Chapter 1: The white leader By the time war breaks over the mountains of western North Carolina, William Holland Thomas has already found the two great loves of his life.
By the time war breaks over the mountains of western North Carolina, William Holland Thomas has already found the two great loves of his life. The first is the small band of eastern Cherokees — the Oconaluftee — who made him their champion. The second is a comely young woman fittingly named Sarah Love, who is less than half his age and just three years his bride.
Now, to fight for the first, the “Lufty,” he will have to leave the second — the woman he took more than 50 years to find. Thomas has already led an extraordinary life. By war’s end, he will become a legend hounded by enemies and haunted by madness.
He is born in 1805 in a log house on Raccoon Creek in Haywood County, already an orphan — his father drowned before he was born, the body never recovered. Thomas is a distant cousin to President Zachary Taylor. He is a small, blue-eyed boy with long, brown hair, thin lips, and a wide forehead. He yearns for a father of his own, and he will spend his adult life trying to fill a fatherly role for others.
He is an independent boy, at home in the outdoors, physically strong and already used to traveling alone through the rugged mountains on errands for his mother and family friends. By age 13, he has a job managing a trading post on Soco Creek, away from his mother. She schooled him in the Bible, and he is literate and smart — a charming speaker and a natural salesman who can write letters and bills of sale, and keep accurate accounts. He possesses an uncanny ability to do arithmetic in his head — adding up accounts, calculating interest, figuring profit and loss on complicated transactions.
The store is located just beyond the Cherokee settlement called Qualla Town, near the confluence of the Tuckasegee and Oconaluftee rivers.
His customers are mostly Indians, trading ginseng, fur, and skins for store goods. He learns the Cherokee language from an Indian boy, and soon he can read and write it as fluently as English. He begins a lifelong love affair with the Cherokee. In Cherokee culture, an individual is defined by his membership in a clan. Young Will has only his sternly religious mother, Temperance, and finds among the Cherokee acceptance and belonging.
Because Thomas has no living father, it is customary among the Cherokee that an older member of his clan become his mentor. The aging local chief, Yonaguska, or Drowning Bear, takes the boy under his wing, mentors him in the customs of the Oconaluftee, and endows him with a Cherokee name: Wil-Usdi, meaning Little Will. It is not flattering, but, in the Cherokee manner, it is accurate: In manhood, Thomas stands just 5 feet 4 inches tall.
The boy turns out to be a quick study, a born negotiator and deal maker, politically astute, an eloquent, inspiring orator. Even in an age of hard physical labor, his work ethic is astonishing. He commonly labors through the day and all night, educating himself about business, law, and real estate. Despite his diminutive stature, he impresses the Cherokee with his stamina for physical labor, and his energy for trekking and riding long distances in rugged mountain country.
He prospers in his business ventures, opening more stores, buying interests in mines and tanneries, even acquiring slaves. He travels the region far and wide, trading for denim to supply the army, surveying land he wishes to acquire, visiting friends and cousins. But his main business is the Cherokee band.
In the years that follow, Thomas becomes an unwavering advocate for the Lufty in Washington. He follows a spartan routine, wakes up to a cold bath at 4 a.m., and labors until 10 p.m. He pursues two distinct aims with an almost religious devotion: gaining permission for the Lufty to remain in North Carolina and securing their share of funds that the federal government is treaty-bound to pay. He lobbies the United States Congress and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, drafts petitions and affidavits, and presents the case of a loyal, peace-loving people who deserve to own their tribal homeland.
By the Treaty of New Echota, Georgia, in 1835, 17,000 Indians gave up their eastern lands in exchange for $5 million and a parcel of land in the Oklahoma Territory adjacent to lands already occupied by the Western Band of the Cherokee. The Georgia Cherokee largely went west, but a band of North Carolina Cherokee remained in their mountain home — and that’s where they want to stay.
Thomas writes of the Cherokee homeland, “Their lands are productive, their orchards supply them with fruit; springs and brooks of the purest water from the sides and base of the mountain; and the atmosphere is one of the healthiest on the globe. No local causes for disease; no chills or fever which are so prevalent in the South. And that country is endeared to those Indians by the graves and sacred relics of their ancestors — the bones of their children, sisters, brothers, fathers and mothers lie there; they say we cannot leave them; let us alone in the land of our fathers.”
He succeeds in his first aim. Some 1,500 Oconaluftee are declared exempt from removal. But their money will be a long time coming.
Thomas remains in Washington through April 1838, politicking on behalf of the Cherokee. Unbeknownst to Thomas, back home the old chief, Yonaguska, lies dying. But in an astonishing break with tradition, Yonaguska summons his councilors to a final meeting at which he names Thomas the new chief of the Oconaluftee Cherokee. Thomas becomes the only white man ever elected chief of the eastern Cherokee.
He also is elected to six terms in the state Senate, championing the building of a 129-mile-long plank road linking Fayetteville to Bethania, a Moravian settlement west of Winston. He argues passionately to extend the Western North Carolina Railroad beyond Asheville to Waynesville and on to Franklin, at last intersecting the Blue Ridge Railroad. He dreams of boom times in the mountains and declares that his region is poised to become “The New England of the South.” By his lights, development and trade in the mountains will lead to prosperity for the Lufty.
In winning his point, he makes a powerful enemy: Zebulon Vance, who just as passionately — and unsuccessfully — lobbies for a northwestern route. Vance — soon to be the most powerful governor in state history — will neither forget nor forgive.
All his adult life, Thomas searched for a female companion. But he spent so much time traveling, and was so tied up in business ventures and politics in Raleigh and Washington, that he managed only the most casual liaisons.
He is 51 years old when he is smitten with all the romantic zeal of a youngster. Her name is Sarah Jane Burney Love, the daughter of James Robert Love. She is lovely and poised, well spoken and self-confident, the eldest of four daughters in a family of eight children.
Strangely, he has known Sarah all her life — James Love is one of his oldest friends. But something changes when she reaches maturity, and now, starry-eyed, he proposes marriage. He does not expect her to say yes. She is just 24 — a strong-willed woman with long, dark hair and kind eyes. But she surprises him — for she, too, is in love with this rough, independent, self-made man.
Their betrothal creates a local sensation. In a wedding announcement, a Raleigh newspaper congratulates Thomas for at last finding a bride: “The attention of all bachelordom is particularly directed to the following deeply interesting item — There is no such word as fail in the vocabulary of the patient and persevering.”
But now, his frequent sojourns in Washington on behalf of the Lufty become agonies of separation. He writes long, sentimental letters to Sarah, assuring her of his fidelity and his love for her. He buys her a piano and ships it home, along with sheet music by Stephen Foster for the song “Willie, We Have Missed You.”
When he finally breaks away from official business, it takes him six days to make it home to her: on the steamer North Carolina from Baltimore to the Elizabeth River, by train to Asheville, then overland by mail coach and horseback. She soon bears him a son, William Holland Thomas Jr., who is born while he is away in Raleigh.
Overcome with affection and homesickness, feeling guilty for not being present at the birth of their first son, and painfully aware of their age difference, he writes that he is hovering over their little cottage in spirit, watching over the one who promised him that she would love him regardless of time and age and troubles, the one who would love him even in the event that “fortune and all the world beside desert him.”
By 1860, Thomas is one of the wealthiest men in the western counties. He holds $27,500 in personal property, owns 150,000 acres of real estate, valued at $122,725, and has 50 slaves. He lives on a beautiful, remote farm, Stekoa Fields, in a five-room house on a ridge with a bold stream flowing nearby. His adoptive children are grown and live apart. He shares Stekoa Felds with his aged mother, his wife Sarah, and their two sons. Soon, a daughter will join the family.
As the election of Lincoln looms near, and the state roils with arguments for and against secession, Thomas finds himself in a quandary. He is a slaveholder who does not favor secession if secession means war. But he gradually arrives at the unlikely conclusion that the U.S. government will let the Confederate states secede without war, that there will be two countries — the United States and the Confederate States.
From Raleigh, he writes Sarah that the “mountains of Western North Carolina would be in the centre of the Confederacy where the Southern people would congregate in the summer, and spend their money, instead of spending it in the north.”
Thomas’s vision is fantasy, yet all his life he has relied on the force of his personality, coupled with relentless hard work, to achieve the impossible. His Cherokee people are poor, working subsistence farms, hunting for their meat, bedding down in log cabins. Investment in the mountains will surely mean a better life for them.
He is one of four legislators elected to the secession convention, and like all the others, he votes enthusiastically to leave the Union.
But the Lincoln administration will not allow secession to go unchallenged. There will be no separate Confederate country without a fight. War comes, interrupting all routine commerce, dashing his dream of an economic boom in the mountains. There will be no railroad beyond Asheville, not until the fighting is done.
It is time to choose sides, and the Cherokees are caught in the middle. They are not considered legal citizens of the state, but they cannot remain neutral if they ever hope to become citizens.
And by treaty, their allegiance is to the United States of America. They must fight for one nation or the other in order not to lose their own. The only question is, which one?
Almost from the firing of the first guns at Fort Sumter, the Confederacy works hard to recruit allies among other nations — England, France, Mexico. But the only nation that allies itself with the Confederacy has not yet been recognized as sovereign and is contained entirely within the boundaries of North Carolina: the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation — also known as the Oconaluftee or Lufty Cherokees.
And the leader of the Cherokee war effort is not an Indian but a white man, William Holland Thomas, chief of the Oconaluftee Cherokee.
It seems strange to some observers that the Cherokee should put their lives at hazard on behalf of a society in which they have always been — as free persons of color — second-class citizens, a society that enshrines racism into law.
But the logic is as inexorable as it is tragic. It was the U.S. Army that made war on the peaceful Cherokee and drove them west in a deadly, forced march onto strange lands far beyond their revered eastern mountains.
Along the Trail of Tears, as the trek came to be known, 4,000 Cherokees perished. It was the United States Army under Gen. Winfield Scott that enforced President Andrew Jackson’s removal order. At the outbreak of war, Scott is the Supreme Commander of the U.S. Army.
The government of North Carolina, on the other hand, remained largely ambivalent about whether the Cherokee went or stayed behind, and the state government’s benign neglect allowed them to build an independent nation in their homeland. Now they fear that a victory over North Carolina will result in the abolishment of their independent homeland, removal to the West, or worse.
In October 1861, at the capital of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, a great Conference of Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Creeks convenes to determine their allegiance in the coming conflict. They adopt the “Declaration by the People of the Cherokee Nation of the Causes Which Have Impelled Them to Unite Their Fortunes with Those of the Confederate States of America.”
It is written in light of a crucial fact: In the early days of the conflict, after the Union debacle at Bull Run, the South is clearly winning.
The Cherokee declaration attests, “The number of the Confederate States has increased to eleven, and their Government is firmly established and consolidated. Maintaining in the field an army of 200,000 men, the war became for them but a succession of victories.”
The declaration invokes the spirit of the original Declaration of Independence, echoing the North Carolina ordinance of secession: “The Cherokee people had its origin in the South; its institutions are similar to those of the Southern States, and their interests identical with theirs. … Menaced by a great danger, they exercise the inalienable right of self-defense, and declare themselves a free people, independent of the Northern States of America and at war with them by their own act.”
In the event of a Union victory, the Cherokees fear extinction as a nation.
Despite the grand rhetoric of the Declaration, many of the 1,500 Cherokees now living in North Carolina find the war mainly a cause for confusion or indifference. Thomas persuades them to fight for the Confederate cause.
Not all of them listen. Like the rest of the state, the Oconaluftee are divided. Most will support North Carolina and the Confederacy. Some will fight for the United States and the Union. And some will simply try to remain neutral, minding their own business in the mountains.
Thomas organizes a company of 130 Cherokee recruits at Qualla Town on April 9, 1862, and they elect him captain. His deputy commander is Lt. James Terrell, a close business associate of Thomas before the war. Two of his most trusted Cherokee subordinates are Peter Graybeard and John Astoogatogeh, the grandson of legendary Chief Junaluska.
Along the road to Knoxville, Tennessee, the ranks swell with new recruits until the company numbers nearly 200. Those who watch the Cherokees pass remark on their hardy physiques. Physically, they are stronger and have far better stamina than the average white recruit.
Their physical stamina is due in part to their long practice of playing a lacrosse-like ballgame. The two-hour contests range over a 600-yard-long field as teams of up to 30 young men use sticks to score a goal. It is a rough and ready game of running, skill, and physical endurance. Now their sport makes them prime soldiers.
Little Will Thomas quickly rises in the Confederate hierarchy, first to major and then colonel. The first company forms the nucleus for Thomas’s Legion of Indians and Highlanders, officially commissioned on September 27, 1862, in Knoxville. It is a battalion of cavalry and 10 companies of infantry. Later, in 1863, a light artillery battery is added, and throughout the war, as many as 2,500 men serve in the Legion.
About 400 of the Legion are Cherokees — nearly every able-bodied warrior in the band. They are joined by mountaineers descended from the very settlers who did their best to exterminate the tribe for more than a century. The Legion is remarkable in its integration of white mountaineers with Indian warriors.
Thomas is 57 years old when he organizes the Legion. Because of his aristocratic connections, he manages to bypass the entire command structure in North Carolina and report directly to Richmond, Virginia.
This move almost proves disastrous. Jefferson Davis at first wants to use the Cherokees in the swampy lowlands of the east, in unfamiliar country rife with diseases for which they have no immunity. But this plan, like so many other ill-advised schemes emanating from the Confederate White House, is abandoned.
Thomas is a reluctant soldier. He wanted to join the Confederate Congress, but political enemies blocked him. His long rambles through the mountains on trading journeys and Indian business take their toll on his body, leaving him with chronic aches and recurring illnesses.
Hardest of all is being absent from his wife, Sarah. He searched for decades for the perfect mate. And almost as soon as he wins her heart, his duty to the Oconaluftee takes him away from her. It is not clear what will become of him, of her, of their family and farm.
The war has stolen their future.
But Thomas believes the Cherokees must prove themselves both loyal and capable soldiers, or they will lose the home they have held on to so tenaciously even as thousands of their tribe were driven away to the West.
Legionnaires carry an assortment of not only old squirrel rifles, revolvers, and sabers, but also steel-tipped spears, long-bladed bowie knives, and tomahawks that can be hurled with accuracy up to 30 feet and open up a man’s chest or skull. They are largely self-equipped and self-supplied.
Thomas intends that his Legion will serve close to home, in the rugged country they know, and indeed much of their skirmishing against Unionist bushwhackers and guerrillas occurs in the western counties, notably Madison. Their primary duty is to guard the mountain passes, precious saltworks, and railroad bridges. They erect earthworks across the Oconaluftee Pass to turn back Unionist raiders from Sevier County, Tennessee.
But as a bona fide Confederate unit, they must go wherever they’re ordered to go, and that place turns out to be Tennessee. Before marching off to war, the Cherokees prepare with feasting and ritual, seeking spiritual guidance and conducting a war dance in full regalia. Even Thomas wears ceremonial feathers along with his officer’s uniform.
During an early skirmish at a pass in east Tennessee, as two companies of patrolling Indian troops enter Baptist Gap, Union sharpshooters kill the lead officer, Lt. John Astoogatogeh — one of the most revered men in the Legion. His comrades rush the marksmen before they can get off another shot and fall on the Yankees in a fit of killing rage. They bludgeon, spear, and bayonet the shooters then, using their bowie knives, scalp the wounded and the dead alike.
The Indiana troops who witness this act of bloody retribution retreat in panic — spreading the legend of the savage Cherokees.
But the viciousness of the act appalls Thomas. He was not present during the action, but he takes it personally. For all these years, he has been an advocate of the Cherokee, has insisted they are just as civilized and honorable as any whites. Now returns the sack of scalps to the Union commander for proper burial.
Nevertheless, reports of scalping follow the Legion through the war. Accounts vary widely, depending on the source.
Some of the outliers and bushwhackers they fight have committed atrocities of their own, and the mountain war is fought with a sense of personal vendetta, which amplifies its savagery.
Whether the reports of scalping are truth or only legend, the Legion achieves a reputation for efficiency and esprit de corps and are called by one newspaper, “the best scouts in the world.”
But in their winter encampment at Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the Legion is caught in a surprise attack by Colonel William Palmer’s veteran 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry — the battle is a draw, but it drives the Legion back into the North Carolina mountains.
The country is becoming rotten with outliers and deserters. One of the Legion’s most popular officers, Lt. Col. William Walker, gravely ill with typhoid fever, returns home on leave to Cherokee County. In the dead of night on January 3, 1864, his wife hears a hard knocking at the front door. She answers the door to strangers. Colonel Walker emerges from his bedroom, dazed with sleep. One of the men in the doorway draws a large revolver and fires into him point-blank, killing him instantly, then retreats into the freezing night. He might be a local man with a grudge or a Unionist assassin from across the border.
Either way, the killing is personal — not war but plain murder.
The Confederacy, always outnumbered, needs fighting men in Virginia. The Legion deploys to the Shenandoah Valley in support of Gen. Jubal Early’s unsuccessful attempt to drive out the Federals in 1864. The valley is a crucial breadbasket of the Confederacy, and the Yankees led by Gen. Phil Sheridan have been systematically destroying crops and farmsteads.
Thomas is relentless in his efforts to have his dwindling command returned to their native state, but his troops are kept in action at Cedar Creek, Winchester, and Staunton, and the casualties mount.
After the exhausting and costly campaign, which leaves fewer than a hundred members of the Legion on active duty, Confederate Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton writes to Thomas, “The gallant conduct of your command rendered your efforts to rejoin your command in North Carolina abortive, and the constant refusal to your many applications for transfer is complimentary evidence of the esteem in which you were held, and a grateful acknowledgement of the services you could render.”
But Thomas is imprisoned in Goldsboro, awaiting court-martial on charges that he did “knowingly entertain and receive deserters into his command.” The charge is basically true: He has long since given up trying deserters and simply reintegrates them into his unit. For doing the practical — rather than the rigidly honorable — he is found guilty.
Thomas gets no support from his old political nemesis, Zebulon Vance. The governor writes, “Col. Thomas is worse than useless. He is a positive injury to that country.”
So Thomas travels to Richmond to visit his cousin, Jefferson Davis. Davis not only reverses the verdict, but also orders the remainder of the Legion home to North Carolina.
Thomas’s Legion remains in the field even after the surrender of Confederate troops at the Bennett Farm in April 1865.
On May 6, 1865, a company of Thomas’s Legion commanded by Lt. Robert E. Conley blunders into Lt. Col. William C. Bartlett’s 2nd Union North Carolina Mounted Infantry Regiment in the woods near White Sulphur Springs. Conley’s men form a skirmish line and drive off the enemy, killing one — the last man to die in action east of the Mississippi: James Arwood.
It is the last fighting between regular troops in North Carolina, an accidental clash that changes nothing.
The Legion boldly surrounds the Union garrison at Waynesville, a settlement of 20 homes, threatening to attack, in order to negotiate its own surrender. By now, the Legion can field just 200 Indians and about 400 mountaineers. Thomas comes down from the hills with a colonel and brigadier general by his side to present his terms for surrender. U.S. Col. W.C. Bartlett receives them — in command of a force that is clearly outnumbered.
Theatrical to the last, Thomas wears full Cherokee war regalia, complete with bare chest and feathers. He is dwarfed by his handpicked escort of 20 tall Cherokee warriors in full war paint, armed with tomahawks.
Over two contentious days of palaver, something comes unhinged in the man — he rants manically, threatens to scalp every man in a blue uniform. Bartlett is taken aback, argues awhile, then at last persuades Thomas that, although he can probably capture the Yankee force, it would be only a matter of days before massive reinforcements arrive to annihilate the Legion.
The Legion surrenders on May 9, 1865 — the last Confederate unit in the state to lay down its arms. Thomas’s escorts are allowed to keep their weapons as they return home. And Bartlett’s Yankees soon depart.
The state recognizes the right of the Oconaluftee to remain on their lands, but it will not grant them citizenship.
In the wake of the surrender, a smallpox epidemic sweeps through Quallatown and the surrounding area — carried home by a deserter of the U.S. Army who returns to find, like others who fought for the Union, that he will be ostracized by his fellows. During the winter of 1865-66, 125 of the Lufty Cherokee die of the disease. For such a small community, the toll is devastating.
During the last years of the war, the “productive lands” once celebrated by Little Will Thomas are not productive enough to stave off hunger. The Indians left behind, mostly women, children, and the elderly, are reduced to eating bark and leaves. Now Thomas spends $9,000 of his own money to procure cornmeal, flour, and bacon from South Carolina to feed his people. It is not enough.
Thomas himself does not fare much better. Now 60 years old, his health broken by strenuous service, he returns to Sarah and their three children. President Andrew Johnson — who, as provisional governor of East Tennessee, once accused the Cherokee of cutting off the ears of their enemies and wearing them as trophies — formally pardons him for his role in the Rebellion.
But the war leaves Thomas deeply in debt, his multifarious business dealings a muddle of lawsuits and counterclaims. Businessman, land speculator, state senator, Cherokee chief, and war hero, he gradually lapses into incoherence and occasional violent outbursts.
The crisis comes one day in 1867 when he raises a hatchet over Sarah’s head and commands her to play the piano — his sentimental gift to her back in the sweet, early days of their marriage. She summons her brothers, who arrive with the sheriff, and soon a judge declares William Holland Thomas legally insane. He is committed to Dix Hill, the state asylum for the insane at Raleigh.
Sarah brings him home after only a month and stubbornly tries to care for him between his most violent periods, when he returns to Dix Hill. She lives alone at Stekoa Fields, her children all farmed out to relatives. “I have not a home free of embarrassments in which to lay my head,” she writes to her sister. “My heart aches within me, when I think of the coming future.”
Thomas has no choice but to resign as chief of the Oconaluftee Cherokee, for the good of his people. Salanitah, or Flying Squirrel, succeeds him. The following year, Congress at last recognizes the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.
A complicated lawsuit unfolds in which Thomas is accused of using Cherokee funds paid out by the federal government for his own enrichment. The truth is that Thomas did indeed buy land with that money — and also with his own money — and gave most of that land to the Cherokee. But because they are not legally citizens of North Carolina, the titles remained in his name. When a bankruptcy court ordered his assets be sold to satisfy creditors, that land was also sold.
In the end, a tract of 73,000 acres is deeded to the Cherokee upon payment of a small balance. The creditors are also paid. Thomas is ruined. He retains the family farm only out of the generosity of his chief creditor, his old lieutenant, James Terrell. Terrell looks with pity upon his old friend and commander: “When the trial began in Quallatown in August 1874,” he writes, “the mildest description that can be given of the state of Col. Thomas’ mind was that he was a raving, furious maniac.”
For the rest of his days, Little Will is gripped by debilitating pain in his legs, skin lesions, and mental illness. He shuttles back and forth between the asylum and home. It is possible he is suffering from tertiary syphilis. Neighbors whisper that Sarah built a stone room where she keeps her husband safely chained. But the truth is that she keeps something else — the promise he asked of her in the glow of their honeymoon days, that “she would still love him, still cling to him, still be to him the warm hearted and affectionate Sarah, should fortune and all the world beside desert him.”
Caring for her husband breaks Sarah’s health. She dies suddenly after a brief illness in May 1877 — just 45 years old.
Thomas is transferred to a new asylum in Morganton, where he can look out over the mountains he once roved, settled, and defended. There he bestows one last gift on his beloved Cherokee.
In 1890, he receives a visit from a 26-year-old ethnologist from the Smithsonian Institution named James Mooney. On his first visit the year before, the doctors warned Mooney that Thomas was out of his mind — and violent — and Mooney went away. Now he returns to find Thomas enjoying a rare period of lucidity. For days, Little Will Thomas recounts his tales of life among the Oconaluftee, outlining their customs, telling their history and the exploits of the Legion, humanizing the Indians for a white audience steeped only in myths of savagery. Making them — and himself — immortal.
William Holland Thomas, Wil Usdi, chief of the Oconaluftee Cherokee and Confederate veteran, a widower who never expected to outlive his true love, a man who straddled two worlds, dies on May 10, 1893 — one day past the 28th anniversary of his theatrical surrender.
Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His latest book, The Patron Saint of Dreams, was just published by Hub City Press. To find all stories from Our State’s Civil War Series and a list of sources, click CIVIL WAR SERIES under the HISTORY tab.