Will Thomas Slept Here, Cashiers History

Few North Carolinians have a story to match that of William Holland Thomas (1805–1893), the “white chief” of the Cherokee.  

He’s one of my favorite historical characters, and this article will highlight some of his less talked about personal characteristics.  His father had drowned in the Pigeon River shortly before his birth.  His mother was left to raise her only child but she wasn’t completely alone as the neighbors were Cherokee Indians who embraced Will as one of their own, adopting him into their tribe, teaching him their language, and giving him the Cherokee name of ‘Will Usdi,’ which translated to ‘Little Will.’  At his full adult height, he was just a smidgen over 5 feet tall.

A decade or so ago, Will Thomas’ descendants decided to sell some of his possessions which included a large number of the daily journals he had kept throughout his lifetime.  There was a bidding “war” between Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library Special Collections and the Museum of the Cherokee at the Qualla Boundary.  

 The Cherokee Museum won and one of the people who worked on transcribing the journals was a dear cousin of mine, the late Jimmy Myers, husband of a wonderful Cherokee lady.  Several times a week Jimmy would telephone me with reports of the unbelievable things that Will Usdi wrote about in his private journals.  Inside that small frame lived a self-assured giant, irresistible to females, married or single, and throughout his lifetime he fathered countless children.  He often needed to travel to Raleigh and to Washington, DC, in his role as an elected politician and his journals noted the various places he would stop for the night plus he gave details of the charms of the lady of the house and how she shared those charms with him.  Unfortunately, in later life he paid a price for these romances, developing syphilis which caused his frequent incarceration in mental hospitals.

The surface has only been scratched with the telling of Will Thomas’ exploits but I’ll finish this article with a description of the May 7, 1865, surrender at Waynesville of the Confederate Thomas Legion of Cherokee and Mountain Men to Union Army forces. 

“Under a flag of truce, Confederate officers Thomas, Love and Martin, walked down the mountain into the town.  60-year-old Colonel Thomas presented quite a spectacle, surrounded by his Cherokee bodyguards.  He was dressed exactly as they, stripped to the waist, painted and feathered like a warrior ready for battle.  Will Usdi was a full foot shorter than his full-blooded Cherokee bodyguards.”