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William Holland Thomas (1805-1893) Collection

Identifier: MSS 80-03

Scope and Contents

The correspondence in the Thomas collection dates from 1833-1923. Most of the letters relate to Cherokee Indian affairs. Other major topics covered are the Blue Ridge Railroad and the Civil War. Other letters relate to family business affairs, family life, and the effect of the Civil War on the family and western North Carolina. The correspondence includes a photocopy of a letter written by Andrew Jackson in 1841.

The collection also contains letter books which refer to Cherokee affairs, the Blue Ridge Railroad, and personal business.

The business papers in the collection include land grants, deeds, Indian claims, various legal documents, and business bills and receipts.

The miscellaneous series includes a photocopy of a letter written by General Winfield Scott in 1838 regarding Indian removal; a pamphlet, Explanation of the Rights of the Cherokee, written by Thomas in 1851, and a facsimile of the same pamphlet, reprinted in 1947; a copy of the December 8, 1849, Keowee Courier (Pickens Court House, SC); printed materials relative to Reconstruction, railroads, Cherokee claims, and education in North Carolina in 1855 and 1861. Included with these materials is an account of the life of Chief Yonaguska written by William E. Bird, former Dean and President of Western Carolina University.

The addition to the William Holland Thomas Collection, contains originals and photocopies of letters. Booklets on a variety of subjects, including secession from the Union by South Carolina and various compromises in which Thomas was involved.

The bulk of the addition is compromised of legal documents.

For a related collection, see James W. Terrell, Thomas's business associate and assistant, in collection MSS 80-05.


  • 1796 - 1956

Conditions Governing Use

No publication fee is made for use of Western Carolina University Library special collections material in scholarly publications. The Library retains sole right to judge what constitutes a non-scholarly or commercial publication. Permission to publish commercially, in circumstances where the Library is qualified to grant it, requires proper authorization. Please contact Special Collections at for more information.

Biographical / Historical

William Holland Thomas (1805-1893) was a prominent businessman, “Indian agent” (later known as superintendent), soldier, and politician from western North Carolina. Born near Waynesville, NC, Thomas was related to President Zachary Taylor on his father's side of the family. Thomas became interested in business and law at an early age.

Thomas began his long association with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians when Chief Yonaguska "adopted" the young Thomasung white boy as a son. Thomas's biological father had died shortly before his son's birth. Thomas soon became fluent in the Cherokee language. It was through Thomas's efforts that a portion of the North Carolina Cherokees, who would eventually form the basis of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, avoided removal in the late 1830s. As “Indian agent”, Thomas marked off and named lands purchased for the Cherokees into five districts. He also assisted in drawing up a form of government for the Band.

During this same time period, Thomas's five trading posts prospered. In 1848, he was elected to the North Carolina Senate, a position he held until the outbreak of the Civil War. During his tenure, he pushed for road improvements and was also an advocate for the Western North Carolina Railroad.

In 1862, Thomas, who had given up his state Senate seat in 1861, organized the Thomas Legion, which he commanded himself with the rank of Colonel. The Legion operated primarily as a home guard unit.

After the Civil War ended, Thomas again became involved with Cherokee affairs. Perhaps due to his age and participation in the war, Thomas suffered stress and disability after the conflict ended. In addition, he suffered financially as a result of the war. Subsequently, Thomas retired from active participation in Cherokees affairs. Thomas was eventually involved in legal actions brought against him by the Cherokee. For more information on this part of Thomas's life see the "William Holland Thomas, Add. #1" collection, accession number MSS 80-09.

For more biographical information on William Holland Thomas, see the following:

Brown, Matthew M. & Michael W. Coffey. Thomas's Legion, vol. 16 of North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865: A Roster, by Louis H. Manarin. Raleigh, NC: State Dept. of Archives and History, 2008.

Godbold, E. Stanly, Jr. and Mattie U. Russell. Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William Holland Thomas. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

Mooney, James. Myths of the Cherokee. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., [1970].


9.75 Linear Feet

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Repository Details

Part of the Hunter Library - Special Collections Repository

Cullowhee United States