TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Russell Fowler on Nov 1, 2016

Journal Issue Date: Nov 2016

Journal Name: November 2016 - Vol. 52, No. 11

In 1817 William Holland Thomas, at the age of 12, departed his widowed mother at their home near Waynesville, North Carolina.[1] He took a job at a frontier trading post at Soco Creek, North Carolina. Most of the young store clerk’s customers were the Cherokees who traded furs, hides and ginseng. Will, a hardworking boy, aided by his mastery of both the written and spoken Cherokee language, proved to be a born businessman.[2]

The small, blue-eyed Will also caught the attention of Cherokee Chief Yonaguska (Drowning Bear), who admired Will’s honesty and kindness to his people. The old chief went so far as to adopt the boy into his clan and gave him the name “Wil-Usdi” or Little Will.[3]

Will Thomas “Wil-Usdi” (1805–1893)
Will Thomas “Wil-Usdi” (1805–1893)

Self-Taught Lawyer

When his employer went bankrupt, Thomas was paid with a set of law books. He was thrilled and dove into the study of law and was soon admitted to the bar as a self-taught lawyer. He loved the law and brought to his practice a strong speaking ability and attention to detail. Yonaguska retained Thomas as attorney for the Cherokees. They became his main clients, and he wrote a constitution for them that functioned for decades.[4]

Thomas also opened his own store at Indiantown, North Carolina, which was later renamed Quallatown. Thomas’s mother moved in with him and Yonaguska, and his family relocated to the village along with other Cherokee families.[5] By 1822, Thomas owned seven stores serving both whites and Indians and became wealthy, eventually owning a turnpike and more than 100,000 acres in North Carolina with additional properties in Tennessee.[6]

Despite Thomas’s varied business enterprises, his passion became protecting the Cherokees. Thomas’s son would later write that his father had “an almost romantic fondness for the Cherokee Tribe,” which “caused him to devote many of the best years of his life to their advancement morally and materially.”[7] By 1831, the “Eastern Band” under Yonaguska named Thomas not only their attorney but also their business agent and tribal clerk, despite Cherokee law that forbade whites from holding tribal office.[8]

Little Will Goes to Washington

These were difficult days of “intense coercion”[9] leading to the ultimate “removal” of most of the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears. During the 1830s and ’40s, Thomas would repeatedly go to Washington, staying as long as three years on one of his lobbying visits,[10] and become a relentless advocate in the nation’s capital, as he lobbied presidents, senators and cabinet members on behalf of the Cherokees remaining in North Carolina, 3,644 in all.[11] He urged for them to be allowed to remain in the East and to receive just treaty payments.[12] Thomas attended President Polk’s inauguration in March of 1845 and forged a productive relationship with the Tennessean.[13]

When white friends grew angry over his championing the Cherokees, Thomas responded:

If my advocating their rights has offended any of my friends … I have one consolation that I have faithfully discharged my duty to those people a conscientious discharge of which is worth more to me than the unjust approbation of the world and I had rather be blamed for doing my duty than neglecting it and when entrusted with defending the rights of white or red man I hope I shall always be found faithful to my trust and act worthy of the confidence reposed in me without regard to consequences. The Indians are as much entitled to their rights as I am to mine.[14]

As Thomas struggled on their behalf in Washington, the Eastern Cherokees’ economic condition grew so desperate that he used up much of his wealth sustaining them. Their leadership also collapsed, and on Yonaguska’s recommendation on his deathbed, they named Thomas their chief,[15] for Wil-Usdi had become “virtually the only law and leader the Indians knew,”[16] the only white to be named a Chief of the Cherokees.[17] He went on to prevent removal of the North Carolina Cherokees, known as the Oconaluftee Cherokees or Lufty Indians, and tirelessly fought for years for the rights of the Eastern Band to receive the federal payments pursuant to treaty, which was finally approved by Congress in 1848,[18] although actual payment was slow in coming.[19]

With his own money, Thomas purchased much land in North Carolina to be used by the Cherokees, much of which is now “Qualla Boundary,” the territory of the federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee. One historian has observed of Thomas’s place in Cherokee history: “He is pictured as the savior of the Eastern Cherokee, which is undoubtedly true.”[20]

In 1848, Thomas was elected to the North Carolina Senate,[21] where he served until he resigned in 1860. Even though originally opposing secession, he left the senate to fight in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, coming to believe that the new government in Richmond would have to be better for the Cherokees than the one in Washington.[22]

Civil War in the Smokies

In April of 1862, at the age of 57, Thomas recruited a regiment of about 2,000 mountaineers and Indians that was mustered at Knoxville. It was known as Thomas’s Legion. Colonel Thomas was charged with helping to defend East Tennessee and Kentucky, but most of his troops were soon sent to Virginia, leaving Thomas with a small force of from 300 to 400 Cherokees, which he usually kept close to their homes guarding passes in the Smokies. They usually camped at Fort Harry in Tennessee, which is now Chimneys Campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.[23]

Thomas and his Confederate Cherokees became “a terror to the Union people of East Tennessee and the borders of North Carolina.”[24] Thomas and his Cherokee soldiers would strike and then fade back into the mist of the mountains. When the war finally ended, Thomas walked into Waynesville with a bodyguard of 25 of his “warriors painted, feathered in fighting style, and stripped to the waist.”[25] After first demanding the surrender of the Union troops and threatening to have the federal soldiers scalped, Thomas agreed to surrender his contingent of 300 waiting on the ridges surrounding the town.[26]

Litigation and Legacy

Thomas’s mental health and finances, and the fortunes of the Eastern Cherokees, declined following the war. A smallpox epidemic struck the Eastern Band in 1866. Although Thomas frantically did all he could to combat it and rushed in medical help from Tennessee, many Cherokees died. With their weakened state, whites renewed efforts to take the Indian lands. Then, when the Cherokees needed his help as much as ever, Thomas slipped into insanity, was declared incompetent and committed to the state asylum in Raleigh.[27]

Because Thomas had purchased much of the Eastern Band’s land with his own funds and still held title, massive litigation ensued between Thomas’s many creditors, the Cherokees and Thomas’s conservator, with the Cherokees eventually securing their North Carolina territory in 1874. The core case was correctly but ironically styled: “Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians vs. William H. Thomas, et al.”[28] Despite his poor mental state, Thomas appeared in court and testified against his ownership in support of the Cherokees. One observer at the trial remembered:

Thomas stood outside the courtroom door, ranting and raving like the maniac he was, audible for half a mile. When he was finally admitted, however, he was reasonable, articulate, and precise in his recollection of various land transactions that the court, despite voluminous medical evidence to the contrary, declared him sane at least for the purpose of testifying.[29]

As another observer remarked, Thomas “may have been non compos mentis in general matters, but on anything connected with Indian affairs he seemed perfectly at ease.”[30]

Greatly regretting the legal necessity of suing Thomas, the Cherokees officially expressed their gratitude, declared Wil-Usdi their “steadfast friend and protector” and adopted his children and grandchildren as members of the Eastern Band, according them “all the privileges, benefits and immunities thereof.”[31]

In his cell, Thomas drifted in and out of lucidness, often speaking in his fluent Cherokee, and died in 1893 at the age of 88 at the new state hospital at Morganton. A scholar who met with him just prior to his death wrote: “To Colonel William Holland Thomas the East Cherokee of today owe their existence as a people.”[32] Another historian concluded that he was “the best friend the Indians ever had.”[33] As monuments to his memory, Thomas Ridge and Thomas Divide rise up through the Smoky Mountains toward Newfound Gap.[34] No lawyer ever loved clients more.


  1. Michael Frome, Strangers in High Places 113 (1980). Some sources say Thomas was 13.
  2. See Frome at 114.
  3. Id.
  4. See Frome at 115.
  5. Godbold at 12-13.
  6. Frome at 114-15.
  7. Richard Iobst, “William Holland Thomas and the Cherokee Claims,” in The Cherokee Indian Nation 183 (ed. Duane King, 1979).
  8. Frome at 116.
  9. Id. at 114.
  10. Id. at 116.
  11. Godbold at 22.
  12. Iobst at 183.
  13. See Id. at 194-98.
  14. Id. at 184.
  15. Godbold at 40.
  16. Frome, 114.
  17. Godbold at 40.
  18. Iobst at 198.
  19. Frome at 121.
  20. Id. at 115.
  21. Godbold at 67-70.
  22. See Frome at 123; Iobst at 199.
  23. Frome at 124-25.
  24. Id. at 127.
  25. Id. at 129.
  26. Id. at 128-29.
  27. Frome at 129-131.
  28. Id. at 130.
  29. John Finger, The Eastern Band of the Cherokees, 1819-1900 120 (1984).
  30. Id.
  31. Id. at 121-22.
  32. Frome at 131.
  33. Finger at 171.
  34. Frome at 114.

Russell Fowler RUSSELL FOWLER is director of litigation and advocacy at Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) and since 1999 has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has many publications on law and legal history, including many in this Journal.