Chief William H. Thomas (1805-1893)

Chief William H. Thomas



  • William H. Thomas was the Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who worked over thirty years to ensure their freedom and autonomy.
  • He was the first and only white man to serve as the principal chief.
  • As a youth, he was employed at the Cherokee trading post in Qualla Town, North Carolina.   Here he befriended the people, quickly learning their language and customs.
  • He was adopted into the tribe by Chief Yonaguska, who named him as his successor.
  • The chief gave him the nickname Will-usdi (Little Will).
  • Thomas trained himself to become an attorney so he could represent tribal interests during the Indian Removal period.
  • He bought 80 square miles of land with his own money to give the Eastern Cherokee an officially recognized homeland.  They were allowed to stay in the Qualla Boundary when other Cherokees were sent on the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory (Oklahoma).
  • He married Sarah Love, and they had three surviving children.
  • Thomas was repeatedly elected as the state senator, from 1848 to 1860.
  • Later on, Thomas served as a colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, commanding a legion of Native Americans and Scot-Irish Highlanders.
  • After the war, he nursed the tribe through a devastating smallpox epidemic.
  • Unfortunately, he began showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, fell into debt, and was declared insane in 1867.  He was later institutionalized in Raleigh.
  • He died in 1893 and is buried in Waynesville, North Carolina.


Finger, John R. The Eastern Band of Cherokees: 1819-1900.  Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 1998.

Wikipedia, “William H. Thomas” at

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