When is a Cherokee Not a Cherokee?

Answer: When He’s William Holland Thomas


By Trav S.D. | MIX Contributor

There is apparently a maxim in the genealogy field, something along the lines of “Genealogy without documentation is fairy tales.’

It’s meant to be an aspersion, but frankly I am unmoved.  I like fairy tales.  I find them much superior to, much truer than “facts”.  Or…rather, I put things in perspective.  Where there is an unknown, a story will do very nicely.  When empirical facts emerge to replace the products of logic or imagination, who am I to argue?  The facts become the new story.  But until then….I work with what I’ve got, and that’s good enough for me.

And if it ain’t good enough for you — here comes a train; go walk in front of it.

Which brings us to to this gentleman, William Holland Thomas (1805-1893).  What an interesting guy.  He was born on the frontier of western North Carolina.  His father drowned before he was born, making it necessary for Thomas, an only child, to work for a living starting at a young age.  He ended up running a general store for Congressman Felix Walker.  When their contract was up, Walker found himself pecuniarily embarrassed.  Unable to pay Thomas in money, he gave him a large number of books, a certain percentage of which were law books.  Thomas studied hard and became a lawyer.

Meanwhile he’d been a storekeeper in a rural area.  He’d made a lot of friends.  Among them were a group known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee.  This was a small group of several hundred Cherokee who’d managed to avoid being marched off in the Trail of Tears with the rest of the Eastern Indians.  Thomas became their lawyer, and ended up winning several important Federal cases for them.  He became the adopted son of the tribe’s Chief Yonaguska and — remarkably — succeeded him as tribal leader when the latter died in 1839.  Thomas thus became the only Caucasian ever to be the official chief of an Indian tribe.  He bought large amounts of land for himself and for the tribe, and served as a state senator from 1848 through 1860.

In 1860 the Civil War broke out and the story gets even stranger.  For Thomas was made a Colonel in the Confederate Army, and led Thomas’s Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders.  That’s right.  He led a unit composed largely of one subjugated people in a war to ensure the continued subjugation of another people.  The motives for this mind-numbing tangle are complicated.  I’m sure to write about this some more.  But even Thomas appears not to have been able to wrap his head around it all.  Two years after the war was over, Thomas went insane, and was in and out of mental hospitals for the remainder of his life.

Here’s how and why I learned about Thomas:

  • I have a dead end in my family tree that stops with one of my great-great grandfathers, John Burkley Thomas (1837-1926)
  • John Burkley Thomas was born in North Carolina and moved to Tennessee prior to 1865
  • My paternal grandmother contended that she was part Cherokee, and that her Cherokee connection came from the Thomas line.
  • When you Google “Thomas”, “North Carolina” and “Cherokee”, guess what you get?

Oh, I know it’s an enormous leap.  I make no factual claim here.  But there are several other facts that intrigue.

Thomas didn’t marry and begin to have his recorded “official” children until 1857, when he was 52 years old.  His personal life prior to that is described in the book Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William Holland Thomas by E. Stanly Godbold, Jr. and Mattie U. Russell.  Two facts interest me.  One is that, as an orphan himself, “Thomas was especially sympathetic with orphans and illegitimate children” and as tribal leader he adopted many of them.  The identities of several are known; many more are not.

Then there is this excellent paragraph:

“At what point Thomas abandoned his youthful vow to remain chaste before marriage cannot be known, but as he passed through his twenties, thirties and forties yet unmarried, he apparently surrendered to the demands of his sexual nature…If he fathered illegitimate children by both Indian and white women, their identities rest behind the veils of time, gossip, and legend.”

The latter two of which I fully acknowledge apply to this blogpost.  Yet there are times when they will do.  A possibility exists that John Burkley Thomas was either an orphaned child adopted by Thomas OR one of Thomas’s own illegitimate children.  Perhaps not just a possibility.  Perhaps even a likelihood. Perhaps.

Some other pieces: I have had my DNA tested.  There is no apparent Native American component. Yet there is a family rumor of Cherokee blood in the Thomas line.  Well…here’s a man named Thomas who is a legal Cherokee but not a blood Cherokee.

And lastly, there is no explanation anywhere for the origins of John Burkley Thomas.  Not only that, but the spelling of the middle name (as opposed to the much more common “Berkeley”) is rare and peculiar.  It exists here and there but it is rare.  But guess where William Holland Thomas lived and died? Burke County, North Carolina.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Until something better comes along.

P.S. February 5th was William Holland Thomas’s birthday.



  • Writer and performer Trav S.D. has written for the NY Times, the Village Voice, American Theatre, Time Out NY, Reason, the Villager and numerous other publications. He has been in the vanguard of New York’s vaudeville and burlesque scenes since 1995 when he launched his company Mountebanks, which has presented hundreds of top variety acts ranging from Todd Robbins to Dirty Martini to Lady Rizo to the Flying Karamazov Brothers.  He has directed his own plays, revues and solo pieces in NYC since 1989 at such venues as Joe’s Pub, La Mama, Dixon Place, Theatre for the New City, the Ohio Theatre and the Brick.  In 2014 he produced and directed the smash-hit “I’ll Say She Is”, the first ever revival of the Marx Brothers hit 1924 Broadway show in the NY INternational Fringe Festival.  He is perhaps best known for his 2005 book “No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous“, recently cited by Bette Midler in people magazine as one of her favorite books.  His upcoming show “Horseplay. or the Fickle Mistress” opened Feb. 15 at LaMama and will star Everett Quinton, Molly Pope, Jan Leslie Harding, and Tim Cusack.


Two Interesting Irish Stories from My Background

Latest ancestry post: HERE



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