Written by B. Lynne Harlan; Edited by Cheri Todd Molter
William Holland Thomas was born in 1805 in Haywood County, North Carolina. Around the age of 10, Thomas moved to Jackson to work with a merchant at a trading post along the Tuckaseegee River. By 1822, Thomas had become a businessman who owned several trading posts among the Cherokee. The area became known as Qualla Town. Thomas actively sought to advance and protect the North Carolina Cherokee’s rights, including their struggle for N.C. Citizenship.
In 1831, after the passage of the Indian Removal Act, Thomas served as the Cherokee legal representative and worked to curtail the influx of whites, who were often searching for gold on Cherokee land. In 1836, Thomas traveled to Washington, D.C. to ensure the Qualla Town Cherokee would not be removed and would receive funds owed to them as promised in the removal treaty. Thomas also bought land in the area, ostensibly to establish a Cherokee reservation along the Tuckaseegee and Oconaluftee rivers. Thomas named five towns: Bird town, Wolf town, Pretty Woman town, Big Cove, and Yellowhill. Each town had its own government and was on land owned by the Cherokee or Thomas. In 1840, the estimated population of N.C. Cherokee was around 700. At that time, other Cherokee villages on the Hiwassee, Valley, and Cheoah rivers each had roughly 400 Cherokee residents.
Despite the Cherokee paying state tax on their land, their citizenship status was ambiguous. Thomas argued that the N.C. treaties of 1817 and 1819 conferred state citizenship; however, judicial rulings regarding land ownership questioned that interpretation. That battle continued throughout the Antebellum era.
Thomas continued to hold title to most of the land where the Cherokee resided until after the Civil War. After the war, Thomas was debilitated by mental illness and had amassed a great debt. The lawsuits that ensued instigated an investigation, which resulted in the Cherokee receiving title to approximately 73,000 acres. The main tract of land was named the Qualla Boundary and held in trust by the federal government.