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William Holland Thomas' Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders [Mountaineers]

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William Holland Thomas' Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders [Mountaineers] | Cherokees | Confederate Colonel William "Will" Holland Thomas





Cherokee Chief, Senator, Lawyer, and Confederate Colonel: William Holland Thomas

Will Thomas figures prominently in the concluding scenes of Unto These Hills as the most important force in the establishment of a Cherokee homeland at Qualla Boundary. As the first and only white man to serve as a Cherokee chief, he was uniquely qualified to represent the Eastern Band at a time when Indians were forbidden to own land. Later as a state senator, Thomas lobbied in Raleigh for Cherokee interests. He is described as “the best friend the Cherokees ever had” on a monument dedicated to him near the Qualla Boundary.

 

Becoming Cherokee At Heart:
William
Holland Thomas was born February 5, 1805, in a log house on Raccoon Creek about two miles east of Mount Prospect, later called Waynesville, North Carolina. He was connected to the Calverts, the founders of Maryland, through his mother and to President Zachary Taylor on his father’s side. Thomas’ father drowned shortly before his birth. As a young teenager, Thomas was employed by US Congressman Felix Walker to clerk at a trading post in Qualla Town. Thomas signed a three-year contract in return for $100, board, and clothing. At the trading post he quickly became acquainted with the Cherokees, learned their language, and was befriended by Chief Yonaguska, who adopted Thomas into his band and gave him the Cherokee name “Will-udsi” or “Little Will.” Around 1820 Walker was forced to close his stores, and, since he was unable to pay Thomas, he gave him a set of law books. At the time there were no bar exams to pass, and anyone who read law was allowed to practice. Thomas soon became well-versed in frontier law and was asked by Yonaguska to become the Cherokees’ legal representative in 1831. By that time Thomas had opened his own trading post for the Qualla Town Cherokees, and he later opened several other trading posts in Western North Carolina.

 

Coming Forth For His People:
In 1835 when the Treaty of New Echota was being negotiated, Thomas had his first real opportunity to represent the Cherokees legally. Some Cherokees had received reservations of 640 acres by an earlier treaty and no longer resided in what was considered the Cherokee Nation. Although, technically, the treaty should not apply to them, still the Qualla Cherokees were apprehensive. Seeking assurances, the “reservation” Cherokees and some others asked Thomas to represent them in
Washington, D.C. There, Thomas was able to get acknowledgment of the right of a number of Cherokees to remain in North Carolina, and these Cherokees became the core of the present-day Eastern Band. In 1839, just before he died, Yonaguska persuaded the Cherokees to accept his adopted son as their chief. During the 1840s and 1850s Thomas was constantly trying to secure recognition of Cherokees as citizens of North Carolina. He also used Cherokee money, as well as his own, to purchase land for them in his  name. Today his purchases constitute much of the Qualla Boundary, and the various sections (Paint Town, Bird Town, Yellow Hill, Big Cove and Wolf Town) were named by Thomas. In 1848, he was elected state senator, and he was re-elected every two years through 1860.

 

Hero & Warrior In The South:
When the Civil War broke out and Thomas realized that neutrality was impossible, he agreed to organize the Cherokee to serve in the Confederacy. The 400 men he recruited to form two Cherokee companies, along with six companies of whites, comprised the famous Thomas Legion. Thomas’ men experienced their baptism of fire at the
Battle of Deep Creek in 1864. Except for one other minor battle at Baptist Gap, the Cherokees served primarily as guards and rounded up deserters. However, Thomas and his Legion are credited with firing the last shots of the Civil War in North Carolina. In May of 1865, Union soldiers controlled Waynesville and the rest of Western North Carolina. Colonel Thomas and his men slipped into the mountains surrounding Waynesville by night and built hundreds of campfires so it would appear to Union troops that thousands of Indians and Confederates were camped there. To insure the right effect, the Cherokees punctuated the nights with “chilling warhoops” and “hideous yells.” The following morning Thomas and about 20 Cherokees entered Waynesville to demand the Yankees’ surrender. After the Union officer pointed out that Lee had surrendered a month earlier and a Yankee surrender to Thomas would only bring in more Union troops, Colonel Thomas reluctantly agreed to lay down his arms. The Civil War was over, but the last shots in North Carolina had been fired in Waynesville.

 

Legacy Of A Faithful Servant:
When Thomas died in May of 1893, he was buried on a hilltop in Waynesville and the Cherokee mourned his passing. Without his assistance and support the Cherokees might have failed to acquire and, later, to hold onto their land. Without him there might have been no Eastern Band of Cherokees. Undeniably, Colonel William
Holland Thomas was “the best friend the Cherokees ever had.”

 

Chief Yonaguska, who was also known as Drowning Bear, is a figure of persistence and endurance. Yonaguska challenges Rev. Schermerhorn to explain the terms of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota that a handful of Cherokee had signed. He is also the only chief who remains in the hills to rebuild the Eastern Band with others who had escaped or eluded the soldiers. His adopted son, William Thomas, the only white chief the Cherokee ever had, would carry on Yonaguska’s work to establish what the Qualla Boundary is now. During his life, however, Yonaguska was also a reformer and a prophet, a leader who recognized the power of the white man’s liquor and early on realized the lengths to which settlers would go to take over Cherokee lands.

Fighting The “Black Drink”:
Yonaguska was born about 1759, some 40 years after English traders introduced the “black drink,” or rum, to his people in the
North Carolina mountains. He is described as strikingly handsome, strongly built, standing 6 feet 3 inches, with a faint tinge of red—due to a slight strain of white blood on his father’s side—relieving the brown of his cheek. Like many dedicated reformers, Yonaguska’s resolve was strengthened by first-hand experience—he had been addicted to alcohol most of his life. When he was 60 years old and critically ill, Yonaguska fell into a trance. Certain that the end had come, his people gathered around him at the Soco townhouse and mourned him for dead. At the end of 24 hours, however, Yonaguska awoke to consciousness and spoke to his people, among whom was his adopted son William H. Thomas, a 14-year-old white boy who was destined to succeed him as chief and become the only white man ever to serve as chief of the tribe. When the chief addressed his people, he relayed a message from the spirit world: “The Cherokee must never again drink whiskey. Whiskey must be banished.” He then had Will Thomas write out a pledge: “The undersigned Cherokees, belonging to the town of Qualla,” it read, “agree to abandon the use of spirituous liquors.” Yonaguska then signed it, followed by the whole  council and town. Preserved among Thomas’ papers, the pledge is now in the archives of the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University. From the signing of the pledge until his death in 1839 at the age of 80, whiskey was almost unknown among the Cherokees. And when any of his people broke the pledge—few did while he was alive—Yonaguska enforced the edict with the whipping post and lash.

 

Reeds In The River:
Yonaguska was the first among his people to perceive the white man’s takeover of their mountain kingdom. As a boy of 12, he had such a vision and spoke of it, but no one paid any attention to him. As a young man, he had witnessed the havoc wreaked among his people when Gen. Griffith Rutherford and his
North Carolina militia burned 36 Indian towns in 1776. Throughout the early 1800s Yonaguska was repeatedly pressured to induce his people to remove to the West. He firmly resisted every effort, declaring that the Indians were safer from aggression among their rocks and mountains and that the Cherokee belonged in their ancestral homeland. After the Cherokee lands on the Tuckaseigee River were sold as part of the treaty of 1819, Yonaguska continued to live on 640 acres set aside for him in a bend of the river between Ela and Bryson City, on the ancient site of the Cherokee town of Kituhwa. As pressure increased for Indian removal, Yonaguska became more determined than ever to remain in his homeland, rejecting every government offer for removal west. He refused to accept government assurances that his people would be left alone in the promised western lands. In the course of his life, he had seen settlers push ever westward. Yonaguska knew that nothing short of complete control would ever satisfy them. “As to the white man’s promises of protection,” he is said to have told government representatives, “they have been too often broken; they are like the reeds in yonder river—they are all lies.”Establishing The Eastern Band Of The Cherokee After the removal of all but a handful of mountain Cherokee to the West, Yonaguska gathered those left about him and settled at Soco Creek on lands purchased for them by his adopted son, Will Thomas. As a white man, Thomas could legally hold a deed to the lands and allow the Cherokee to live on them. Shortly before his death in April, 1839, Yonaguska had himself carried into the townhouse at Soco where, sitting up on a couch, he made a last talk to his people. The old man commended Thomas to them as their chief and again warned them against ever leaving their own country. Then wrapping his blanket around him, he quietly lay back and died. Yonaguska, the most prominent chief ever of the Eastern Band, was buried beside Soco Creek, about a mile below the old Macedonia mission, with a crude mound of stones to mark the spot.

 

War With The Creeks:
Junaluska, the Cherokee who saved Andrew Jackson’s life and made him a national hero, lived to regret it. Born in the
North Carolina Mountains around 1776, he made his name and his fame among his own people in the War of 1812 when the mighty tribe of Creek Indians allied themselves with the British against the United States. At the start of the Creek War, Junaluska recruited some 800 Cherokee warriors to go to the aid of Andrew Jackson in northern Alabama. Joined by reinforcements from Tennessee, including more Cherokee, the Cherokee spent the early months of 1814 performing duties in the rear, while Jackson and his Tennessee militia moved like a scythe through the Creek towns. However, that March word came that the Creek Indians were massed behind fortifications at Horseshoe Bend. Jackson, with an army of 2,000 men, including 500 Cherokee led by Junaluska, set out for the Bend, 70 miles away. There, the Tallapoosa made a bend that enclosed 100 acres in a narrow peninsula opening to the north. On the lower side was an island in the river. Across the neck of the peninsula the Creek had built a strong breastwork of logs and hidden dozens of canoes for use if retreat became necessary.

 

Storming The Fort:
The fort was defended by 1,000 warriors. There also were 300 women and children. As cannon fire bombarded the fort, the Cherokee crossed the river at a ford three miles below the fort and surrounded the bend to block the Creek escape route. They took position where the Creek fort was separated from them by water. The battle raged throughout the morning. There were dead and wounded on both sides. Among the frontiersmen fighting for
Jackson that day were Sam Houston & Davy Crockett.

 

Saving Jackson’s Life And His Reputation:
A few prisoners were brought in, and while officers were attempting to question them in the presence of
Jackson, one broke loose, snatched up a knife, and lunged for the general. Junaluska, who had seen the move, responded quickly, sticking out a foot and tripping the Creek warrior, saving Jackson’s life. As the battle wore on, Junaluska conceived a brilliant plan. Without notifying Jackson, he gathered a dozen Cherokees, sneaked to the river’s edge behind the fort, plunged into the water, and swam over to where the Creek canoes were moored. Junaluska and his braves freed the canoes and maneuvered them to the opposite bank where other Cherokee warriors piled into them and, under cover of a steady fire from their own companions, returned to the opposite bank, thus breaching Creek defenses. When more than half the Creeks lay dead, the rest turned and plunged into the river, only to find the banks on the opposite side lined with blazing guns and escape cut off in every direction. Of the 1,300 Creeks inside the stockade, including women and children, not more than 20 escaped. Of 300 prisoners, only three were men. Two weeks after the decisive battle, Billy Weatherford, the greatest of the Creek chiefs, surrendered to Jackson, turning the general into a national hero.

 

Another Promise Broken:
When the battle of Horseshoe
Bend was over, Jackson is reported to have told Junaluska: “As long as the sun shines and the grass grows, there shall be friendship between us, and the feet of the Cherokee shall be toward the east.” In a few short years Junaluska would have occasion to recall those words with bitterness. When the great removal of the Cherokee began, Junaluska said: “If I had known that Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him that day at the Horseshoe.”

 

The Great Chief Returns:
Junaluska was among the Cherokee removed to the West. But he returned to the mountains of his birth in 1842, walking all the way from what is now
Oklahoma. And when he returned, the state of North Carolina stepped in and recognized the debt that America owed him. By a special act of the state legislature in 1847, North Carolina conferred upon him the right of citizenship and granted him a tract of land at what is now Robbinsville, in Graham County. Junaluska died in 1858 and was buried on a hill above the town where, in 1910, the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a monument to his memory.

 

A Tribute To Junaluska:
The script on the bronze plaque, bolted to a great hunk of native stone, says in part: “Here lie the bodies of the Cherokee Chief, Junaluska, and Nicie, his wife. Together with his warriors he saved the life of General Jackson at the
Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and for his bravery and faithfulness North Carolina made him a citizen and gave him land in Graham County.” An organization known as “Junaluska’s Friends” was recently organized, and restored the Junaluska grave site. Their work will be primarily devoted to keeping alive the memory of this Chief.

 

The warriors of Ani Kituhwa dance group have been making history by revitalizing Cherokee dances from almost two hundred and fifty years ago. They bring to life the “Warrior Dance” and the “Eagle Dance” as described in the memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake. Timberlake witnessed these dances in the Cherokee capital of Chota, in the Overhill Towns, in the fall of 1762, and he described these dances in his Memoirs published in 1765.

Designated as official cultural ambassadors by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the dancers include: John Grant Jr., Daniel Ledford, John Bullet Standingdeer, Bo Taylor, Daniel Tramper, Robert Tramper, Will Tuska, and Pat Smith. Their singer is Walker Calhoun, respected Cherokee elder and recipient of several awards for his role in preserving Cherokee music and dance, including the Mountain Heritage Award, The Sequoyah Award, and the National Endowment for the Arts Folk Heritage Award. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is their official sponsor. In December 2004, they danced on the Palace Green in Colonial Williamsburg, where the last Cherokee delegation danced in 1777. They will return to Colonial Williamsburg October 28-29, 2005. They will also dance at the National Museum of the American Indian first anniversary celebration September 17-18, 2005.

In October, a new exhibit will open at the Museum describing Timberlake’s visit to the Cherokees and Ostenaco’s visit to England in 1762. The warriors of Ani Kituhwa will be part of the opening ceremonies for the exhibit in Cherokee, and will travel to perform at the exhibit’s openings at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

The dancers began in the summer of 2003, when Marie Junaleska, Tribal Council member from Painttown, asked Bo Taylor to help recreate historic, authentic Cherokee dances. Taylor, who is an Archivist at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, used his research skills to obtain songs recorded from Will Wes Log in the 1930’s on wax cylinders. Taylor got copies of these from the Library of Congress and from the Traditional Music Archives at Indiana University. He used these songs, descriptions of dances from the 1940’s Timberlake’s Memoirs and his own knowledge of traditional Cherokee music and dance that he learned from elder Walker Calhoun. As Taylor put this knowledge together, he realized that the dance that Timberlake thought was a “Welcome” dance was actually a war dance, performed to let Timberlake know that the Cherokees were a mighty nation and that visitors needed to be on their best behavior.

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