White Cherokee Chief W.H. Thomas Born

An image of William Holland Thomas from the N.C. Museum of History

An image of William Holland Thomas from the N.C. Museum of History

On February 5, 1805, William Holland Thomas, white chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, state senator, and Confederate Colonel was born in Haywood County. He was adopted by Yonaguska, principal chief of the Cherokee. He studied the law and became the tribe’s attorney in 1831, and was instrumental in arranging for the Oconaluftee Cherokees to remain in North Carolina.  In 1839 Thomas was appointed chief. For the next two decades, he acted as an advocate for Cherokee rights stating, “The Indians are as much entitled to their rights as I am to mine.”

Thomas was elected to the state senate in 1848 and went on to serve six terms. In 1861 he persuaded the Eastern Band to support the Confederacy. By 1863, he commanded Thomas’s Legion, a unit that consisted of two battalions of both white and Cherokee soldiers.

After the war, Thomas’s personal life began to collapse. He was declared insane in March 1867 and confined to Dorothea Dix Hospital. In 1887, he aided Smithsonian Institute researcher James Mooney in gathering information about the Cherokee. Six years later, he died in the Broughton Hospital in Morganton. Thomas’s unusual life story was fictionalized by Charles Frazier in his 2006 novel Thirteen Moons.

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