very few slaves in comparison with the rest of the Confederate South. According to Godbold, William Holland Thomas was never very active in the slave trade, records show that he rarely sold his slaves and he tried to buy families together. Though he owned a few slaves, most of Thomas’s workforce was comprised of paid employees.[ii] ii
William Holland Thomas had found himself a rich and influential man as he aged. He had the means to live in most places, however he seemed to remain enamored with his homelands of the Northwestern Mountains of North Carolinian. He worked to improve his home by appealing to the government for both the rights of the local tribes to land and for the construction of a railroad from Raleigh, through his side of the State, and into the State of Georgia. Even in domestic issues, Thomas preferred things that reminded him of home, he found himself repulsed by the high society women of the cities, and had great difficulty in finding a woman he found agreeable as a wife. In a sense he was tied to his roots, unable to completely abandon them for a different life.
The prospect of secession from the Northern States was appealing to William Holland Thomas, but not in the way that it appealed to most other Southerners. Though a slaveholder, William Holland Thomas was not overly concerned with slave emancipation, he interests lied in the redrawing of the national boundaries that would separate the North and the South.
William Holland Thomas argued that the northwestern region of North Carolina could be the New England of the South, and he knew that this view would be cemented it if was a border lands of a new country. William Holland Thomas believed that in the face of a new country, Southern entrepreneurs, tourists, and merchants would flock to the new northwest and create a new economic Eden. In his own words, Thomas said, “If England and France recognized the Confederacy… we shall… have in Western North Carolina one of the most prosperous countries in the world.” [iii]iii
It is amusing that even during the war in 1962, Thomas was still pushing for construction to of the railroad through North Carolina. On November the 22nd of that year, the then Governor of North Carolina received a letter from Chief Thomas suggesting that the utilization of black slaves to make new railroads would be a major contribute to the war effort. Unfortunately for Chief Thomas, he and the governor of North Carolina were not on the best of terms. Though both of them were fighting on the same side, they were quite different from one another and they were once political rivals. During the original vote on the railroad bill, Thomas opposed it while Zebulon supported the bill. The reason that Chief Thomas was against it because the train tracks would not be he close enough to his home territory.[iv] iv
William Holland Thomas believed that landowners in that region, like himself, would have very lucrative business opportunities the birth of a new Country. It is his interests in strengthening the economy and influence of his home region, and of himself that contributed in great part, to his choice to speak out against President Lincoln and the Republican Party, and for him to participate in the civil war on the side of the confederacy.
William Holland Thomas wrote a number of letters to President Jefferson Davis, like this one, his correspondence with Jefferson Davis helped him to set up the Cherokee soldiers in the first place. Chief William Thomas appealed to the new legislature as well as to President Jefferson Davis personally to recruit Cherokee as soldiers for the Confederacy, as he was unable to raise sufficient white volunteers. He wanted the Cherokee to serve as a defense force for the northwest mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. The congress approved of the recruitment of Cherokee Indians and after some political debate agreed that they could be used to defend the Cumberland Gap. However they did not acknowledge the arguments of Chief Thomas, that the Cherokee and Lufty Indians were made citizens of the State under previous land treaties. Soon after the formation of the Cherokee battalions more volunteers began flowing in from the Highland mountain residents.[v] V