william holland thomas

In 1817, a 12 yr old boy named William Holland Thomas moved to the Oconaluftee River Region, where he met a Cherokee chief named Yonaguska (Drowning Bear), who later adopted him. That same year, Yonaguska and his people applied for ceded land and U.S. citizenship, according to the terms of the Treaty of 1817. 

Given the Cherokee name "Little Will" or "Will-Usdi", Thomas worked at a Qualla Town trading post, trasing goods to the Cherokees for deerskins and ginseng. Living among them, he became fluent in the Cherokee language and later, as an adult in the 1830s, Thomas acted as an attorney and advisor for the Oconaluftee Cherokees when North Carolina refused to recognize the "Citizen Indians." 

Thomas worked tirelessly on their behalf from 1835 through 1844, when the threat of removal was greatest. He negotiated with both military and civilian officials to have the "citizenship" status of the Qualla Town Cherokees recognized. Ironically, Thomas presented them as "civilized" and progressive, when they were actually among the most traditional of all Cherokees, with a large number of full bloods. English was almost unknown to them and few of them could even read or write in their own language. 

In the spring of 1839, a dying Yonaguska was carried before his people. In a dramatic whisper, he warned them never to forsake their mountains. They didn’t. And in the years after Yonaguska’s death, they came to depend on Thomas even more to keep them in their homeland. He became, in fact, an "unofficial" chief, handling their affairs with both state and federal authorities. He represented them in Washington and even managed to obtain for them a portion of the funds allocated to the Cherokee Nation under the Treaty of New Echota. 

In 1866, North Carolina finally acknowledged the Cherokee’s right of residency. Two years later, the federal government recognized the Eastern Band as a distinct tribe under its guardianship and helped them establish a reservation from lands purchased by Thomas and from land obtained under the treaties of 1817 and 1819. That reservation is [the] same area that the Eastern Band Cherokees occupy today. 


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